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Turkmenistan's Remote Desert 'Gulag'

RFE/RL contributor Sazak Durdymuradov (right) in the classroom prior to his late-June detention
RFE/RL contributor Sazak Durdymuradov (right) in the classroom prior to his late-June detention
Gurbandurdy Durdykuliev, a Turkmen political dissident, spent 26 months in the Boinuzin psychiatric clinic -- the Turkmen Gulag -- before his release in 2006. He recalls the ordeal as a living hell.

"The hospital is a closed one. The chief doctor behaves like it is his personal property," he says. "Food is very bad. Bed sheets are extremely old. Beds are very old Soviet ones brought from children's summer camps long ago -- many of them were welded by inmates themselves or have wires instead of a net. It's full of cockroaches and other insects. In winter, it's very cold because the windows have no glass, only double-bars."

The remote clinic, surrounded by desert near the Amudarya River, some 700 kilometers east of Ashgabat, has been home to many government critics through the years.

It is a nightmare not only for former inmates but also for those who live in nearby villages.

Surrounded by wired four-meter-high walls, it is guarded by police and, as Durdykuliev says, plain-clothed KGB officers.

'Dangerous Criminals' And Political Opponents

It was originally designed for "especially dangerous criminals" -- mostly murderers -- and the mentally ill.

During late President Saparmurat Niyazov's autocratic rule, however, Boinuzin became a place where many government critics were held. Niyazov renamed it "Garashsyzlyk," or "Independence."

After Niyazov's death in December 2006, the government of new President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov continued to send critics there -- despite his vows to improve the country's human rights record.

Sazak Durdymuradov, a frequent unpaid guest on RFE/RL's Turkmen Service programs, was recently added to the ranks of Boinuzin's inmates. Officials at the clinic confirmed his presence there to RFE/RL 10 days after Dyrdymuradov's arrest at his home in the town of Baharden, near the capital, on June 20.

Durdymuradov, a history teacher well respected in his community, was rounded up just days before human rights talks between Turkmen and European Union officials.

Durdymuradov was reportedly ill treated while in detention in Baharden after he had refused to stop appearing on RFE/RL in Turkmenistan.

'They Want Nothing But To Kill Them'

Former Boinuzin inmate Durdykuliev, speaking to RFE/RL from his home in the western town of Nebitdag, says he believes Durdymuradov and other "patients" are likely to be beaten in the clinic.

Durdykuliev notes that there are other ways of "punishing" inmates, like putting them in solitary confinement and forcibly drugging them. "Doctors want nothing but to kill [inmates]," he says.

Durdykuliev was held in an "isolation ward" for many months.

"When I was first taken there, I was put in an isolation cell," he recounts. "There are solitary-confinement cells in the psychiatric clinic like in prison. I was held there for four months and 14 days. There was neither electricity nor TV nor radio. The food was extremely bad. I got only watery porridge. There was nothing else there."

Durdykuliev was institutionalized after writing to Niyazov in early 2004 and requesting permission to hold a demonstration to criticize government policies.

He was freed after international organizations and Western governments, as well as 54 members of the U.S. Congress, wrote a letter to Niyazov urging him to release Durdykuliev.

Durdykuliev, who suffered from heart disease and a stomach ulcer before being put in the psychiatric isolation cell, says his health deteriorated in the clinic.

He says he was drugged several times a day. "Doctors wanted me to become like other lunatics," he says.

After spending over four months in a confinement cell, Durdykuliev remembers being transferred to another ward -- which he calls a "cell" -- where he was held with the mentally ill.

"They were murderers of their own wives, mothers, or children," he says. "I was scared to stay in the same cell with them. I didn't sleep at night, was always ready to defend myself. For more than two years, I didn't sleep at night -- only dozed during the day."

Detained, Not Forgotten

Durdykuliev says it is hard for inmate's relatives to get permission for a visit. He was deprived of family visits while in solitary confinement.

Durdykuliev says inmates' every step is watched and doctors and nurses follow them during their daily walks.

While in the clinic, he wrote several letters to the authorities, including to Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who was at the time the minister of health in the Niyazov administration.

"I wrote about everything to... Berdymukhammedov," Durdykuliev says. "I wrote that the doctors were butchers -- although butchers are better because when they take a man to execute him, he knows he should expect death. But with [those] doctors, one expects help but they hurt a patient."

International human rights and media organizations, including Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), have condemned the recent arrest and reported ill treatment of Durdymuradov.

The U.S. State Department said on June 28 that it was "deeply troubled" by his detention and physical abuse. Spokesman Tom Casey called "any attempt to threaten journalists" an "unacceptable affront to human rights."

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