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Turkmenistan: Two Government Critics Convicted

International human-rights organizations groups have been criticizing Turkmenistan's government virtually since the country attained independence in 1991. Most government opponents and critics have long since been silenced, but there are a few who continue to question the policies and practices of President Saparmurat Niyazov. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports on the fate of two such people.

Prague, 25 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The price for speaking one's mind can be high in Turkmenistan. Two examples are Nurberdy Nurmammedov and Pirimguly Tangrikuliev. Both are now in prison, convicted of criminal acts. Turkmen courts sentenced Nurmammedov to five years for "hooliganism with intent to kill," and Tangrikuliev received eight years for misappropriating state funds and property.

The Moscow-based Memorial Rights Defense Center, which has been following both cases, said recently that the two men have recently been secretly moved to new prisons. Vitaly Ponomarev, the director of Memorial's Information Center on Human Rights in Central Asia, said yesterday (Thursday) that both are behind bars simply because of their political opposition.

"[We] believe that Pirimguly Tangrikuliev and Nurberdy Nurmammedov are being held in Turkmen prisons for political reasons and that the charges against them are fabricated."

Nurmammedov, 57 years old, helped establish Turkmenistan's opposition Agzybirlik Party in 1989. But no party except the People's Democratic Party -- President Saparmurat Niyazov's party -- has ever been officially registered in the country's brief history. Nurmammedov is now one of the few political opponents of Niyazov -- known officially since 1994 as Turkmenbashi [that is, leader of all Turkmen] -- still in the country. Most fled the government's repressive policies in the early 1990s.

Nurmammedov sometimes made remarks critical of the Turkmenbashi to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. In one interview late last year, he criticized both the country's 1999 parliamentary elections and the decision to make Niyazov president for life. He was arrested about a week later. In late February of this year, a court found Nurmammedov guilty and sent him to prison.

According to Memorial, Nurmammedov has been moved from one prison to another. He has often spent days in solitary confinement, while his relatives were turned away when they tried to bring him food and medicine. In late June, after he was transferred to Bezmeine -- a maximum security prison -- Nurmammedov began a hunger strike. Memorial reported the strike and RFE/RL's Turkmen Service broadcast the news.

But two weeks ago (Aug 12), Nurmammedov seemed to vanish. Memorial says witnesses saw him taken from his barracks on a stretcher, accompanied by a doctor. His relatives have not heard from him since and Turkmen officials have provided the family with no information,. But Memorial says Nurmammedov was taken to Turkmenbashi prison, which it describes as having "an infamous reputation."

Until recently, Pirimguly Tangrikuliev was also imprisoned in Turkmenbashi prison. Tangrikuliev, who is over 60 years old, had spoken out against Niyazov as well, but in a different manner than Nurmammedov. Two years ago, Turkmenbashi called on the people to him write him personally if they had any knowledge of corrupt officials and their practices. Tangrikuliev, a dentist, did so -- complaining about corruption and inefficiency in the country's health-care system.

Tangrikuliev had also planned to try to register a political party for last year's parliamentary elections. He went to the U.S. Embassy for information, and also met with officials at the Ashgabat office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

By early June 1999, Tangrikuliev was in police custody. Turkmen authorities claimed he had received government-subsidized medicines for distribution and then sold them at exorbitant prices.

According to Memorial, a month ago (July 24), Tangrikuliev was moved from Turkmenbashi prison 200 kilometers to the east, to the prison colony in Kyzylkaya. The prison is near an abandoned uranium mine.

President Niyazov likes to say his country is traveling its own, unique, path toward democracy. But if the examples of Tangrikuliev and Nurmammedov are any indication, that path does not include the right to criticize the policies of Turkmenbashi.

(Roznazar Khoudaiberdiev, Zarif Nazar, Guanch Gueraev, and Aina Khallyeva of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report)