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Turkmenistan: Political Prisoners Next Test For Turkmen President

A photo of the new Turkmen president at an Ashgabat racetrack (ITAR-TASS) November 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Under former President Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan was one of the world’s most repressive societies. But for many, the nadir for human rights came five years ago this week, when hundreds of people were arrested and imprisoned after an alleged assassination attempt on the dictator known as Turkmenbashi.

Since taking over in December following Niyazov’s death, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has slowly changed Turkmenistan’s image. He has built new bridges to the West and signaled a move to push through internal reforms, even offering amnesty to some of those jailed in the attempted killing of his predecessor in Ashgabat.

Now, on the anniversary of that event, Berdymukhammedov’s agenda faces a new test: Will it stall here, or will he push the envelope further by showing clemency to many of those imprisoned under dubious circumstances five years ago?

"Of course I wish it could be so, but I have to say everything is like it was before [under President Niyazov],” said Tatyana Shikhmuradova, whose husband, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, is serving a life sentence for organizing the assassination bid. “The new leadership views my appeals and those of other relatives [of people imprisoned] the same way the previous regime did."

Besides Shikhmuradov, scores of others were also arrested, many for nothing more than being related to the crime’s alleged leaders. They were sentenced at secret or show trials that drew numerous complaints from international-rights organizations.

A Murky Murder Attempt

What exactly happened on November 25, 2002? Niyazov appeared on state television and described an event that seemed hardly possible -- one that he himself had not noticed and only learned of after arriving at the presidential palace that morning.

"It was 7 o'clock in the morning. As I was passing through [Ashgabat], a KamAz truck appeared behind me and blocked the intersection,” Niyazov said in his television address. “A police car then stopped next to the KamAz truck. I stopped paying attention and went to work and it was there that I was told there had been some shooting. People jumped out of the KamAz, a BMW, and a Gazel [another car] and started firing."

It was a stunning announcement.

Niyazov had spent a decade honing Turkmenistan's internal security forces. By November 2002, it seemed that those forces had effectively neutralized any form of dissent or opposition to the regime.

Niyazov ruled a country where great homage was paid him and his cult of personality. His portrait adorned the national currency and was draped over every square in the country. State media devoted most broadcasts and pages to his daily actions. Factories, farms, and even cities were named after him; and his larger-than-life golden statue in the capital rotated so that his face followed the path of the sun.

Turkmen officials compared Niyazov's book, "Rukhnama" ("Book of the Soul"), to a second Koran. And this guidebook for "correct" behavior, heavily laced with nationalism, was required reading in schools and mandatory knowledge for those seeking state posts.

It didn't take Turkmen authorities long to come up with a list of suspects. Within hours of the reported assassination attempt, Niyazov named those he was holding responsible. "[Those who carried out the assassination attempt] were hired, given weapons, and sent to carry out the shooting,” the president said on television. “They got high (took drugs) and tried to carry out their orders. Punishment will be brought to them. But they are not the ones who bear the main responsibility. There are others who stand behind them -- Shikhmuradov, Khanamov, Orazov, and Yklymov. They won't go far and will one day come into my grasp."

Besides Shikhmuradov, Niyazov was referring to former Deputy Agriculture Minister Sapar Yklymov, former Deputy Prime Minister and central bank chief Khudaiberdy Orazov and former Ambassador to Turkey Nurmukhammed Khanamov. All of them were believed to have been outside of the country for months or even years.

Yklymov, who was living in Sweden at the time, spoke to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service and described the crackdown that was just starting. "My relatives have all been arrested -- women, girls, children,” he said. “It is a disgrace that Niyazov is fighting with women, girls, and children."

It was the same with the other people Niyazov named. The alleged masterminds may have been outside the country but many of their relatives were still in Turkmenistan and it was against them that Niyazov's wrath was directed.

Shikhmuradov was eventually apprehended in late December inside Turkmenistan, which at least partially vindicated Turkmen authorities who had even searched for him in Uzbekistan's embassy in Ashgabat in defiance of international law.

Before the end of 2002, Shikhmuradov was convicted at a secret trial that lasted a few hours. He was later put on state television -- in what appeared to be a drugged state -- where he made a full confession and begged Niyazov for mercy.

Turkmenbashi Lashes Out

Officially about 100 people were arrested, but there are claims that the number was far higher. Since some of the opposition leaders accused of involvement lived in exile in Russia, Niyazov called for canceling the dual-citizenship agreement between Turkmenistan and Russia.

Niyazov ordered the Uzbek ambassador to leave the country after Turkmen authorities accused Tashkent of helping Shikhmuradov to enter Turkmenistan and hiding him at the ambassador's residence after the assassination attempt. The Turkmen government also ordered ethnic Uzbeks living near the border with Uzbekistan to be relocated.

Eleven people jailed for involvement in the assassination attempt were released in October 2007, though their convictions were not officially overturned.

That release sparked hopes that others would be set free -- a move that could help improve Aghgabat’s relations with the West as well as its international image. "They could make some kind of gesture to the West by allowing [the prisoners to have] visits, or that those who were directly or indirectly involved in those events, regardless of whether the accusations against them are fair or not, they would be freed," said Vitaly Ponomarev of the Moscow-based rights group Memorial.

So far, there is no indication that people like Shikhmuradov will be released.

Berdymukhammedov has restored some of the things that Niyazov took away, such as reducing to nine the number of years in public education, and eliminating pension and other social benefits. But so far, he has not denounced any of Niyazov's policies or actions or shown that he is ready to make a clean break with Turkmenistan's recent past.

Five years after the start of Niyazov’s harshest crackdown, he has a fresh chance to do so.

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