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Prominent Turkmen Singer Jailed -- A Victim Of Drugs Or Circumstance?

  • Bruce Pannier

Nazir Habibov was arrested in August on charges of possession and sale of narcotics.

Nazir Habibov was arrested in August on charges of possession and sale of narcotics.

One of Turkmenistan’s most famous singers, Nazir Habibov, is on his way to prison. In fact, he is probably already there.

Habibov was arrested in August on charges of possession and sale of narcotics, but that might not be the reason he ran into trouble with the law.

Habibov has a public reputation as a drug user. But that has never damaged his popularity and, according to relatives, Habibov was booked to perform at various functions, usually private functions of Turkmenistan’s elite, up to six months in advance.

But Habibov's popularity may have come at a price.

It is no secret all around Central Asia that if you are a popular singer you will receive invitations from powerful people to perform at their parties. Such invitations are, in reality, a sort of summons. Performers are paid, but there is not much opportunity to refuse these requests.

Habibov’s troubles seem to have begun after he accepted one such invitation -- and later received another invitation to perform on the same day.

Habibov honored the deal he made with the first customer.

That may have been a big mistake.

In the murky political and social world of Turkmenistan, it is difficult to identify who many of the elite are and even more difficult to say just how far their influence extends.

Apparently, even performers such as Habibov cannot always divine who stands higher in the hierarchy.

The invitation that Habibov spurned seems to have come from someone close to one of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s sisters. (He has five.) Habibov’s legal problems started not long after he failed to appear at the event organized by customer No. 2.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, contacted Habibov's wife, Rita, through her Instagram account. She said that her husband did not sell narcotics and canceled her account after leaving further questions unanswered.

A source familiar with the case says members of Habibov's family said they had been warned not to speak to anyone about Habibov's case. The same source and others contacted by Azatlyk said a chain of clothing stores Habibov's wife owned has been seized by the authorities.

Accounts vary as to Habibov's sentence. Some people say he received 15 years in prison; others say 12.

Habibov has been vilified on state television, which aired a program on his arrest, featuring what it claimed was his "confession," on October 4. State media have also shown images of a bag containing a large amount of an unidentified dirty white substance that allegedly belonged to Habibov.

Berdymukhammedov indicated in a November 2 speech to Turkmenistan’s State Security Council that clemency was not likely for Habibov and others convicted on narcotics charges.

Berdymukhammedov spoke of "selfish businessmen" who engage in illegally selling cigarettes and who "abused and distributed drugs." The president said such people deserve only "contempt," and he urged security services to strengthen efforts to eliminate "smoking and drug abuse."

Whether or not Habibov has used drugs, the circumstances of his arrest and sentencing seem more likely to be rooted in his failure to appease an influential figure with connections in the Turkmen government.

Had Habibov performed for this second client, would he still be free, despite the drug allegations? Was his real offense his refusal to heed the wishes of someone with power?

Turkmenistan’s appalling rights record over the last 25 years makes those questions difficult to answer.

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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