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Central Asia Report: December 5, 2002

5 December 2002, Volume 2, Number 45

WHODUNNIT? HUNT FOR CULPRITS FOLLOWING ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT BECOMES MORE AND MORE CURIOUS. There have been strange and alarming twists in the ongoing investigation into the plot to kill Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, with the government firing accusations in all directions -- as scattershot as the gunmen who supposedly strafed the presidential motorcade without being able to land a hit on the target.

The president's motorcade came under fire about 7 a.m. at an intersection in downtown Ashgabat as he was traveling to his office from his residence in Arshabil, 28 kilometers out of town. But details of the incident -- garnered exclusively from official sources, in the absence of any accounts by independent eyewitnesses among the citizenry -- changed with retellings. The initial story was that a KamAZ truck blocked the motorcade from behind, and a single gunman jumped out and started shooting, ITAR-TASS reported on 25 November. According to Niyazov's own account, a number of men emerged from the truck, a BMW, and a Gazel automobile and raked the motorcade with machine-gun fire (see "Turkmenistan: Attempted Assassination of President Leads To Long List Of Suspects,", 26 November 2002). The story changed again when presidential press spokesman Serdar Durdyev addressed journalists on the following day. He said the truck cut in front of the convoy, not behind, that masked gunmen emerged from the truck, two minibuses and a BMW, and that more assailants ran out of nearby residential buildings and opened fire, AP said on 26 November.

Casualty reports were also confusingly varied. Niyazov's car was untouched: In fact, he said he had not even noticed the attack at the time, being immersed in paperwork in the back of his car. "When I got to work, I was informed there had been a shoot-out," he said, as quoted by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting on 26 November. But one presidential bodyguard was initially said to be seriously wounded, along with several bystanders, Interfax reported. The bystanders dropped out of subsequent reports -- they have not been identified in any hospital -- and more bodyguards were reported to be hurt. On 26 November, Durdyev also mentioned a military-police officer who tried to stop the truck and was run over. Yet on 2 December, Reuters reported that apparently no one had been injured in the attack at all.

The conflicting stories may merely reflect the confusion of officials trying to get a grip on what happened. But another line of thought suggested itself, expressed, for example, by one of Niyazov's exiled opponents, former Deputy Prime Minister Hudaiberdy Orazov, who told a Russian newspaper that Niyazov staged the apparent attack himself (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 December 2002). By precipitating a crisis, the president supposedly gave himself a pretext for a crackdown or purge of his enemies. Another opponent, former Deputy Agriculture Minister Saparmurat Iklymov said the whole incident was "a classic case of fabrication" and "an eerie reminder of events in Germany in 1933 when Hitler set fire to the Reichstag, setting the precedent for the murder of Jews," reported on 26 November. One or two analysts questioned whether the attack ever happened at all.

To those who suspected the attack was staged or fabricated, the government's conflicting narratives were evidence that it was reinventing the story to make it more impressive or convincing. The precise location of the truck has been deemed significant insofar as several commentators questioned why gunmen would stop a motorcade by blocking it from behind. As Orazov told RFE/RL on 26 November: "Think for a minute. The alleged attackers let Niyazov go by, then they blocked the road in front of the police. If the plan had worked, it wouldn't have been for eliminating Niyazov" (see "Turkmenistan: Suspects In Plot To Assassinate President Deny Charges,", 27 November 2002). Skeptics also noted that a KamAZ truck was not the sort of thing whose position on the road could be easily forgotten or mixed up. Within a day or two of the incident, government figures, including Niyazov, were unanimous that the truck had stopped in front of the motorcade.

Who were the gunmen and what happened to them? Immediately after the attack, Durdyev said some of them had been caught but others had escaped, RFE/RL reported on 25 November. The semiofficial website claimed that at least two of the gunmen were killed at the scene by security forces. Niyazov said the shooters had been "drug addicts." Then, on 26 November, Durdyev announced that 16 people had been detained, including four Georgian hit men. "In Ashgabat, [the Georgian detainees] are considered mercenaries, and the incident itself is considered an act of international terrorism against Turkmenistan's constitutional norms, with the aim of destabilizing the situation in the republic," said Durdyev, according to AP. But a spokesman for the Georgian Intelligence Office denied the men were involved, saying they had been detained because they lacked valid Turkmen visas, the news agency reported on 27 November.

Meanwhile, many observers said that the dragnet for suspects was probably much wider than Ashgabat was admitting. The human rights group Memorial estimated the number of arrests at more than 100, RFE/RL reported on 26 November. On the same day, Amnesty International issued a statement urging the Turkmen government to respect international human rights law as it conducted its investigation. "We are particularly concerned that the government's response to the assassination attempt may lead to a new wave of clampdown on dissent in Turkmenistan," the statement said.

Amnesty International was not alone in worrying that the search for conspirators could lead to a full-blown witch-hunt of the regime's real or suspected enemies. On 4 December, a U.S. State Department spokesman also expressed "concern about the methods of conducting the investigations" and stressed they must be "in full compliance with [Turkmenistan's] Constitution and international law," ITAR-TASS reported.

By 2 December, the number of detainees was officially 23, more than half of whom were foreigners. The suspects had been caught in possession of 37 guns, including Kalashnikovs, hunting rifles, and pistols, as well as cartridges, radios, walkie-talkies, smoke canisters, and camouflage uniforms, the government said. Allegedly, they were attempting to stage a coup. "[They] aimed to overthrow the constitutional system and seize power by force," Durdyev said on 2 December as quoted by Interfax. "Mercenaries started coming to Turkmenistan with fake passports and visas in May 2002."

As the scale of the gunmen's alleged planning efforts and revolutionary ambitions widened according to government accounts, so did their ethnic profile. On 4 December, the prosecutor-general, Gurbanbibi Atajanova, revealed that three Chechen mercenaries, six Turks, and an Armenian had been involved in the assassination attempt, Turkmen television said. She did not mention Georgians. Atajanova added that each of the assailants had been promised $25,000 if the assassination bid succeeded. (Earlier that day, Niyazov had said that one of the Turkish mercenaries had been contracted for $8,000, AFP reported.) Atajanova also charged Leonid Komarovsky, a U.S. citizen of Moldovan origin, with being part of the conspiracy. Known in Russia as a journalist and film-script writer, Komarovsky was rounded up on 26 November, Ekho Moskvy radio said. The radio suggested that, in reality, he was being targeted for journalistic work he had done. His wife told "The Moscow Times" on 4 December that he happened to be in the country to explore the feasibility of establishing a business importing Czech beer into Turkmenistan.

Atajanova promised swift justice, and seemed prepared to provide it without bothering with courts. She said that all those arrested had been indicted and were guilty of membership in a criminal organization, possession of firearms, attempting to assassinate the president, terrorism, and conspiring to seize power, Interfax reported on 4 December. She added that the investigation was strictly following legal procedure and that the criminals had all pleaded guilty.

Who masterminded and financed the plot? At an emergency cabinet session convened after the attack, Niyazov immediately named his four most prominent rivals as the organizers, Turkmen television said on 25 November. The four are former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, former Deputy Prime Minister and National Bank chief Hudaiberdy Orazov, former Ambassador to Turkey Nurmuhammed Hanamov, and former Deputy Agriculture Minister Saparmurat Iklymov. The first three are members of the People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan opposition group and are believed to be living in exile in Moscow. Atajanova said on 4 December that this triumvirate financed the plot from Russia, RFE/RL reported. Meanwhile, Iklymov left the country eight years ago and is living in a village in northern Sweden where he has been granted political asylum. All four of the men have denied any involvement in the assassination attempt.

On the opposition website on 26 November, Shikhmuradov admitted that he felt that: "Niyazov deserves as many deadly gunshots as the number of lives and destinies he has ruined. There is not a person in Turkmenistan today who would not like to be free of the dictator's oppression." But he posted a more moderate statement on the following day condemning the attack and asserting that violence could not resolve political crises. At the same time, he warned that Niyazov's unpredictable policies and extreme cruelty would inevitably trigger an outburst of popular anger sooner or later (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 2002).

Iklymov was singled out as the plot's ringleader by Niyazov at the cabinet meeting on 25 November, RFE/RL reported. The president labeled him "the immediate organizer of the terrorist act." He adduced as evidence the fact that vehicles used in the attack supposedly belonged to a company owned by one of Iklymov's relatives. Meanwhile, Iklymov claimed on 30 November that 120 members of his family had already been taken into custody, including women and children, AFP reported. (Amnesty International said the number of his arrested relatives was closer to 20.)

Within days, however, a new prime suspect emerged. On 2 December, prosecutors charged Guvanch Djumaev, a prominent Turkmen businessman who used to be a government official, and his son Timur with orchestrating what was described as a coup attempt. The government announced that Djumaev "both organized the attack and personally supervised the operation on the attack scene," Interfax reported. "Hired assassins" were allegedly employed at his company Gayrat, which imports pharmaceuticals and other products.

Niyazov also laid into him at another cabinet meeting on 2 December, covered by Turkmen television. "Djumaev owns 29 drugstores. Where does he get the medicine to sell? He sells medicines intended for humanitarian aid, and he doesn't care about their quality. Everyone knew he was dishonest, but nobody stopped him," Niyazov said. Niyazov also claimed Djumaev was in contact with Shikhmuradov and wrote visa support letters for suspicious Russians at Shikhmuradov's request.

There may also be other reasons why the president seems to harbor a special grudge against the businessman. According to the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights organization, Djumaev published an independent newspaper in the early 1990s that the Turkmen authorities suppressed because it was critical of the government. Meanwhile, it transpired that the Moldovan-born American, Komarovsky, was a friend of Djumaev's; he was arrested at Djumaev's home in Ashgabat, RFE/RL noted on 4 December.

Meanwhile, the Turkmen authorities had turned their attention to foreign governments that might be backing the plotters. Durdyev told journalists unequivocally on 26 November that the hit "was ordered from abroad." He added, "I can't say that it was done from Russia, but I can say absolutely officially that there are political activists in Russia who patronize the organizers of the attack," AP reported. Presumably, the reference was to the dissidents who have found asylum in Russia. In fact, tension between Moscow and Ashgabat has been growing during the last year over a number of issues, foremost among them Niyazov's perceived intransigence in accepting Russia's preferred formula for dividing the mineral resources of the Caspian Sea (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 25 April 2002). Consequently, many analysts have speculated that the Russian authorities are indeed informally backing Turkmen dissidents in Moscow. Durdyev told journalists on 26 November there were recordings proving the Russian government helped Orazov defect to the opposition earlier this year (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 21 February 2002). Responding to the allegations that Moscow was complicit in the assassination attempt, the chairman of the Russian Federation Council (upper house of the Russian parliament) Sergei Mironov said, "This statement is absurd to an extent that makes comment unnecessary," "The New York Times" reported on 27 November.

The spat did not, however, prevent Ashgabat's appealing to Moscow for assistance. The Turkmen government said on 29 November that it had asked Russia to extradite Shikhmuradov, Orazov, and Hanamov, Interfax reported. An accompanying press release asserted that "the organizers of the attack are currently on Russian territory; the investigation has irrefutably established their involvement in the recent act of terrorism." All three dissidents have already been charged in absentia by Turkmen prosecutors with extensive crimes, including weapons trading, bribe taking, drug smuggling, and embezzlement. But Russia was apparently in no mood to cooperate. Despite a telephone conversation between Niyazov and Russian President Vladimir Putin on 1 December, the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office denied to Interfax on the following day that any formal requests or appeals had been received from Ashgabat.

The more the Turkmen authorities searched for countries out to get them, the more they found. On 3 December, Niyazov blasted Azerbaijan for issuing Turkmen visas to some of the Russians detained in the sweep of arrests, RFE/RL said. In a televised outburst to Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov, the president demanded that Meredov get an explanation from the Azerbaijani ambassador to Ashgabat -- a post that had only been created the day before. But Niyazov simultaneously answered his own question, telling Meredov: "Why does Azerbaijan issue Turkmen visas for Russian citizens? Because Shikhmuradov bribed them. From now on, don't accept such visas!" Turkey, too, attracted Niyazov's ire. He accused it of financing the assassination attempt after six Turks were accused of participating in the attack, RFE/RL reported on 4 December. In what seems a further manifestation of the regime's bunker mentality, armed vehicles and troops have reportedly been dispatched to Turkmenistan's borders, particularly those with Kazakhstan.

Across Turkmenistan, the country's sole permitted political party organized supposedly spontaneous rallies to give thanks for the president's escape and to denounce the "traitors of the motherland and enemies of the people" behind the attack, in the words of the newspaper "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" on 29 November. About 1,700 people, many of them government bureaucrats, rallied in the capital on 27 November and called for lawmakers to temporarily restore capital punishment for the special case of the plotters, AFP reported. Turkmenistan abolished the death penalty in 1999. The following day, Turkmen television showed scenes from a rally held in Orazov's native district of Boldumsaz in the north of the country. Also, on 28 November, thousands of citizens convened in Niyazov's native village outside Ashgabat to offer prayers and a sacrifice for "the guarantor of stability, peace, happiness, and flourishing of the people of independent Turkmenistan," Turkmen television reported.

Whodunnit? The plot, already thick, is certain only to get thicker. Ashgabat's law-enforcement agencies have fielded an impressive array of suspects, some of whom will probably prove to be red herrings. It is a tradition of the mystery genre, however, that new characters and new twists suddenly appear when the story is already well under way. Something similar happened on 5 December, when "Izvestiya" published an interview with Iklymov in which he said that the notorious KamAZ truck had not been in his family's possession, as Niyazov maintained. In fact, it was confiscated from his brother in 1999 by the National Security Committee (KNB), from which he concluded that the bid to kill Niyazov was undertaken by the KNB itself (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2002). Earlier this year, the former chairman of the KNB, Muhammad Nazarov, was sentenced to 20 years in jail for abuse and corruption, following rumors that he was plotting to kill the president. Thus, the theory that disaffected members of the president's own secret services or inner circle have been plotting again and launched last month's assassination bid is credible. The list of ministers, governors, police chiefs, and other officials who have been fired, disgraced, and publicly humiliated by Niyazov just in the last 12 months is long. This case will not be solved in a hurry.