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Turkmenistan: Ashgabat Marks Day Niyazov Was -- Or Was Not -- Almost Assassinated

This week (25 November) marks the first anniversary of the alleged assassination attempt on the life of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. The incident sparked a widespread crackdown on the opposition, and some 30 people were eventually jailed. But many questions remain unanswered -- the main one being did the assassination attempt really take place at all?

Prague, 24 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A year ago this week (25 November), according to official Turkmen accounts, President Saparmurat Niyazov's motorcade came under fire in the capital Ashgabat. The incident happened in the early morning, while the president was on his way to work.

Those reports say Niyazov himself was not hurt, but that several bystanders and a security officer were injured in an exchange of gunfire.

Here is Niyazov's own account in the immediate aftermath of the incident: "It was 7 o'clock in the morning. As I was passing through [Ashgabat], a KamAZ truck appeared behind me and blocked the intersection. A traffic police car then stopped next to the KamAZ truck. I stopped paying attention and went to work and then I was told there had been shooting. People jumped out of the KamAZ, a BMW, and [another car] and started firing."

Or did they? In the days and weeks after the incident, the details would change with each new account. The discrepancies led some observers to question whether the attack took place at all.

Khudaiberdy Orazov, a former senior Turkmen official who now heads the Vatan opposition political movement, told a Russian newspaper earlier this year that he is confident that no attempt was made on Niyazov's life. He says Niyazov staged the incident to provide a pretext for cracking down on his political enemies. Other journalists, including RFE/RL's Arkadii Dubnov, report that witnesses at the scene say no shots were ever fired.

After an emergency cabinet session following the alleged assassination attempt, Niyazov accused four of his most prominent political rivals of organizing the attempt on his life. All four were one-time government officials who had left Turkmenistan to protest Niyazov's authoritarian regime: former Agriculture Minister Sapar Iklymov, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, former Deputy Prime Minister and National Bank chief Orazov, and former Ambassador to Turkey Nurmukhammed Khanamov. All four denied any connection to the alleged assassination attempt.

"Niyazov simply decided, with one wave of his hand, to get rid of all of us immediately. Therefore, like a great detective or master sleuth, right after the so-called terrorist act, he revealed that he knows who the guilty are, who the instigators are, and named them," Shikhmuradov said.

Steve Sabol, a professor at the University of North Carolina who specializes in Turkmenistan, told RFE/RL that he doubts that the four former officials could have managed to organize any assassination attempt from outside the country. "I'm not convinced by what I've seen that it could be organized, as Niyazov claims, by Shikhmuradov, Yklymov, or Orazov because they're in exile," he said. "So, my feeling is that it's someone inside the country who was recently let go, either from the security forces, internal ministries, or the Agriculture Ministry."

Some 17 people were detained almost immediately, including four ethnic Georgians. Within a week, the number of detainees had officially risen to 23 -- more than half of them foreigners. According to officials, 61 people were arrested during the course of the investigation. The Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and the Moscow-based rights group Memorial said at least 200 people were detained, with more than 100 facing charges.

Then in late December, Turkmen media announced that Shikhmuradov had been apprehended in Ashgabat. On 29 December, Turkmen state television subsequently aired footage in which Shikhmuradov, who appeared to have been drugged, admitted to plotting to kill Niyazov and vilified both himself and his alleged fellow co-conspirators as traitors.

The Turkmen Supreme Court sentenced Shikhmuradov, Orazov, and Khanamov (the latter two in absentia) the same day to 25 years' imprisonment, the maximum term provided for by the Criminal Code. The following day, the National Assembly demanded that the sentence be increased to life imprisonment.

Human Rights Watch immediately issued a statement arguing that "having the legislature rather than a court sentence a defendant is an unthinkable violation of human rights."

In January of this year, a court passed sentences ranging from six to 25 years' imprisonment on 17 more suspects, including Shikhmuradov's brother Konstantin and former Foreign Minister Batyr Berdyev. International human rights organizations expressed grave misgivings about the trials.

Aaron Rhodes, who is executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights in Vienna, told RFE/RL: "The whole scenario raises so many questions that it deprives anybody of the sense that this is a legal [process] in which there is any respect for the accused. Do these people have access to attorneys? Are these trials opened in any sense to monitors? Can you say that these are independent judicial authorities in any sense? I don't think so."

The alleged assassination attempt and subsequent show trials did at least serve to focus the international community's attention on the Turkmen leadership. Freimut Duve, the media-freedom representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), describes the country's political system as "totalitarian" and racist.

"We are dealing with a completely totalitarian system. We are not only dealing with a dictatorship. That's to say we have exactly the same development as we had with [Josef] Stalin, and in a way with [Adolf] Hitler. It means you have to identify one [common] enemy, the foreign blood, the non-Turkmen blood. That's why [Niyazov] has already a lot of enemies within the country. He speaks of 'diluted blood.' Secondly, you have to get rid of the 'traitors' in the upper levels of power. Stalin did the same," Duve said.

The international outcry over the January trials also translated into greater international support for the Turkmen opposition in exile, whose leaders met in Prague in September and pledged to continue their efforts aimed at ousting Niyazov by peaceful means.