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Turkmenistan: Leaflets Calling For Overthrow Of Government Appear In Bazaars

Leaflets calling for the overthrow of the Turkmen government have appeared in bazaars in the capital Ashgabat. It remains unclear who is behind the leaflets, but it is a strange and potentially serious act of defiance in a country where the government is known for exercising strict control over society. RFE/RL looks at what's in the leaflets and what threat their distribution could have for the government of Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov.

Prague, 15 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Police and security forces in Turkmenistan are still looking for the people responsible for distributing leaflets in bazaars in Ashgabat last week that called for the overthrow of President Saparmurat Niyazov's government. Acts of protest are rare in the country, where order is strictly maintained and dissidents are quickly jailed or forced into exile.

An Ashgabat resident was willing to confirm that the leaflets did indeed appear but he indicated in his comments that the topic is dangerous: "It happened, but people are afraid to speak about it. You ask people 'Were you there? did you see?' They say it's better not to bring it up. Many are afraid to talk about it; even in private conversations the subject is avoided. The people cannot say openly what they know."
The leaflets say that the time has come to take responsibility for the future of the country's children, that the time has come to overthrow Niyazov and bring him to trial.

The leaflets say that Turkmen people were born free, that they are a proud people who deserve to be liberated from tyranny. They say that the time has come to take responsibility for the future of the country's children, that the time has come to overthrow Niyazov and bring him to trial.

In an appeal to the country's Muslims, the leaflets call for the faithful to avoid worshipping at the new mosque Niyazov is building in his former hometown outside Ashgabat.

The mosque will be the biggest in Central Asia. But in the eyes of many Muslims it is corrupted because Niyazov has ordered quotations from his book "Rukhname" -- something of a guide of proper behavior for the Turkmen people -- to be inscribed on the walls on the building alongside quotations from the Koran.

Exiled Turkmen opposition leader Nurmukhamet Hanamov knew about the leaflets and told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service what he had heard through his sources: "This information is true. They were distributing these leaflets not just between last Thursday and Sunday last week, we heard about it [happening] earlier. We knew it was planned. If you remember, it's been going on for two years and since then they've been distributing leaflets of Boris Shikhmuradov. It has been happening for two years now and we are glad about it."

Shikhmuradov was Turkmenistan's foreign minister for many years but once he started to fall from power in 2001 he joined with the Turkmen opposition and lived outside the country. He was arrested in Turkmenistan in December 2002, one month after a reported assassination attempt on President Niyazov, and jailed on charges of being one of the masterminds behind the attempt.

Hanamov is another opposition leader the Turkmen government believes was involved.

Another political dissident living in exile is Gulgeldy Annaniyazov. He was jailed for four years after organizing a protest against the government in 1995 and was only freed due to the intervention of the U.S. government and international rights organizations.

Annaniyazov was not surprised to hear about the antigovernment leaflets in Ashgabat, and credited their appearance to the destruction of homes in Keshi, a suburb of Ashgabat.

He likened the demolition of the homes, a seemingly small event, to the pebbles which start avalanches. But he was concerned that the news may not reach what he called "civilized governments," which many inside and outside Turkmenistan believe is the key to pressuring the current regime into changing its antidemocratic course: "The distribution of leaflets started just after they destroyed the homes in Keshi. In Turkmenistan there are many actions of protest, but the people there worry that civilized governments do not know what is happening in Turkmenistan."

Hanamov's claim that leaflets have been distributed in Turkmenistan for two years is supported by people who have left Turkmenistan recently. Prior to last week, those leaflets were left in mail boxes in the heart of the night. Distributing such literature in bazaars in the capital in the daytime for several days in a row seems to be a sign that discontent with the government in Turkmenistan is reaching a new level.

The Turkmen government, never tolerant of opposition in the best of times, has been cracking down on potential troublemakers since the attempt on Niyazov's life. The crackdown may be generating something of "an equal and opposite reaction" among some of the Turkmen people.

(Rozinar Khoudaiberdiev of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)