They were used to seeing her appear on state television to confront fallen officials with charges of illegal activities. In a typical appearance in August, she was on television to list the crimes committed by Saparmurat Valiev, the former head of the state oil company Turkmenneft.
"As of today, we have confiscated 21 houses belonging to Valiev and 20 foreign-made cars that he had," she said then. "We also seized personal funds totaling $9.5 million from eight safes he owned. We found an additional $1 million and 560 million manats and six illegally owned weapons."
What Comes Around...
But this time, the Turkmen nation saw a very different Atajanova on state television. The new prosecutor-general, Mukhammet Oshukov, took 15 minutes reading out the charges against Atajanova. Just a few weeks after she retired for "health reasons," she was suddenly answering questions from an unsympathetic President Niyazov.
Niyazov: "You've heard the charges against you. What can you say for yourself? About what you've done? You heard what was found."
Atajanova: "Great leader..."
Niyazov: "Speak louder!"
Atajanova: "I am guilty of many things. All that was said here [by Oshukov] I admit to. I cannot say anything. My great leader, I appeal to your people, our people, to all the workers. Forgive me! I am sorry! I have three daughters but no son. Save me! Don't take away my freedom. For the rest of my life I will live by your policies, follow your path, do your honest work. I'm ready to till the soil."
Who Watches The Watchers?
Atajanova put ministers, the heads of big business, and political opponents in prison for years. But her turn had come. Despite having praised her work just weeks ago -- when she retired at the age of 58 -- Niyazov did not spare her this time.
"Six months ago, doubts [about your performance] as prosecutor-general appeared," he said. "Several cases seemed to be dragging on. She violated justice many times. She had special investigators, four or five people. They were specially selected and they had orders to do things that are unimaginable to the mind. She started openly taking bribes."
Atajanova stands accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes; of having stolen money confiscated from former officials who she helped jail; and of having 25 cars, 36 homes, and thousands of sheep and cattle. Niyazov also said Atajanova took bribes early in her career when she worked in provincial prosecutors' offices.
Web Of Corruption
Atajanova will not be the only person facing charges. Niyazov indicated that he already had information that the Interior Ministry, the judiciary, and the Prosecutor-General's Office were working together to enrich themselves at the state's expense.
Similarly, Atajanova's brother, Rasul, seems destined for prison. In December 2003, there were rumors that Rasul was caught trying to cross from Iran into Turkmenistan with a large amount of heroin. There were also rumors that Atajanova was involved. Prosecutors have now said publicly that Rasul did, indeed, try to smuggle some 16 kilograms of heroin into Turkmenistan.
Her sudden and dramatic fall from grace is also another reminder that the roots of corruption are deep in Turkmenistan and that no official, however Niyazov may seem to trust them today, is beyond the kind of justice Atajanova dispensed for years and now faces herself.
(Rozinazar Khoudaiberdiyev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)