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Turkmenistan: Opposition Distances Itself From Assassination Attempt

Turkmen opposition figures met in Vienna earlier this week to discuss what they can do now to effect change in their homeland. The opposition movement has come under fire since the 25 November assassination attempt on Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, which was quickly blamed on the opposition and saw many of its members detained. RFE/RL reports that participants at this week's conference chose to distance themselves from those accused in the assassination plot and are instead looking to foreign governments and organizers to champion their cause.

Prague, 16 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen opposition groups met in Vienna on 12-13 January to try to regroup after a botched assassination attempt on the Turkmen president in November left the country's opposition forces discredited and in disarray.

Those meeting in Vienna were quick to distance themselves from those opposition figures held responsible for the would-be assassination. Trials of some of the 61 people arrested in connection with the plot began earlier this week.

Perhaps the biggest blow to oppositionists was the arrest and trial of former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who has already been sentenced to life in prison for his role in the plot.

Shikhmuradov admitted his role in organizing the attack on Niyazov in a confession broadcast on Turkmen state television. Rights groups have since questioned the statement, noting that he appeared to have been beaten and under the influence of narcotics.

Despite such protests from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), the testimony of Shikhmuradov and other detainees has dealt the Turkmen opposition movement a serious setback.

Vitalii Ponomarev is an activist and respected Turkmenistan expert at the Moscow-based human rights organization Memorial, which together with the International Helsinki Federation sponsored the two-day Vienna conference. "This incident was a heavy blow to the Turkmen opposition, not only to supporters of Boris Shikhmuradov, but also for other groups," Ponomarev said.

The Vienna conference -- the third such gathering since last June -- was attended by a number of Turkmen opposition groups, including a special 15-member committee of Turkmen opposition figures.

The groups took pains to stress that they do not support violence and assassination as a means of achieving their political goals.

Avdy Kuliev is the chairman of the United Democratic Opposition of Turkmenistan. He said that his group clearly condemns any acts of violence to promote political goals. "The United Democratic Opposition of Turkmenistan believes that only by peaceful means will democracy come to Turkmenistan. We contend that only through peaceful, democratic, and parliamentary means can the political situation in Turkmenistan be changed," Kuliev said.

Kuliev also said his group had earlier been in contact with Shikhmuradov, who had also been living in exile, to propose traveling together to Turkmenistan to hold open talks with Turkmen government officials. Kuliev said Shikhmuradov and his supporters declined.

The conference noted that the already poor human rights situation in Turkmenistan had gotten even worse since the reported attempt on Niyazov's life. "The situation with human rights in Turkmenistan was always extremely bad, but after the incident of 25 November 25 [the assassination attempt] the situation has become a genuine catastrophe. There are mass arrests, hundreds of people are in custody simply because they are relatives or friends of those [suspects] arrested by Turkmen police. Homes have been confiscated, and people have been forcibly relocated," Ponomarev said.

Just as the group was unanimous in distancing itself from Shikhmuradov, it was equally single-minded in taking the position that foreign governments and organizations should take the lead in pressuring the Turkmen government into reform.

Kuliev said his group has already appealed to foreign governments and organizations for help in starting negotiations. "We have appealed to the democratic governments, to the government of the United States, to the OSCE, [and] to [various] members of the OSCE to help the Turkmen opposition to sit at the negotiating table with Niyazov and work for democratic transformation and reform in Turkmenistan," Kuliev said.

The OSCE's media representative, Freimut Duve, yesterday criticized the Turkmen government's use of televised confessions. Duve said that showing detainees confessing and being denounced by members of the public who demanded the death penalty was "Stalinist" and "racist."

OSCE criticism of Turkmenistan in the past, however, has had little, if any, effect on the Turkmen government and its policies.

(Naz Nazar of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)