Turkmen authorities are reportedly seeking the forcible return from Russia of three exiled critics of the Ashgabat government. If extradited, observers say, the three will be at serious risk of torture and ill-treatment amidst the wave of repression in Turkmenistan following the alleged November attack on President Saparmurat Niyazov.
Prague, 13 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov is proposing suspending an agreement with Russia on dual citizenship.
Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency quoted Niyazov as saying yesterday that his country already considers the agreement suspended because the majority of the people involved in the alleged 25 November assassination attempt against Niyazov have dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship: "In 1994, I signed the agreement on dual citizenship with [then-Russian President Boris] Yeltsin. Now our fugitives go to Russia and get Russian citizenship, and our laws lose half their value for these people. Therefore, we propose to temporarily suspend this agreement. We proposed to the Russian side that our citizens there [in Russia] will live by our [Turkmen] laws. In principle they agreed, and we are waiting for their official response in the near future. After that, we will bring the matter to the Halk Maslahaty [People's Council] for discussion."
The statement follows an agreement reached earlier this month between Moscow and Ashgabat, which the London-based Amnesty International says heightens worries that Russian authorities may take immediate steps to deport critics of Niyazov's government, in particular three men wanted in connection with the alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov.
Anna Sunder-Plassmann is a researcher on Central Asia at the U.K.-based human rights watchdog group Amnesty International. She told RFE/RL: "We believe that the situation after the agreement between the Security Council of Russia and the State Security Council of Turkmenistan on 3 January is very, very dangerous. Russia has before forcibly returned people to countries where they faced serious human rights violations."
Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo signed a protocol with his Turkmen counterpart on 2 January in Ashgabat on cooperation between their respective agencies. After holding talks with Niyazov himself, Rushailo told journalists: "We talked about the fight against international terrorism, including the events that took place in Turkmenistan recently with regards to the assassination attempt against [Niyazov]. Russia has always made its position on this issue clear, and we want to stress once again that we consider this [assassination attempt] as an act of terrorism, and we are offering assistance along the lines of cooperation between our law enforcement and special services."
ITAR-TASS quoted sources on the Turkmen president's staff as saying the agreement includes the search for and extradition of suspected criminals.
AP quoted Niyazov as having asked Putin for help in locating two suspects in the alleged assassination attempt: former Deputy Prime Minister and Turkmen central-bank head Khudaiberdy Orazov and former Turkmen Ambassador to Turkey Nurmukhammet Khanamov.
On 30 December, Turkmenistan's People's Council -- the country's highest legislative body -- approved sentences of life in prison for Orazov and Khanamov for their roles in the plot to kill Niyazov. The decision overruled a Supreme Court decision of 25 years in prison. The two men were tried in absentia.
Another former Turkmen official, Boris Shikhmuradov, was also sentenced to life in prison. Shikhmuradov, who had been living in exile, was arrested in December in Turkmenistan. Before turning himself in, Shikhmuradov said he was doing so because "arrested people have been tortured, beaten up, and subjected to psychological pressure in the cruelest way to receive any information about my whereabouts."
Amnesty International's Sunder-Plassmann noted that at the People's Council session -- broadcast on state television -- Niyazov stated that Orazov and Khanamov were in Russia and that he had had a telephone conversation with Putin about the matter. Niyazov said, "God willing, we will detain them."
"The president of Turkmenistan said in a televised speech at the People's Council of Turkmenistan that he had had a telephone conversation with President Putin about Russian cooperation in searching and deporting Khanamov and Orazov. And he seems to have had a positive response from the Russian authorities," Sunder-Plassmann said.
According to an Amnesty International statement released last week, Oraz Yklymov, another Turkmen citizen living in Moscow, is also at risk of being extradited. Yklymov is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Turkmen Service and the uncle of former Turkmen Deputy Agriculture Minister Saparmurat Yklymov. Saparmurat Yklymov, who lives in Sweden, had been identified early on as one of the main suspects in the alleged plot to kill Niyazov.
Oraz Yklymov said he has received confirmation from reliable sources within Turkmenistan that a criminal case has been opened against him. He said he is being accused of having traded weapons and ammunition, allegations he denies.
Oraz Yklymov said he believes the Turkmen authorities are seeking his extradition from Russia. He said Turkmen authorities are keeping his two sons -- Aili, 20, and Asenaman, 31 -- as hostages. "They are wanting me. They are wanting my extradition to Turkmenistan. This is sure. They are taking my sons as hostages to get me. One of them, Aili Yklymov, [was] freed from custody, but they do not let him fly to Moscow to his university. And he is held at home as a hostage."
Aili and Asenaman Yklymov were arrested following the 25 November attack on Niyazov and are reported to have been ill-treated by law enforcement officers while in detention.
Yklymov said there is a possibility that Moscow will extradite him to Turkmenistan because Russia has a vested interest in doing so. "Russian authorities can [extradite me to] get better contracts on gas imports. The Russian authorities can give me and others [to Turkmenistan]. This is only [about] business. People's lives don't mean [anything] for the Russian authorities, unfortunately."
Jumamurat Kyasov agrees. Kyasov is head of the Moscow-based Regional Organization for the Protection of Human Rights in Turkmenistan. He told RFE/RL: "Even if people say Russia is a democratic country, in reality democracy is under pressure since [President] Putin came to power. There is no progress on human rights issues. In that case, Russia might extradite [the three men]. They can find thousands of reasons. They have many laws at their disposal, and they can exploit the fact that many points of the law contradict themselves. So we agree with Amnesty International's warning."
Writing in "Asia Times Online," the Moscow-based analyst Sergei Blagov said that in response to Moscow's cooperation with Ashgabat, Russia is seeking increased gas purchases from Turkmenistan.
He said Russia's deputy energy minister, Gennadii Ustyuzhanin, who was a member of Rushailo's recent mission to the Turkmen capital, submitted a Russian draft of a bilateral energy deal to Turkmen officials. Moscow is suggesting that Turkmenistan export 10 billion cubic meters of gas to Russia by 2005, and 20 billion by 2008. In response, Russian is offering to export Turkmen crude oil via the Makhachkala-Novorossiisk pipeline.
Natalia Wishnikova is deputy head of the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office's public relations office. She refused to comment on the possibility of the extradition of the three men when asked about it on 10 January. She noted that no official request to arrest them has yet been received from Turkmen authorities.
Amnesty International's Sunder-Plassmann maintains that the forcible deportation of the three men to Turkmenistan would be contrary to Russia's obligations under international law. In particular, she said Russia's obligations under Article 3 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment prohibits the return of a person to a country or territory where they may face torture. It would also violate the norms enshrined in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which was ratified by Russia in May 1998.
"We believe that these three men are at great risk of torture if they are deported to Turkmenistan. The current wave of repression [that followed the 25 November attack] in Turkmenistan is accompanied by credible reports of torture and ill-treatment of the detainees. In addition to this, if Khanamov and Orazov are returned to Turkmenistan by Russia, then they are believed to face imprisonment for life on the basis of a grossly unfair trial held in their absence at the end of December," Sunder-Plassmann said.
However, Sunder-Plassmann says there are reasons to be optimistic, noting that Moscow has in the past acted in line with its obligations under international human rights laws. She recalls the case of Tajik journalist Dododzhon Atovulloev, whom Russian Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov refused in 2001 to extradite to Tajikistan.
(Arne Goli of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)