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Turkmenistan: U.S. Criticism Of Assassination Investigation Provokes Anger

Prague, 8 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan's state-owned daily newspaper "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" today printed an open letter to U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker criticizing him for comments he made at the end of last year.

On 31 December, a statement issued by Reeker said the United States was "deeply concerned by the conduct of authorities in Turkmenistan following the November 25 attack on the motorcade of Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov."

Niyazov's motorcade was fired on in Ashgabat on 25 November as the Turkmen president traveled to work. Niyazov quickly blamed his main political rivals for organizing the plot.

Reeker's statement went on to say that while the United States recognized the Turkmen government's right to apprehend those involved, the U.S. government could not condone any actions that violate international practice and the standards of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Turkmenistan is a member.

Reeker's statement said the Turkmen government has conducted summary trials of the alleged suspects without due process of law. He also said the United States had "credible reports of torture and abuse of suspects."

The open letter, signed by the editors of 15 Turkmen newspapers and magazines and the chairman of the state news agency, calls Reeker's charges groundless and says the authors felt obliged to address what they call his "lies and fabrications."

The letter questions why the United States has failed to support the Turkmen government in its current search for the perpetrators of the attack on Niyazov and cites repeated contact between the U.S. ambassador to Ashgabat and the man who Turkmen authorities claim was responsible for planning the attack, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov.

Shikhmuradov, an opposition member who had been living in exile in Russia, was quickly named as the main architect of the alleged attempted coup d'etat. He surrendered to the Turkmen authorities late last month and was sentenced to life in prison on 30 December after the broadcast of a televised confession.

The "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" letter says the U.S. ambassador spoke by telephone with Shikhmuradov three times after a warrant had been issued for Shikhmuradov's arrest. The letter said the official had advised Shikhmuradov.

The letter also defies Reeker's claims of mass arrests and says that only 33 people, including 11 foreigners from Russia, Turkey, and the United States, have been arrested in connection with the plot. Nongovernmental human rights groups have also accused the Turkmen government of using the assassination plot to crack down on political opponents and to arrest large numbers of people.

The Turkmen government has been under increasing pressure to allow international human rights groups or the OSCE, which has already criticized the televised confessions of several suspects as reminiscent of the Stalinist purge trials of the 1930s, to send representatives to visit suspects in the case.

The Turkmen newspaper's open letter could be an attempt to demonstrate to the world community that the Turkmen government will not be influenced in what it sees as its rightful investigation of the attack. The letter could also be aimed at convincing Turkmen citizens that the country is coming under undue criticism from foreign groups and countries, a claim the government has made repeatedly over the past several years.