29 July 2003, Volume 4, Number 18
IN FOCUSFREED FROM TURKMENISTAN'S JAILS, FORMER PRISONER VOWS TO KEEP UP FIGHT FOR FREEDOM... Leonid Komarovsky, a Russian-born American businessman, is a man with a mission. Since his release last April after spending five months in jail in Turkmenistan, he has vowed to keep fighting for the freedom of his colleagues still in prison and to expose the evils of the regime of "Turkmenbashi" (Father of all Turkmen), as Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov is known. Komarovsky denies the charges against him of helping to instigate a violent coup against the president and says he and other activists took part in a "peaceful demonstration" which was intercepted by the secret police and portrayed as an assassination attempt. Many Western diplomats and observers believe a coup attempt was in fact foiled, but say that prisoners' confessions have been obtained under torture and the "show trials" of the suspects were reminiscent of the Stalin era. They say the case has been used to settle scores with opponents and to deal a blow to a growing organized opposition in exile finding support within Turkmenistan.
Last week, Komarovsky and a group of exiled Turkmen officials and human-rights activists finished a tour of European capitals to advocate more attention to oppression in Turkmenistan and to propose sanctions (see below) in an effort to compel Turkmenistan's regime to liberalize. Komarovsky spoke with "(Un)Civil Societies" from France, where he met with senators, foreign ministry officials, nongovernmental organizations, and the media to complain, among other things, about French President Jacques Chirac's embrace of Niyazov at the ceremony in honor of the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg -- a gesture he and other opponents of the regime say only fortifies Niyazov's resolve to keep political prisoners in jail.
Komarovsky and his colleagues also conveyed a similar message in Austria, the Netherlands, and Great Britain: Western European governments and multilateral institutions must begin to consider the same type of measures they have used on dictators such as Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe who, for at least a short time, found themselves and their associates on a visa ban list. Komarovsky and former Turkmen officials who have defected have supplied Western governments with names of officials they would like to see investigated for possible self-dealing on loan agreements with private entities. For example, more than 162 million euro has been invested since 1994 on the development of hydrocarbon reserves and other projects in Turkmenistan by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Among these are loans to Gap-Turkmen, which has also entered into contractual relations with international retailers and apparel producers, including J.C. Penney, GAP USA, Tommy Hilfiger, and Walmart in the U.S. Because of its control of the economy, the Turkmen government benefits from such projects, exiles say.
In recognition of the challenges faced by human rights violations and the absence of democracy in Turkmenistan, the EBRD's investment is small, in contrast, with other nations in transition. The bank says it is withholding broader cooperation with the Turkmen government, and in a strategy statement on its website (http://www.ebrd.com), notes that the bank "will be focused on the promotion of private sector activities...provided it can be shown that the proposed investments are not effectively controlled by the state or state entities and government officials will not personally benefit from such investments."
Komarovsky and other campaigners are urging governments to investigate private firms in France, Turkey, and elsewhere that do business with Turkmenistan to examine allegations of padded accounting by Turkmen involved in their projects and to use whatever leverage they had to call for the release of political prisoners.
Komarovsky -- a long-time former correspondent for "Stroitel'naya gazeta" (Construction Newspaper) and contributor to other Russian newspapers as well as a frequent business traveler to Turkmenistan involved in computers and software -- is knowledgeable about the way business is conducted in Turkmenistan. He told French audiences that Turkmenbashi even became personally involved in choosing the type of cement a French firm was to use in building a mosque. (The French builders Bouygues Batiment have projects exceeding a billion dollars in Turkmenistan, according to an 18 February ITAR-TASS report). The anecdote is indicative of the lack of a real private sector in Turkmenistan and the degree to which all foreigners fall under state control and cannot be certain their projects are conducted properly.
Komarovsky mentioned the unfortunate experience of a fellow prison inmate, an Iranian, who brought a shipment of marble to Turkmenistan and then tried to collect payment for it. After being rebuffed repeatedly, he was finally informed that he would receive miniscule payments for the debt over a long period of time. He somehow bought a gun in a local bazaar and tried to shoot the businessman indebted to him. Asked why firearms were for sale in Turkmenistan, Komarovsky replied that they appeared to be readily available, and that the government was counting on the passivity of the population -- whose loyalty was assured through a wide variety of controls over every aspect of life -- not to take up arms against the regime.
...DESCRIBES ABYSMAL PRISON CONDITIONS AND TORTURE... For most of the five months he spent imprisoned after being arrested in November 2002 following the alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov, Komarovsky was held in an investigation-isolation cell at the Ministry for National Security, a three-storey building formerly housing the Soviet-era KGB. He and other prisoners taken at the same time were kept in about 30-35 cells on the top floor, with two or three people per cell, all of the prisoners using one toilet in the corridor. The cells were two by three meters square. The prisoners, including Komarovsky, were taken to the basement to be interrogated and tortured. Investigators evidently injected him with some kind of drugs, catching him from behind unaware, he says, speculating that they could have been neuroleptic medications because he became unaware of his surroundings and lost consciousness a number of times. Komarovsky also watched later as he read something on television from a prepared paper, with very slowed speech, claiming he had helped the coup plotters inadvertently by purchasing satellite phones for them. He has no memory of recanting, he says, although Turkmen television featured him admitting his guilt, "I am ready to atone for my guilt and to do my best to find the masterminds of this crime," he was quoted as saying in a statement translated by AP (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2003).
Inmates were frequently deprived of sleep and taken for questioning at all hours. Boris Shikhmuradov, the former foreign minister, was once kept awake for four days straight, says Komarovsky. Communication with other prisoners was difficult �- Komarovsky only saw Shikhmuradov once. When he and other prisoners were taken to the prosecutor's office they were sometimes able to talk while awaiting their turn for interrogation. They also managed to hide small messages for each other in the communal toilet � and some of them who knew English would use it as a kind of code language for the others to alert them to look for notes in the toilet, confident that the guards could not read their messages. While in the cells, the prisoners were not allowed any visitors, correspondence, reading materials, and at first, no packages of food and personal hygiene items from outside. Often, they were not even taken outside to exercise, or would have only 45 minutes to walk once a week. Komarovsky says in his case, he was only taken outside twice in 150 days. Showers were once a week, with hot water frequently unavailable.
The prison fare was grim and lacking in nutrition �- a glass of hot water for some weak tea and some bread for breakfast and lunch. Dinner was some barley kasha, with buckwheat kasha served once a week. While bringing the food to the prisoners, the guards would often help themselves to some of it. In time, relatives were allowed to bring packages to transmit to the prisoners, but the guards would steal half the fruit and candies, says Komarovsky, noting that he learned that the guards only made $20-$30 per month and would steal to support their families. Periodically, prisoners would be beaten and subjected to humiliating searches, and sometimes sexually harassed.
Once the investigators had forced the prisoners to confess on television, they did not seem interested in their testimony. Komarovsky pointed out that in the statement coerced from him, he was simultaneously said to be at the television center, the parliament, and near the president's motorcade, which would have obviously been impossible. The government had a scenario it wanted to publicize, and officials seemed uninterested in the truth, using forced meetings between prisoners and interrogations more as opportunities to beat prisoners into submission and stick to the prefabricated official line. Eventually Komarovsky learned that five different agencies were involved in the case of the "coup" �- aside from the Ministry of National Security, the Presidential Guard, and the Army, the Prosecutor's Office and the Interior Ministry were all involved because, as Komarovsky theorizes, the president did not trust any one agency to perform the investigation faithfully.
The trials of the suspects were closed, and as a prosecutor once told Komarovsky, the president himself had given orders for what the charges and the sentences should be. All the prisoners were tortured and all those subsequently freed, including six Turkish citizens, renounced their statements. Komarovsky says that electrical shock was used against prisoners and one man suffered 40 cigarette burns to his body. Although he did not experience these torments himself, he suffered injuries to his kidneys and had swollen extremities from beatings and long periods of sitting. The hapless Iranian businessman who shared his cell was hung up by his arms from the ceiling for three days and suffered a broken jaw and teeth from beatings by guards.
While in prison, Komarovsky heard tales of a special facility built in the sand dunes some 130 kilometers from the capital of Ashgabat said to house some 200 people related to the alleged coup plot. He was told they had labels sewn on to their prison uniforms that said "Traitor to the Motherland." In the desert prison inmates are reportedly given only a half liter of water a day from one bottle given to every four prisoners. It has been impossible to get any direct information from the prison or contacts with the people inside, which is why Komarovsky and international human rights groups are calling on the government to give permission to the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit both the Ministry of National Security's holding cells and the new prison. Komarovsky commented that while the American, Turkish, and Iranian ambassadors were assiduous about trying to visit their citizens while in prison and repeatedly intervened on their behalf, the Russian ambassador did not appear to become involved. "The Russian Embassy never sent anyone to visit prisoners like Shikhmuradov who hold Russian passports," says Komarovsky, estimating that at least 15 of the main 57 "plotters" being held had Russian papers.
At some point in his ordeal, the prosecutor or his political superiors decided that they could get more out of Komarovsky's talents as a seasoned journalist than from his drug-induced, incoherent confessions. In a modern-day version of the Soviet-era "sharashka," or workshop for intellectuals such as the one described by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in "The Gulag Archipelago," Komarovsky was ordered to prepare two manuscripts. The first, ultimately more than 250 pages and titled "Terrorist Attack in Ashgabat," was to be the "correct" story of the assassination attempt -- according to the government's script. Komarovsky worked on a computer in an office at the prosecutor's building, sometimes as long as 12 hours a day, once even spending the night.
The second book, some 350 pages long, was a kind of mythological history of Turkmenistan. Komarovsky drew on his knowledge of Soviet propaganda styles as well as various legends and anecdotes to concoct a fantastic version of history where Turkmenistan was at the cradle of civilization, with Turkmen inventing the wheel and becoming the first people to tame horses and then to forge steel. "It was all window-dressing," Komarovsky acknowledged. Proof of the preposterous theories of the origins of the Turkmen could be found even in the Turkmen language, where "adam" was the word for "man," Komarovsky wrote.
Komarovsky was told by the prosecutor that Niyazov read the books and really liked them, but had a problem with the suggested title for the second one, which originally was "Turkmenistan: The Golden Age." He wanted to change it to "Truth and Lies About Turkmenistan: Notes of a Guilty Journalist." "But I'm not guilty of anything!" Komarovsky objected, when the title was proposed. Curiously, his jailers gave Komarovsky computer disks with the books on them before his release, urging him to get the works published abroad in English and Russian. Asked why he was allowed to take out the disks, Komarovsky commented archly, "They thought I had seen the light." He felt no qualms about having turned his craft to such purposes �- "you do everything [possible] to get out of that place." Komarovsky isn't going to publish the fabrications, but he is now hard at work completing a true story of his experiences, including information about the cases of all his friends still in prison.
...TESTIFIES IN RUSSIAN DUMA AND APPLAUDS U.S. INTERVENTION. After he recovered at home in the U.S. for a month and before his tour of Western Europe, Komarovsky returned to his birthplace in June. Russia is believed to have a great deal of influence with Turkmenistan due to its lucrative gas and oil deals. Recently, the Russian media has focused intensively on Turkmenistan because of the fate of 300,000 Russians residing in Turkmenistan whose dual citizenship was to expire after 22 June, according to a presidential edict (see "Did Niyazov Blink?," "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 26 June). While the crisis appears to have been papered over with diplomatic meetings, some Russians have begun the difficult process of trying to leave Turkmenistan and many are apprehensive about their future in Turkmenistan.
Komarovsky testified before a joint hearing in the Russian State Duma of three committees responsible for international affairs, security, and the Commonwealth of Independent States. The committee chairs were mainly interested in the issue of the rights of Russian citizens in Turkmenistan and allegations of drug trafficking and assistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan, but Komarovsky and other experts who testified used the opportunity to highlight the poor human-rights conditions in Turkmenistan, and to plead for Russian intervention to gain the release of those charged with the alleged coup attempt.
Out of this hearing came the Duma's first critical statement about Turkmenistan, with 411 votes for and two against, as well as a great deal of television coverage. Dmitrii Rogozin, head of the Duma's International Affairs Committee, announced that Turkmenistan was being placed on a list of countries Russians were advised not to visit and commented, "It is no longer safe for Russians to live in Turkmenistan," Rosbalt news agency reported on 19 June. Andrei Kokoshin, chairman of the Duma committee for CIS affairs, said a report to the president would be prepared with harsh criticism of conditions in Turkmenistan and recommending sanctions, which he did not specify, Rosbalt reported.
Asked about the possibility of the Russian public placing any real pressure on the government to do more about human rights in Turkmenistan, Komarovsky told "(Un)Civil Societies," "You need to find a 'man bites dog' angle. The Russian public is tired of all the shouting. They don't really feel a need for human rights somewhere far off." Komarovsky found himself verbally attacking some of the Duma members, including one Communist who went on a visit to Ashgabat last October and seemed skeptical about any criticism of Turkmenistan but mindful of the need for gas. Still, Komarovsky hopes that another hearing will be convened in January with a full session of the Duma to discuss Turkmenistan and take further action
Although Russia is perceived to have leverage with Turkmenistan, Komarovsky credits U.S. government intervention in particular for his release, contrasting his fate with the non-Americans still held. His wife kept up a constant campaign for his release, gathering 1,000 signatures in his defense and reaching every member of congress she could possibly interest in Turkmenistan. He also cited media coverage of the affair -� five articles in "The New York Times" alone -� as helping to keep the case alive.
He believes that with the recent inking of a major Russian-Turkmenistan gas deal (see "Turkmenistan: Niyazov Seals Energy, Security Contracts With Russia," rferl.org, 11 April 2003), it will be difficult to maintain leverage over the Turkmen government, "300,000 Russians have been traded for gas," he commented bitterly. His hope is now that West European countries doing business with Russia and benefiting directly or indirectly from Turkmenistan's great gas reserves will keep up the pressure to free the political prisoners and gain other human-rights concessions. Komarovsky cited campaigns in the 1980s, when West Europeans were contemplating supporting a pipeline through Russia, that reports of prison labor on the construction of the pipeline was eventually used to suspend the project.
Asked about threats he has received since taking such a high-profile opposition to Turkmenbashi's regime, Komarovsky acknowledged that he had received hate mail and a telephone threat, but that he was going to continue his campaign from his home in Massachusetts and on trips to Europe and Russia. He was concerned that unlike the Soviet era, when U.S. intelligence agencies ostensibly had an easier time tracking spies, with a large Russian immigrant population today and much greater freedom for Russians to travel to the United States, informers were far more difficult to detect. Nevertheless, he felt confident of the freedoms and protections offered in the U.S., to which he emigrated in 1994, to go on speaking out against Turkmenbashi's abuses.
EXILES, HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVISTS URGE GREATER PRESSURE ON TURKMENISTAN... For several weeks in July, a group of Turkmen exiles and human rights activists from Russia and the United States have been seeking to raise the plight of political prisoners still being held in Turkmenistan. The International League for Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization with special consultative status at the United Nations, and the Memorial Society, the leading Russian human-rights group, joined forces to help former officials who defected from Turkmenistan to make their case before European governments and with the public. Joining them at various stages on their journey were Nurmukhammad Hanamov, a recent defector who served nine years as ambassador to Turkey and is now deputy chairman of a new party of exiles, the Republican Party of Turkmenistan; Aleksandr Dodonov, a former vice prime minister who defected in 1999 and is currently deputy chairman of the Vatan (Fatherland) democratic opposition movement; Avdi Kuliev, former minister of foreign affairs and leader of the People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan; and Leonid Komarovsky (see above).
Reached in Vienna at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on religious freedom last week, where the cases of Turkmenistan's persecuted religious minorities were raised, Peter Zalmayev, CIS program director of the International League for Human Rights, told "(Un)Civil Societies" that for now, the groups were stopping short of calling for any kind of boycott or suspension of aid and trade to Turkmenistan. Rather, they are asking Western lending institutions and businesses to re-examine their loans and investments in projects in Turkmenistan to see if they involve support of abusive or corrupt arms of the state, and to use what leverage they have to press for the release of political prisoners.
Ordinarily, Western human rights groups do not take up the cases of persons involved in calls for violence or actual violent acts against governments or persons. Former political prisoner Komarovsky and others arrested insist they were involved in a nonviolent demonstration. Zalmayev did not deny that the exiles were seeking to change the government of Turkmenistan. Amnesty International has called the events of 25 November 2002 an "armed attack," but has continued to press for an end to torture of the suspects and for due process and an independent investigation of the alleged coup plot. Amnesty, Human Rights, and other groups point out how difficult it is to get information from Turkmenistan (see "Turkmenistan: Human Rights Officials Criticize Investigation into Assassination Plot," rferl.org, 13 December 2002). Rather than styling those still in custody as "prisoners of conscience," they have focused on narrower issues like coerced confessions and have highlighted the rounding up of people uninvolved in the events merely because they are relatives of the accused -� a particular hallmark of Niyazov's regime.
In Rotterdam, at the annual meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Turkmen exiles met with Bruce George, the British member of parliament who current serves as the assembly's president, and other European parliamentarians. They also became acquainted with fellow Central Asians such as Tursunbai Bakir-uulu, ombudsman of Kyrgyzstan, and Rashid Nogmanov, member of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan now living in France, to compare notes on strategies for getting more serious, sustained attention to their troubled region.
Traveling on to The Hague, Brussels, Strasbourg, London, and Paris, they urged other parliamentarians to hold hearings on Turkmenistan and called on governments to place more pressure on the Turkmen government. The activists were particularly hopeful about future hearings in the U.S. Congress, the European Parliament, and the Russian Duma, although they were only likely to produce symbolic resolutions of condemnation. Still, they reasoned, such gestures might deter Turkmen prison officials from further tormenting their charges, as they were becoming better known outside the country. Working on a cause that seemed to have little prospect of success in the short run, the group counted it as a victory when one of the officials in a European capital they visited said his phone was ringing off the hook from an importunate Turkmen ambassador concerned about being upstaged by the visiting exiles.
Officials with whom the group met at the European Commission and the Council of Ministers, the executive body of the European Union, could be in a position to put sanctions into effect, if the European parliament were to pass a resolution in the Fall calling for such measures as a travel ban. Since President Niyazov very rarely travels outside the CIS, such a ban would be symbolic, but it would put him in the company of other dictators under sanction.
In London, the group met with members of the House of Commons, spoke at a roundtable at Chatham House, and met with "The Economist" and the BBC as well as the staff of the Royal Institute for International Affairs, urging parliamentarians to try to make requests to visit Turkmenistan and raise human rights issues with officials while calling on journalists to keep the closed, forbidding country in sight. "We are hoping with the drumbeat of resolutions, beginning at the UN's Commission on Human Rights last spring, and hopefully in the European Parliament in the Fall and then the Russian Duma, we will get support for 'smart sanctions' like the travel ban and keep the pressure on," says Zalmayev.
...AS RUSSIA BACKPEDALS ON RIGHTS OF RUSSIANS IN TURKMENISTAN, SOME OF WHOM HAVE BEEN EVICTED. In Russia, there are signs of some backpedaling on their prime concern in Turkmenistan -- the status of Russians with dual citizenship. After a meeting with the Turkmen ambassador on the issue, Russian ombudsman Oleg Mironov said, "Global practice has been trying to reduce the number of people holding dual citizenship for decades," pravda.ru reported him as saying 16 July.
Turkmen authorities are now saying that Russians who want to retain their Russian citizenship will be issued a residence permit to remain in Turkmenistan, which will not entitle them to vote in elections, serve in office, or enjoy other privileges of citizenship. Mironov urged people to refrain from insulting the leader of Turkmenistan, since this will only aggravate the situation and problems can only be solved through diplomacy, he said. Asked about reports of human rights violations, Mironov said he did not have such information from Turkmenistan's ambassador in Moscow, but that "he allowed that there could be arbitrary action on the part of certain individual officials." The reason for downplaying Russians' problems in Turkmenistan appears to be related to energy and trade needs, says pravda.ru. A Yalta CIS summit scheduled for September could provide an opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkmen counterpart Saparmurat Niyazov to put the final touches on a 25-year agreement for a gas pipeline. Russia is slated to purchase 60 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas beginning in 2007.
Meanwhile, some Russians trying to leave Turkmenistan report having to pay hundreds of dollars in fees and bribes (see below under "Recommended News Links") and rumors have persisted of Russians being forced out of their apartments although little reliable reporting on such practices has been available. The Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights and the World Association Against Torture issued an appeal on 24 July claiming that during the month of June 2003, Turkmenistan Ministry of National Security (MNS) officials confiscated the apartments of approximately 30 people holding dual Russian-Turkmen citizenship. Sources for the information were not provided. The groups said MNS agents were keeping Russians under surveillance and waiting until they were absent, then entering their homes without permission, confiscating their belongings, and occupying their apartments. Most of the incidents were said to have occurred in Ashgabat, with a few in Chardjou, in northeastern Turkmenistan. No provisions for alternative housing or compensation were said to be provided to the victims. Some angry residents tried to take back their homes, and some small groups even demonstrated on the street with signs outside their buildings, the human rights activists said, but were warned by local police and prosecutors that they would face "serious measures" if they persisted in their protests. Consequently, the human rights groups were unable to publish the names of the persons who lost their homes, for fear of reprisals.
A story almost identical in its wording to the appeal of the human rights groups, which they did not cite, quoting an unnamed source in the prosecutor's office who admitted Russians were being kept under observation, was earlier carried by Deutsche Welle on 25 June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 June 2003). The expulsion of people from their homes is nothing new in Ashgabat, "RFE/RL Newsline," reported, noting that hundreds of city inhabitants have been displaced by Niyazov's beautification schemes.
RECOMMENDED NEWS LINKSARMENIA. "Forming the Coalition Government Following the 25 May Parliamentary Elections." At an 18 July RFE/RL briefing, the social security minister of Armenia, Aghvan Vartanian, described the difficult task of forming a coalition government following parliamentary elections. Commenting on the joint declaration signed by the leaders of the three coalition parties -- the Republican Party of Armenia, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutyun, and Orinats Yerkir (Law-based State) -- Vartanian welcomed the fact that the first-ever multiparty agreement to form an Armenian government was signed: "[it is] the first time a civilized coalition agreement was reached." http://www.regionalanalysis.org/specialreports/specialreports/ en/2003/07/622c0616-5282-4120-ae43-1a34c74a72eo.asp
POLAND. "Road to Reconciliation," by Krzysztof Renik. Ceremonies commemorating the 60th anniversary of the tragic death of thousands of Poles, killed by groups of Ukrainian nationalists in 1943, were held in Pavlivka, Ukraine, on 11 July. http://www.warsawvoice.pl/index.phtml?pg=druk&a=2969
SLOVAKIA. Joint statement of nine human rights groups, including Amnesty International, the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York, and the Slovak Center for Civil and Human Rights. In January 2003, the Slovak state Office of Human Rights and Minorities filed a criminal complaint to investigate illegal sterilization practices against Romany women. The complaint was in response to the testimonies contained in the report "Body and Soul: Forced Sterilization and Other Assaults on Roma Reproductive Freedom in Slovakia," published by the Center for Reproductive Rights. On 23 June, the Slovak government reported to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe about criminal and administrative investigations being conducted into the allegations of forced and provided the Slovak government's assurance that it will not pursue criminal proceedings against the authors of Body and Soul for alleged false reports, as it had previously indicated. http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/engeuur720012003
TURKMENISTAN. "Flight from Ashgabat: Russians Desperate to Leave Turkmenistan Face Bureaucratic Nightmare," by Ata Atmanov, in "Reporting Central Asia" of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Atmanov is the pseudonym of a Turkmen journalist. http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?archive/rca/rca_200307_220_1_eng.txt
TURKMENISTAN. Sites operated by Turkmen exiles and their sympathizers containing news and views from opposition groups in English and Russian include: http://www.erkin.net; http://www.gundogar.org; http://www.dogryyol.org