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Turkmenistan: Questions Surround Detention Of Prominent Doctor

A prominent doctor in Turkmenistan has been held in detention since late last month. No charges have yet been filed, though state-controlled media has run reports alleging the doctor may have profited illegally from his medical work. However, RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports there is speculation the real reason may be his political activities, including plans to form a political party to compete in upcoming parliamentary elections.

Prague, 9 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen doctor Pirimkuli Tangrykuliev sits in detention in Ashgabat after being taken into custody on June 29. It is difficult to say why he is being held -- Turkmen authorities have not formally charged Tangrykuliev with anything as of yet.

Reports in two state-controlled newspapers suggested this week that he may be in detention for being a greedy capitalist. But there is speculation that the real reason may be that he had responded to President Saparmurat Niyazov's call for criticism of officials and government policies. The possibility also exists that Tangrykuliev may be in custody for his political aspirations.

As a politician, Tangrykuliev, now 61 years old, was a well-known reformer in the days of Perestroika and Glasnost. Even before that, in the days when Muhammat Nazar Gapurov was first party secretary of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, Tangrykuliev could openly question opinions of the party's elite.

Tangrykuliev reportedly did not fear Niyazov either. He reportedly once told the Turkmen president "I am not your friend, but I am not your enemy either. If you listen to me then I will always help you." Niyazov even once offered him the post of Health Care Minister but Tangrykuliev declined. Tangrykuliev did serve as a deputy in the country's parliament and was the only one in 1994 to vote against extending Niyazov's term in office through referendum.

As a doctor, Tangrykuliev has worked to open clinics and centers dealing with two of Turkmenistan's biggest health concerns -- stomach and digestive tract problems and poor dental care. Tangrykuliev has helped to open clinics in every one of Turkmenistan's five regions and many people credit him with advancing dental science, particularly the use of dentures.

It was on the operations of these clinics that this week's reports in the state-run Russian language daily newspaper "Neitralni Turkmenistan" and the Turkmen-language daily "Turkmenistan" focused. The reports in the papers' July 6 editions were authored by four people identified as former students of Tangrykuliev. Doctors Khoja Jumayev, Gurban Atayev, Gurban Pashchev and Aga Gurbanov wrote that Tangrykuliev started his own business -- Turkmen International -- which handles pharmaceutical products. Their articles claim the medicines belong to the government. Other sources in Turkmenistan say Tangrykuliev buys much of it abroad. The articles said "sick people being treated at the government's expense have not received even an inoculation or a piece of soap from Tangrykuliev."

The four wrote that those who can pay high prices can buy medicine as Tangrykuliev's "goal and main slogan is to do all possible for the sake of [his] personal interests and to get money from the government and the people by any means."

However, Tangrykuliev's political activities suggest there may be other reasons for his detention.

Last December, President Niyazov called on the government and the people to make their concerns about corruption and inefficiency in the running of the country known. His call stood out in the closely controlled political environment in Turkmenistan.

Niyazov said it was the right and duty of citizens to speak out. Tangrykuliev did so. He recently wrote a letter to Niyazov complaining about Turkmenistan's poor health care system. This week's newspaper articles hinted at this, portraying Tangrykuliev as a complainer. But some believe Niyazov did not take Tangrykuliev's criticisms well and that this may have led to the doctor's detention.

There is another possible explanation for Tangrykuliev's incarceration. Before being taken away by authorities, Tangrykuliev spoke with Pyotr Iwaszkiewicz of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) office in Ashgabat. According to Iwaszkiewicz, Tangrykuliev was a frequent visitor to the OSCE office and had spoken about the letter to Niyazov. But Tangrykuliev also told Iwaszkiewicz something else. Iwaszkiewicz spoke by telephone from Ashgabat this week with Naz Nazar of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service.

"Shortly before his arrest he stated to me that he was going to establish a political party in order to take part in upcoming elections."

At present, there are no opposition parties in Turkmenistan. Parliamentary elections are set for December 12.

Iwaszkiewicz says the OSCE and the Embassies of the United States and Germany are following the case. Iwaszkiewicz says Tangrykuliev has been allowed a few visitors, but says he himself has not been among them.

"No I haven't. His family saw him once only and as far as I know, twice [they] were allowed to deliver to him food and water."

Iwaszkiewicz also confirmed that there is an investigation into Tangrykuliev's affairs.

"His son was interrogated many times as was his wife, his house [was searched] and the know he has, actually had, three small kiosks in Ashgabat and some depot in his dacha, and all these medicines were confiscated."

As Iwaszkiewicz indicated, some foreign diplomats in Ashgabat are watching the case. A western diplomatic source in Ashgabat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, yesterday confirmed to RFE/RL that Tangrykuliev has been detained. The diplomat speculated that the doctor may soon be charged with mismanagement and theft of government property. The diplomat said European and U.S. officials have been in contact with Turkmen authorities to discuss the case.

Other comment on the case ran in yesterday's edition of the Russian daily newspaper "Nezavisimaya Gazeta". The piece, co-authored by the Turkmen Embassy's attach in Moscow, said criminals can not run for office in Turkmenistan. The article even named Tangrykuliev.

The appearance of the article suggests that Pirimkuli Tangrykuliev's days as an aspiring political actor in Turkmenistan may be over.

(Mohammed Zarif and Naz Nazar, Roznazar Khoudaiberdiyev, Khoudaiberdi Khallyev and Ayna Khallyeva of the Turkmen Service all contributed to this feature.)