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Turkmen Report: January 13, 2002

13 January 2002
Turkmen Religious Prisoner Released

11 January 2002

Turkmenistan's most prominent religious prisoner, Baptist Shageldy Atakov, has been freed prior to the end of his four-year sentence. He was arrested in December 1998 and convicted of swindling and forging documents and sentenced to four years in prison. Church members allege that the charges were instigated to obstruct his religious activity.

Atakov was released from prison in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi early on 8 January and has been reunited with his wife Artygul and five children in the town of Kaakhka close to Turkmenistan's southern border with Iran.

"Jesus has given me a Christmas gift," Atakov was quoted as saying. The terms of release have not been made clear, however, and Atakov has received neither a release certificate nor his identity papers.

The Turkmen authorities continue to put pressure on Baptist congregations, whose activity the government regards as illegal.

Atakov's imprisonment led to unprecedented pressure on the Turkmen authorities. The labor camps and prisons where he was held received vast numbers of letters from supporters around the world, very few of which were handed to him, and the OSCE and foreign governments put pressure on the Turkmen authorities to free him. (RFE/RL Turkmen Service, Keston News Service, Amnesty International)

U.S. Commission Comments On Rights In Turkmenistan

11 January 2002

Members of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe on 11 December expressed gratitude for what they say is the apparent release in Turkmenistan of Baptist pastor Shageldy Atakov.

The commission issued a statement the same day saying Atakov was imprisoned in 1998 on what it said were trumped-up charges of fraud. It says that during his imprisonment Atakov was subjected to torture.

The commission members, including co-Chairman Representative Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey), have repeatedly appealed to the Turkmen government for Atakov's release. Smith said in the statement that he was pleased that Turkmenistan's government made the decision to release Atakov, but he added that this does not signify the end of Turkmenistan's work to promote human rights.

The statement noted that Atakov's situation is not completely resolved because he has yet to receive his release certificate and identity papers, making the full term of his release known. (RFE/RL)

Russian Foreign Minister Meets Niyazov In Ashgabat

10 January 2002

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, on his tour to several Asian countries upon completing talks in Beijing, went to Ashgabat, where he met Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov.

Preparations for the coming visit of the Turkmen president to Russia, which is scheduled for 21 January, was the key item on the agenda of the talks. The parties reiterated the intention to cooperate within the framework of the efforts, exerted by the world community, for promoting the formation of a peaceful Afghanistan and for rendering humanitarian assistance to its population.

The problem of the Caspian Sea was also high on the agenda of the talks. Niyazov expressed hope that a summit meeting of the Caspian countries might be held this year in Turkmenistan. Niyazov canceled scheduled summit meetings twice last year. He says he will finalize plans for the meeting of the littoral states during his visit to Moscow.

Niyazov also said Turkmenistan was upgrading a gas pipeline to Europe and was considering one that will deliver gas to neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A program of cooperation between the Russian and Turkmen foreign ministries for 2002 was signed on the results of the Ashgabat talks. (RFE/RL Turkmen Service, ITAR-TASS, AP)

Neutral Turkmenistan Spurns German Air Base Request

7 January 2002

Turkmenistan on 7 December officially rejected a German request to use its air bases for peacekeeping operations in neighboring Afghanistan, citing its official status of neutrality.

The state news agency Turkmen Khabarlary said President Niyazov refused the request at a meeting with German Ambassador Guenther Mattern.

Unlike other Central Asian states, Turkmenistan has not allowed foreign nations to use Turkmen bases in the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan has let U.S. warplanes use its Khanabad air base for humanitarian and search-and-rescue operations, and Kyrgyzstan has accommodated aircraft at Manas civil airport.

French troops use Tajik airfields to bring servicemen to Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan further north has granted flight clearances and offered its bases.(RFE/RL Turkmen Service, RTR, ITAR-TASS)

New Push Seen To Set Caspian Sea Borders

10 January 2002

By Michael Lelyveld

Trips to Moscow this month by the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan suggest that a new drive is underway to reach an agreement on dividing the Caspian Sea.

Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliyev is expected in Moscow in late January, according to ITAR-TASS. The visit of Turkmenistan's president, Saparmurat Niyazov, is scheduled for 21 January, the Russian news agency said.

Although it is unlikely that the trips will coincide, the close timing may be a sign that Russia will try to mediate between the Caspian neighbors, whose feud has blocked progress on the division issue for years.

In 1997, Turkmenistan convinced former Russian President Boris Yeltsin to tear up a contract with Azerbaijan to develop what it calls the Kiapaz oil field in the center of the Caspian. Ashgabat claimed the deposit, which it calls Serdar. The two countries have been at odds ever since.

There are other issues that have blocked a post-Soviet settlement of Caspian borders, but the Kiapaz-Serdar problem has been one of the biggest obstacles to a deal among the five shoreline states.

Turkmenistan's ties to Iran have also stopped it from backing Russia's plan for splitting the Caspian bottom along a "modified median line" while keeping the waters in common. Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have agreed. Iran objects, seeking a larger share of the resources and a buffer from the Russian navy, which could be free to roam under the formula.

Ashgabat's wavering stance has saved Iran from isolation. As the scheduled host of a Caspian summit, Turkmenistan has also been helpful in stalling a showdown with repeated postponements for nearly a year.

Most recently in December, a working group meeting of deputy foreign ministers to draft an agreement in Moscow was called off at Iran's request with support from Niyazov. But the latest statements indicate that the fickle Turkmen leader may again be leaning Russia's way.

Last week, the Interfax news agency quoted unnamed Moscow sources as saying that the Russian and Turkmen positions "have become remarkably closer." The statement came days before Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov visited Ashgabat this week.

Ivanov was said to be laying the groundwork for Niyazov's trip to Moscow. The meeting was also to discuss the Caspian issue, Ivanov told the RIA-Novosti news agency. Aliyev and Niyazov last met in late November at the CIS summit in Moscow, where they agreed to restart talks on the oil-field dispute.

Speaking on 9 December at a meeting with Ivanov, Niyazov predicted that the Caspian summit would be held this year, ITAR-TASS reported.

Niyazov said, "However, it will only be an exchange of views, and we shall not be able to settle the problem of the status of the Caspian Sea." Niyazov added, "At present, practically all concerned countries are unanimous in their approach to the division of the seabed." But he cautioned that there were still differences on the use of the water's surface.

The prospect of a settlement has kept Iran busy. Tehran's Caspian envoy, Mehdi Safari, arrived in Baku on 8 January for his second visit to Azerbaijan since last month. The two countries have been trying to mend fences following a confrontation last July, when an Iranian gunboat expelled two Azerbaijani ships from another disputed oil field.

But Iran's diplomatic activity has accelerated since the CIS summit. At least two readings seem possible. Tehran is either seeking to stall a settlement among its neighbors, or it is trying speed up its own negotiations so that it is not left alone as the only dissenter to a Caspian deal.

Iran and Azerbaijan have been working on a package of bilateral agreements for months in preparation for President Aliev's frequently postponed visit to Tehran. The latest date for the event is in the second half of February. Russia may want to wind up its mediation between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan before then.

Russia has a series of incentives to dangle before Turkmenistan. Russian companies agreed last month to cooperate in developing Turkmenistan's oil and gas fields. An intergovernmental agreement on long-term energy cooperation is expected to be signed.

Russian gas trader Itera recently renewed its contract to buy up to 10 billion cubic meters of gas and to transport larger volumes to Ukraine this year. But Russian purchases from Turkmenistan are still a fraction of the 30-year deal for 50 billion cubic meters annually that President Vladimir Putin discussed in May 2000 during a visit to Ashgabat.

In the meantime, Russia has signed a similar cooperation deal with Kazakhstan, which could soon fill the capacity of the former Soviet pipelines from Central Asia, as Kazakhstan develops its gas industry over the next few years.

Turkmenistan needs Moscow's assurance that it will not be squeezed out of the transit by a source that is closer to the Russian network.

The benefits of cooperation make it likely that Russia can be persuasive if it tries to mediate a Caspian settlement with Turkmenistan. So far, Iran seems to be offering Ashgabat little that can compare with Russia's incentives for a Caspian deal. (RFE/RL)

Message From The Turkmen-Uzbek Border

9 January 2002

As is well-known, under Soviet rule there was no guarded border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In a cemetery which is now on the Turkmen side of the border (Gubatagskiy district), there are buried Uzbeks, as well as Turkmens. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are now sovereign states and they properly protect their state borders.

On 17 December, the day of Ramadan Haita (a Muslim religious holiday) a group of 400-500 people from Amudaryinskiy district in Uzbekistan gathered near the customs building on the Turkmen border with the intent of passing to the cemetery to hold a religious ceremony of reverence for the dead.

According to Turkmen law, each inhabitant of Uzbekistan wishing to cross the Turkmen border has to pay $6 (in U.S. dollars only!). But such a payment is burdensome to any Uzbek citizen, as their monthly earnings frequently do not reach this amount.

The Turkmen soldiers flatly refused to let the Uzbeks go to the cemetery. All requests from the people to let them pass without payment went unanswered. Then, approximately 200 people broke through the circle of soldiers and marched directly towards the cemetery. In front of and behind the crowd were Turkmen soldiers armed with automatic rifles.

After three kilometers, near the military barracks, soldiers stopped the crowd. The soldiers armed their automatic rifles in a pointed manner and surrounded the crowd. A fire engine and buses approached. A person in civilian dress who gave commands to the soldiers declared: "You have violated the Turkmen state border and we have the right to open fire on you. We shall not let you pass, you should turn back."

A half kilometer remained to the cemetery, but the people were ordered to go back as voices were heard saying that the order from above had been received to open fire on the crowd should the order be ignored.

Such a "friendship of peoples" between the Uzbeks and Turkmens was created by the authoritarian regimes of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. (Human Rights Defense Center "Memorial")

Appeal To The President Of Republic Of Turkmenistan

7 January 2002

By Tursunbai Utamuratov, Talib Yakubov

Dear Saparmurat Atayevich! A rather unpleasant incident, which happened on the Uzbek-Turkmen border on 17 December 2001, -- on Ramadan Haita, sacred day for Muslims -- has caused deep concern among the Uzbek human rights activists. On that day the Turkmen side tried to prevent the inhabitants of the Amudaryinsky district to cross the state border and pass to a cemetery located on the territory of Gubatagskiy district of Turkmenistan, for ceremonial services of reverence to the dead. As the result, the crowd, consisting of approximately 200 persons, broke through a circuit of Turkmen frontier guards and had gone approximately three kilometers deep into the territory of Turkmenistan and afterwards were violently turned back.

At a time when the borders between states are eliminated in the civilized world, a common currency is used, the above-described event brings on sad reflection. It is impossible to deny that Uzbeks and Turkmens are two branches of one tree; they have one common historical root, and it is impossible to separate them artificially.

Soon there will come another sacred Muslim holiday, Kurban Hait, and a repeat of the above-described event is rather possible. It is no secret that financial opportunities of people from both sides of the border are not so great, and a payment for border crossing appears hard for them.

Dear Mister President!

The Society of Human Rights of Uzbekistan, and its branch in Karakalpakiya, address with an appeal to you -- a person who highly honors Islamic traditions and ceremonies -- to create for people the possibility of unobstructed visiting of tombs of their relatives without payment for crossing the border two days yearly, namely on Ramadan Haita and Kurban Haita.

Accept, mister president, our high respect and honor to you. (Tursunbai Utamuratov, chairman of the Karakalpakiya republican branch of the Society of Human Rights of Uzbekistan; Talib Yakubov, chairman of the Society of Human Rights of Uzbekistan)

Hundreds Of People Become Homeless Near Ashgabat

12 January 2002

According to an independent source in Turkmenistan, 550 private houses were entirely destroyed by bulldozers on 10 January in the village of Pitomnik in the suburbs of Ashgabat.

Upon completion of the local authorities' action, all the villagers remained homeless.

On 10 January more than 100 local women began a march of protest towards the palace of President Niyazov.

Local governors found some old men -- drunkards -- and asked them to calm down the angry and upset women. On behalf of the officials, those old men told the women that they all would get new apartments in Ashgabat soon. However, the women did not believe such promises and kept on marching.

Afterwards there appeared KNB officers in their way and promised to arrest all the protesting people if they did not stop their march to Ashgabat.

The frightened women had no choice but to surrender and stop the protest march. (RFE/RL Turkmen Service)