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Turkmen Report: January 20, 2003

20 January 2003
Turkmenistan Proclaims 2003 Year Of Niyazov's Mother
18 January 2003

Turkmenistan's National Assembly declared in a resolution published on 18 January that 2003 is dedicated to President Saparmurat Niyazov's deceased mother, AP reported the same day.

The resolution states that 2003 is "the year of the Turkmen heroine...the mother of the first and eternal president of Turkmenistan." Niyazov, who has taken the name Turkmenbashi, or "Father of All Turkmen," has built an extensive personality cult around himself.

The president previously honored his mother, Gurbansoltan Niyazova, by renaming the month of April after her. Niyazov's mother died when he was 8 years old, in a 1948 earthquake in the Turkmen capital. (AP)

OSCE Accuses Turkmen Television Of 'Stalinist' Methods
16 January 2003

A senior official of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has accused Turkmenistan state television of using "Stalinist" methods against those blamed for an attack on the country's president, AP reported on 16 January.

The OSCE criticized state television for broadcasting what it called a "show trial" late last year against suspects in an assassination attempt on President Niyazov in November.

Gunmen opened fire on Niyazov's motorcade in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat. He was not hurt, but four police officers were reported injured. Freimut Duve, the senior media monitor for the OSCE, criticized the broadcast, accusing organizers of resorting to methods "used during the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s in the Soviet Union." One member of the audience was shown appealing to Niyazov to "show no mercy" against the alleged suspects.

Duve accused Niyazov of using what he called "explicitly racist language" against one of the accused during the broadcast. (AP)

Organizers Of Plot Against Niyazov Declared Traitors To Fatherland
16 January 2003

The People's Council of Turkmenistan has declared the three accused organizers of the attempted murder of President Niyazov, which allegedly occurred on 25 November, as "traitors to the Fatherland," Interfax reported on 16 January.

Former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, central-bank chief and Deputy Prime minister Khudaiberdy Orazov, and former Ambassador to Turkey Nurmukhammed Khanamov "betrayed the great aspirations of our state, making an encroachment on the holy life of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great," reads the parliamentary decree, which was published in Turkmen newspapers on 16 January.

The three men have been convicted of "committing crimes against the state, attempted murder of the president of Turkmenistan, participating in a plot aimed at seizing power, and undermining the public security of the state." They were sentenced to 25 years in jail. The People's Council has approved their sentences. (Interfax)

Putin Aide Says Russia To Defend Its Nationals In Turkmenistan.
16 January 2003

The Russian government must defend the interests of its nationals regardless of where they may be, Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii, said on 16 January when reporters asked him about the possible persecution of Russian citizens and correspondents in Turkmenistan.

"Russia should never leave its citizens in trouble, whatever charges other countries issue to them," Yastrzhembskii said. "If foreign courts establish their guilt, they can face punishment, of course -- in Russia and under Russian laws."

On 15 January, a group of people whom Turkmen authorities accuse of an attempting on the life of President Niyazov went on trial at a court in Ashgabat. Of the 32 defendants, 16 have foreign passports and five of them are citizens of Russia.

They are charged with plotting against the president's life, organizing a criminal conspiracy, and attempting to overthrow the system in the country. "We must defend our fellow-countrymen aggressively, persistently, and with the aid of infallible legal arguments, like our partners in the antiterrorist coalition do," Yastrzhembskii said. (ITAR-TASS)

Putin, Niyazov Agree On Extradition Of Russian Citizens
15 January 2003

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan have agreed on the extradition of four Russian citizens arrested in Ashgabat on charges of involvement in an attempt on the life of the Turkmen leader in November, ITAR-TASS and RTR reported on 15 January. According to reports, the two presidents discussed the details of the extradition in a telephone conversation.

Niyazov has said that opposition activists in exile, some of whom hold Russian citizenship, staged the alleged attack. (ITAR-TASS, RTR)

Russia Says Dual Citizenship Agreement With Turkmenistan Still In Effect
15 January 2003

Russia's Foreign Ministry said the 1993 dual-citizenship agreement with Turkmenistan is still in effect despite comments to the contrary from Turkmen officials, ITAR-TASS and AP reported on 15 January.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko said in a statement released on 14 January that there had not been any proposals on Turkmenistan's withdrawal from the agreement. Yakovenko said the Russian Foreign Ministry considers that the agreement remains valid.

Turkmen President Niyazov said in a televised address on 12 January that his country had suspended the agreement in the wake of an assassination attempt against him in November and was asking Russia to do the same. Some of the suspects in the case have dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship, including some of the alleged leaders of the plot.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has asked the Turkmen authorities for an explanation. (ITAR-TASS, AP)

Turkmenistan Denies Charges Brought Against Russian Journalist
14 January 2003

Interfax on 14 January quoted an unidentified Turkmen official as denying earlier reports that criminal charges have been brought against "Vremya novostei" correspondent Arkadii Dubnov on suspicion of involvement in the alleged plan to assassinate President Niyazov and seize power.

Meanwhile, former Deputy Agriculture Minister Sapar Yklymov, who was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for his alleged role in the putative conspiracy, told Reuters on 14 January that the Turkmen authorities have evicted 27 of his close relatives from their homes, including his 75-year-old mother. Yklymov lives in exile in Sweden. (Interfax, Reuters)

Turkmen Court Given Sweeping Powers To Sentence Would-Be Assassins
17 January 2003

By Antoine Blua

Turkmenistan's National Assembly -- the country's highest legislative body, consisting of the State Congress of Elders, the People's Council, and the National Revival Movement -- granted powers to the Supreme Court to administer "special punishment" to people found guilty of involvement in November's failed plot to assassinate President Saparmurat Niyazov. The resolution, which was announced this week, permits the Supreme Court to hand out life sentences to those convicted, with no possibility of amnesty, pardon, early release, or change of prison. The National Assembly resolution applies to three former Turkmen officials and opposition leaders: Boris Shikhmuradov, Khudaiberdy Orazov, and Nurmukhammed Khanamov, who "betrayed the great aspirations" of the state by threatening the "holy life" of the president.

The parliamentary decree was signed by Niyazov and announced yesterday in the Turkmen media: "Boris Orazovitch Shikhmuradov, Khudaiberdy Artikovitch Orazov, and Nurmukhammed Tcharievitch Khanamov are declared traitors of the Fatherland. There will be no softened circumstances for them. That means that they cannot be exempted of the responsibility of the crime, and that they cannot receive any conditional early release from prison. The remaining prison term cannot be changed into a softer version, and the circumstances of their stay cannot be softened. The Supreme Court has been entitled to grant life sentences."

On 30 December at a session in the capital Ashgabat, the National Assembly approved life sentences for Shikhmuradov, Orazov, and Khanamov. The decision overruled original Supreme Court sentences of 25 years -- the maximum permitted under Turkmenistan Criminal Code -- for the three men's roles in the assassination attempt.

Orazov, a former central-bank head, and Khanamov, a former ambassador to Turkey, are both living in self-imposed exile and were sentenced in absentia. Shikhmuradov, a former foreign minister who had also been living in exile, was arrested in December in Turkmenistan. The circumstances surrounding both his arrest and his televised confession -- which also implicated Orazov and Khanamov -- remain unclear. Human rights activists and other observers have complained that Shikhmuradov in his confession spoke in a groggy voice and appeared to have been beaten.

Anna Sunder-Plassmann is a researcher on Central Asia at the London-based human rights watchdog group Amnesty International. She told RFE/RL that the National Assembly move is part of larger pattern of repression in Turkmenistan: "The Supreme Council [or National Assembly] is clearly not an independent body. The president has a monopoly on power in Turkmenistan, and we believe that this decision is part of the wave of repression that followed the 25 November [the day of the assassination attempt] attack. In a press release issued one day after the attack we urged the Turkmen authorities to choose justice, not revenge, but they clearly haven't done that."

Meanwhile, proceedings in connection with the attempt on the president's life are continuing. At a trial taking place under a shroud of secrecy in Ashgabat, the Supreme Court on 15 January handed down a life sentence on Gyuvanch Djumaev, a prominent Turkmen businessman, as well as Annadurdy Annasakhatov and Nurmukhammed Orazgeldyev, ITAR-TASS reported. The three men were found guilty of planning and carrying out the assassination attempt. The court also ordered that the property of the three be confiscated.

Djumaev's son Timur was also sentenced to a 25-year jail term, and Djumaev's brother and father received 20 years each, AFP reported.

Sunder-Plassmann calls the trial a "farce." "We have two main concerns about the ongoing trial. There's first of all a complete lack of transparency about the court proceedings. On the other hand, the sketchy information that we have been able to corroborate makes it very clear that this trial is a farce. The authorities have not published the names of those on trial. They haven't published the exact charges. It is not clear who exactly has been convicted already and how many sentences of life imprisonment have been passed," she said.

Sunder-Plassmann noted that Niyazov predicted the outcome of the trial, further reinforcing the impression of a farce. In remarks broadcast on Turkmen TV on 12 January, the Turkmen president announced that 32 people suspected of involvement in the putative November attempt would go on trial this week. "Out of the 32 accused people, 20 will be imprisoned according to the law. The remaining 12 will be deported [to remote regions of the country]."

According to officials, 61 people were arrested during the course of the investigation. But the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and the Moscow-based rights group Memorial say at least 200 people have been detained and more than 100 still face charges.

Aaron Rhodes, the executive director of the International Helsinki Federation, also condemned the trial proceedings. "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," he said.

Freimut Duve, the media-freedom representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), on 16 January strongly condemned the abuse of Turkmenistan's television media to humiliate and individuals accused of involvement in the plot against Niyazov. Speaking at the OSCE Permanent Council, the organization's main regular decision-making body, Duve said, "The rhetoric used is often obscene and in most countries would be unprintable."

In an interview with RFE/RL, Duve elaborated on the nature of the televised confessions: "You present those you want to get rid of on TV as the accused ones. Of course, these people have been tortured before so they say that they have done this and this. Everything is staged like a theater play."

Duve noted that Turkmenistan has all the features of what he calls "totalitarian feudalism," complete with racist rhetoric illustrated by Niyazov's comment about Shikhmuradov, who is half Turkmen and half Armenian. "His blood is diluted with the blood of a different nationality," Niyazov said, adding: "Previously, to make Turkmens weaker, their blood was diluted. Where the true blood of our ancestors is mixed with other blood their national spirit is low."

Duve commented: "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."

According to Steve Sabol, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina and an expert on Turkmenistan, recent developments will have deep consequences on the economy of the hydrocarbon-rich republic. "Internally, it's going to make it more repressive, if that's possible. And externally, it's going to make any international agenda almost impossible. The needs of Turkmenistan are for foreign investment. Now, with the crackdown internally, the international community -- I think -- is going to be very, very reluctant to cooperate with Turkmenistan. I suspect that foreign governments -- the EU, the United States and Russia -- are going to be hesitant to go forward with any of the international aid programs, any pipeline deals, which is only going to make the economic situation in Turkmenistan even worse. I suspect governments and businesses are going to be very reluctant to invest anything in this climate," Sabol said.

The methods used by the Turkmen government to investigate the alleged assassination attempt have already drawn international attention.

In December, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said Turkmen authorities had carried out summary trials and arrested opposition members and civil-society activists apparently unconnected to the attack against Niyazov. The deputy chief of the U.S. mission to the OSCE Permanent Council, Douglas Davidson, cited reports saying numerous confessions had been extracted by torture. The European Union also issued a statement criticizing the detention of numerous relatives of the alleged instigators of the attack. (RFE/RL)

Turkmen Opposition Distance Themselves From Assassination Attempt
16 January 2003

By Bruce Pannier

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 [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. (RFE/RL)

Turkmenistan's Claims Of Strong Economic Growth Viewed With Skepticism
15 January 2002

By Michael Lelyveld

Turkmenistan has released statistics that could make it the world's fastest-growing economy, if only there were a way to verify its claims.

According to the National Institute of Statistics and Information, Turkmenistan's gross domestic product rose robustly in 2002, the Interfax news agency reported. GDP grew from 31 trillion manats in 2001 to 63.8 trillion manats (some $12 billion) last year, the institute said. ($1 equals 5,200 manats.)

The record performance was credited to a 26.5 percent increase in services and a 21.7 percent jump in industrial production. The reports also cited big gains of 31 percent in the food industry and 15.5 percent in agriculture. Ashgabat reported 20.5 percent GDP growth in 2001 and 17.6 percent in 2000, showing bigger and better rates of increase each year.

The trouble with the rosy picture is that it cannot be substantiated. Unlike other countries in the region, Turkmenistan has not permitted cooperation with multilateral institutions that might examine its figures.

Olga Stankova, an International Monetary Fund (IMF) spokeswoman in Washington, told RFE/RL, "We are not in a position to comment on the official data as we have not had substantive discussions with the Turkmen authorities for more than a year."

Turkmenistan is the only country in the region for which the IMF has not published economic estimates for either 2002 or 2003. The country also stopped cooperating with the CIS Intergovernmental Statistics Committee several years ago.

During a press briefing in Washington last September, John Odling-Smee, director of the IMF's European II Department, called Turkmenistan one of "the least reform-minded countries in the region."

But while the evidence is inconclusive, the data is far from convincing. Closer examination may lend weight to past charges by former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov that the government falsifies its figures. Last month, Shikhmuradov recanted most of his criticisms in a televised confession following an alleged coup attempt against President Saparmurat Niyazov. But the numbers are still highly suspect.

One reason is that the government itself has reported growth of only 3 percent last year in natural gas, Turkmenistan's biggest product. The increase fell far short of the 53 percent growth target set in December 2001 and the revised 40 percent goal announced by the government last May. GDP growth of more than 21 percent is unlikely when gas output is up only 3 percent.

Turkmenistan has not disclosed how much of its GDP comes from gas, but in the past, the share has been as high as 50 percent. Last October, Niyazov said some 70 percent of Turkmenistan's revenues were from oil and gas. In 2002, oil production rose about 12 percent, an official in the Oil, Gas, and Mineral Resources Ministry told Interfax this week. None of the figures would support GDP growth of more than 21 percent.

Cotton, which is traditionally Turkmenistan's most important product after petroleum, also fared poorly last year. In November, Niyazov blamed officials for what was described as a "failed harvest" of 489,000 tons, just 24 percent of the target, although heavy rains played a prominent role. The country collected 1.3 million tons of cotton in 1999.

Niyazov reportedly fired governors in four regions and his agriculture minister over the poor cotton crop. Although the country reported a good grain harvest that met the government's targets last July, there were no signs in Turkmenistan's three top commodities of gas, oil, and cotton that GDP growth could have reached 21 percent.

Last week, the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit noted the unreliability of Turkmenistan's official GDP data, saying: "The figures are based on over-reporting at all levels of the economy, which is compounded by flaws in inflation calculations. Moreover, the high levels of subsidies that are extended to all sectors of the economy further distort growth data."

In fact, the government's own figures suggest that inflation rose sharply last year. Although the government quoted a GDP growth rate in real terms, corrected for inflation, it also cited a GDP figure of 63.8 trillion manats in "current prices," that is, the inflated prices that citizens pay today.

When compared with the official GDP figure of 31 trillion manats for 2001, last year's economic totals more than doubled in current prices. If the government is correct in its claim that GDP grew by 21.2 percent in real terms, then last year's inflation would be nearly 70 percent. The numbers are hard to square with the fact that the government controls the prices for nearly everything.

Turkmenistan's secrecy and inaccuracy make it hard to tell whether any of the numbers are right, but it seems likely that the country's economy is far less healthy than its pronouncements suggest. The Economist Intelligence Unit noted that figures for electricity output were actually down through last October from 2001 rates -- hardly a sign of an economy racing ahead at a double-digit clip.

The government's latest figures may make it impossible to get information about the true state of the country's economy, but they also do not make the case that it is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. (RFE/RL)

Turkmenistan Forcibly Relocating Uzbeks Away From Border
15 January 2003

By Bruce Pannier

The Turkmen government is forcibly relocating part of its ethnic Uzbek population based along Turkmenistan's border with Uzbekistan. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov reminded officials earlier this month that he wanted so-called "unworthy people" moved away from the Uzbek border area and replaced by ethnic Turkmen.

The issue first surfaced in November, when Niyazov announced his decree on relocating "unworthy people" away from three southeastern regions along the Uzbek border. The decree did not originally appear to target ethnic Uzbeks specifically, but has been used to force their ouster since they came under suspicion following the reported assassination plot against Niyazov on 25 November.

One Uzbek woman living in Uzbekistan recently visited her relatives across the Turkmen border. The woman, who declined to give her name fearing for the security of her kin, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service about her impressions of who, in Turkmenistan, is "unworthy" to live by the Uzbek border: "The people [the Turkmen government] consider unworthy or inappropriate are Uzbeks living in Turkmenistan. If they are Uzbek citizens or it's in their [Turkmen] passports that they are ethnic Uzbeks, they are separating them, trying to keep them from being in contact with their relatives [across the border]. They are considered unworthy [to live by the border]."

Another Uzbek woman with relatives in Turkmenistan said she traveled to Turkmenistan late last year and said she heard that ethnic Uzbeks were being targeted in a campaign to replace local leaders. "When we traveled there recently we heard talk that Uzbek [local administrative] leaders were replaced by those whose passports showed them to be ethnic Turkmen. That's what we heard," she said.

The alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov was first blamed on Turkmen businessmen inside the country and former government officials who had fled Turkmenistan to live abroad and work in opposition to the Turkmen regime.

Since then, however, the investigation into the attack on Niyazov took an unexpected turn. On 16 December, Turkmen security personnel raided the Uzbek Embassy in Ashgabat. The Turkmen government claimed Uzbek Ambassador Abdurashid Kadyrov had helped conspirators in the plot, brought across the border to Turkmenistan secretly by Uzbek security services.

Niyazov said that the man he regarded as the mastermind in the plot to kill him, former Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, had been hiding in the Uzbek Embassy from the time of the assassination attempt until at least 7 December.

Despite protests from Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry over the raid, Uzbek Ambassador to Turkmenistan Kadyrov was declared persona non grata and ordered out of Turkmenistan on 21 December. By then, both countries had sent additional troops to their common border.

Last week, Niyazov reminded a meeting of the cabinet that he wanted his November decree on moving unworthy people from the border area fulfilled. Niyazov ordered their relocation to a "new place," where "the unworthy people will have an opportunity to cleanse their sins through good deeds."

That new place, by order of Niyazov, is the northwestern part of the country, by the border with Kazakhstan. It is a desert area that is sparsely inhabited and boasts no cities or towns of note.

As one Uzbek woman with relatives in Turkmenistan said, even the Turkmen regard the area of new settlement as isolated and inhospitable. "For the Turkmen this is a remote place. They say [the Turkmen government] will move [the ethnic Uzbeks of Turkmenistan] out there," she said.

Niyazov also chose last week to remind Turkmen citizens, and others, that violation of Turkmenistan's state borders is an offense that carries a five- to 10-year jail sentence. Niyazov may have been thinking of the Osh riots of 1990 when ethnic Uzbeks crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan to join with relatives who were fighting with ethnic Kyrgyz over land. More than 200 people were killed in three days of rioting that only stopped when the Soviet Army showed up in force.

Reports of discrimination against ethnic Uzbeks in Turkmenistan predate Niyazov's November decree. The Russian human rights organization Memorial has in the past few years documented cases of ethnic Uzbek schoolchildren being ordered to wear Turkmen national dress or be refused entry to school.

A possibly related incident came last week with the dismissal of Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, Turkmenistan's mufti, or supreme Islamic cleric, and an ethnic Uzbek. He was replaced by 35-year-old ethnic Turkmen Kakageldy Vepaev.

It remains unclear how many people are affected by this decree. Nor is it known what, if any, compensation they will get from leaving their homes behind or what awaits them when they arrive at their new place of residence. (RFE/RL)

Ashgabat Seeks Extradition From Russia Of Three Government Critics
13 January 2003

By Antoine Blua

Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov is proposing suspending an agreement with Russia on dual citizenship.

Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency quotes 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 quotes sources on the Turkmen president's staff as saying the agreement includes the search for and extradition of suspected criminals. AP quotes 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 Nurmukhammed Khanamov.

On 30 December, Turkmenistan's People's Council 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 agreed. 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 said 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 recalled the case of Tajik journalist Dododzhon Atovulloev, whom Russian Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov refused in 2001 to extradite to Tajikistan. (RFE/RL)