It was more than a decade ago that Turkmenistan's state media broke the startling news that there had been a failed assassination attempt against then-President Saparmurat Niyazov.
A former foreign minister, Boris Shikhmuradov, and scores of his supporters were arrested in connection with the November 2002 plot. They were put behind bars -- and never heard from again.
Despite international requests, the government in Ashgabat never provided any official word on the prisoners' fates or their whereabouts. Family members never found out if their loved ones were still alive.
Now, a new campaign organized by several human rights groups aims to solve the mystery by urging the Turkmen authorities to "Prove They Are Alive." If the prisoners are indeed still living, the campaign is asking that representatives of the international community, as well as lawyers and family members, be allowed to meet with them.
The campaign -- a joint effort by the Civic Society Platform, Crude Accountability, the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, Freedom Files, and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee -- was launched earlier this month in Warsaw.
'Tell Us What Happened, Give Us Access'
"We simply have two purely humanitarian demands for the Turkmen authorities," says Arkady Dubnov, a journalist and member of the campaign. "Tell [us] what happened to the prisoners and give [us] access to them."
"Ten years have passed and still the world doesn't know the details of the events, the condition of the prisoners," Dubnov says. "No one -- [not] family members, lawyers, Red Cross representatives, or monitors -- no one has ever been allowed to see them."
Russian human rights activists estimate that 55 people in total were taken into custody and subsequently convicted following the alleged assassination attempt in 2002.
Along with Shikhmuradov, his brother Konstantin Shikhmuradov and a former Turkmen ambassador to the OSCE, Batyr Berdiev, were among those arrested.
Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov (left) shakes hand with a senior Afghan Taliban official during a meeting in Islamabad in 1999.
Shortly after the dramatic events in Ashgabat, the OSCE set up the so-called Moscow Mechanism initiative to gather details relating to the suspects' trials, their access to lawyers, and their conditions in prison.
However, Turkmen authorities refused to allow the Moscow Mechanism delegation to operate in Turkmenistan. Numerous calls made by the international community to ascertain the fate of the prisoners were met with silence.
Shikhmuradov's last appearance in public was a "confession" on national television just days after his detention. Looking confused and disheveled, the ex-minister abruptly admitted involvement in criminal activities, along with an addiction to drugs and alcohol. He was sentenced to life in prison.
At the time, many observers believed the confession was coerced. A year earlier, Shikhmuradov, who had held a number of high-level diplomatic posts, announced his opposition to the Niyazov regime.
A former political prisoner, Akmuhammet Bayhanov, who was convicted in a different case, said he welcomed the international campaign to pursue the fate of the Turkmen prisoners. Speaking to RFE/RL from Turkey, Bayhanov says that "nobody in Turkmenistan talks about those cases."
Bayhanov spent four years in jail, from 2003 to 2007, for allegedly helping Moscow-based Turkmen opposition figures. He spent several months in Ovadan-Depe, a notorious prison outside Ashgabat, where some believe Shikhmuradov and his supporters were or are still being held.
Bayhanov says that while he was incarcerated there was no way for him to know about the situation of the other inmates.
Shikhmuradov in 1997
"I didn't have any information about them because when they bring detainees to Ovadan-Depe they are brought in closed vehicles," Bayhanov says. "When you are there you cannot walk on your own -- there are certain rules that prisoners have to follow. Your hands are tied behind, you have to look down, they put you where you are supposed to be, and then you must stay there."
Following Niyazov's death in 2006, there were hopes that new President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov would bring reform and transparency to Turkmenistan. But little has changed. The country still ranks among the most closed and repressive in the world.
Written by Farangis Najibullah, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service Director Muhammad Tahir