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Turkmenistan: Diplomats' Defection Seen As Challenge To Niyazov

Turkmenistan's government this week has asked Russia to extradite two former Turkmen ambassadors. Ashgabat claims the men are criminals. Those two and one other ambassador recently resigned and declared themselves opponents of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. Their actions and public statements about the corrupt government in Turkmenistan represent one of the strongest challenges to Niyazov since Turkmen independence in 1991.

Prague, 15 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan is trying to have two former ambassadors -- and now opposition leaders -- extradited home from Russia.

The move is being seen as a sign the Turkmen government considers the recent defections of the two and one other individual to be the most serious challenge to the country's one-party system since 1991 independence.

Other government officials have departed the country before, and soon afterward declared themselves to be in opposition to Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and his regime. But the timing of the recent defections -- three in three months -- is likely seen as particularly disturbing.

The Turkmen president's press service confirmed yesterday that a request was made of Russian authorities to extradite the former Turkmen ambassador to Turkey, Nurmuhammed Khanamov, and former Foreign Minister -- more recently ambassador to China -- Boris Shikhmuradov. Both are wanted for crimes connected with what the Turkmen Prosecutor-General says were the illegal sales of arms.

Neither man was officially charged until he publicly declared his opposition to the government. Shikhmuradov announced his opposition in November, Khanamov last week. Turkmen Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Pirmuhammed Gurbanov also recently announced his opposition to the government back home.

Khanamov's announcement was clear: "I declare that I resign from the post of Turkmenistan's ambassador to Turkey and promise to fight this regime with all possible means."

President Niyazov shrugged off Khanamov's statement on national television earlier this week: "They (the opposition) were more numerous in 1990s, in 1991. They all have taken their due place in society. Recently, after Shikhmuradov and another fool, a drug addict as they call him, Khanamov, the talk [about opposition] re-emerged."

However, Shikhmuradov said in an interview published by the Russian daily newspaper "Izvestiya" on 13 February that he and other representatives of what he termed the country's "elite" are meeting with officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in an attempt to have that organization suspend Turkmenistan's OSCE membership. Shikhmuradov told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service he has support of some from within the Turkmen government for a change in the system as well.

"Quite a number of people very close to Niyazov are ready to work with us and they declared that they plan to get rid of their responsibilities within the framework of Niyazov's government. We are in direct contact with Turkmenistan. We will do our utmost to bring these changes as quickly as possible, but not earlier than spring. By spring we will be ready to go back to our country."

Presidential elections were originally set for June 2002 but that changed in 1999 when the parliament amended the country's constitution and made Niyazov president for life. Many would like to see Turkmenistan held to the 2002 elections.

Russia's Interfax news agency yesterday quoted Niyazov as urging Shikhmuradov to return to Turkmenistan to "try to solve this problem together." Niyazov said Shikhmuradov is free to bring his defense lawyers, even if they are foreign lawyers. However, Niyazov said both Shikhmuradov and Khanamov were caught "red-handed" and are now "going out of their way to trick people into believing they are being deprived of their freedom."

But, according to Khanamov, the Russian newspaper "Vremya MN," and the independent Azerbaijani newspaper "Ekho," Turkmen authorities attempted to seize Khanamov in Turkey but were prevented from doing so by Turkish police. No Turkish sources have confirmed this story.

Turkmen Prosecutor-General Gurbanbibi Atajanova made clear this week that the case has already been decided. "Shikhmuradov himself, his allies, we are investigating his crimes together with other law-enforcement bodies. We have uncovered some of his crimes and criminal behavior. Based upon the testimonies of several people he has been fully proved guilty."

Turkmenistan's current foreign minister, Rashid Meredov, also alleged a series of crimes were committed by Shikhmuradov during his tenure in office. That led to a check of the Turkmen Embassy in Turkey where alleged evidence of wrongdoing was also uncovered.

The three former ambassadors are unlikely to return to Turkmenistan in the near future given that the Turkmen government seems convinced of their guilt already. However, their presence in Western countries could further damage Turkmenistan's poor reputation for democratic reforms and human rights.