Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

No Escape for Turkmen Ambassador

Suspicions are growing that security forces could have used envoy’s family members as hostages to force him to return home after defection.
By Murad Novruzov

The surprise defection of Turkmenistan’s ambassador to Brussels was followed by an even greater mystery when he turned up in Ashgabat – under arrest.


News of ambassador Niazklych Nurklychev’s reappearance came in a tersely-worded decree signed by President Saparmurat Niazov, known as Turkmenbashi (“Leader of the Turkmen”) on November 29, sacking the envoy and depriving him of his diplomatic rank and all his awards.


IWPR has learned from a police source in Turkmenistan that Nurklychev is currently under house arrest in Ashgabat, and is the subject of a criminal investigation.


It is unclear when Nurklychev returned to Ashgabat, but according to the opposition website Gundogar (www.gundogar.org), he defected in Belgium about ten days before the decree was issued.


He reportedly made the decision to jump ship after receiving urgent orders to return home for consultations. Instead of complying, he applied for political asylum in a so far unidentified European country.


One theory floated by the Gundogar site is that Nurklychev feared he would be made the scapegoat for a damaging resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly, condemning the Turkmen government for its dismal human rights record and demanding it release all prisoners of conscience.


As the November 18 resolution had been put forward to the UN by European Union members, it was felt that as ambassador in Brussels, Nurklychev should have been in a position to block it.


According to Gundogar, foreign minister Rashid Meredov and Turkmenistan’s permanent representative at the UN, Aksoltan Ataeva, heaped all the blame for the diplomatic embarrassment on Nurklychev when they reported to Turkmenbashi.


“Nurklychev’s mistake was his inability to halt the EU initiative,” leading Turkmen émigré Khudaiberdy Orazov said in an interview for Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “It’s quite simple: it is not that the [human rights] situation in the country is catastrophic; it is the ambassador who is bad because he was unable to convince the Europeans that people are living a good life under Turkmenbashi’s regime.”


Another “mistake” may have been for Nurklychev to attempt to escape when there were still ways for Turkmenistan’s ruthless security services to get to him.


Although the ambassador’s immediate family were with him in Belgium, he has other relatives living in Ashgabat, some in senior government posts.


IWPR’s police source in Ashgabat said he believed the threat of reprisals against family members could have forced Nurklychev to return home.


“It was ill-considered on Nurklychev’s part to ask for political asylum in Europe when he had close relatives in Turkmenistan,” said the source, who requested anonymity. “The harshest forms of persecution are used against relatives of disgraced officials. I think it was by using this threat that Turkmen secret services forced Nurklychev to return to Ashgabat.


“Although his wife and children were together with him, he has brothers, sisters, their children, and his own parents as well. You know, security officers have a saying, ‘If all else fails, everyone’s got a mother’.”


Nurklychev’s attempt to get away from the country he represented was nothing new for Turkmenistan, since there have been four previous defections in the last three years.


The highest-profile case was the first, when Boris Shikhmuradov, a former foreign minister, defected in November 2001 while serving as ambassador in China. He was subsequently arrested in Turkmenistan, and sentenced to life imprisonment for an alleged assassination attempt on Turkmenbashi in November 2002.


A month after Shikhmuradov went, Ambassador Nurmukhammed Khanamov defected from his post in Turkey. In spring 2003, Chary Babaev sought political asylum from the British government after leaving his London posting, and in summer the same year Toili Kurbanov fled with his family from the Turkmen embassy in Armenia.


These incidents prompted the Turkmen present to issue an edict that diplomat’s families should remain behind. The ruling dates from March 2004, so presumably did not apply to Nurklychev if he had already brought his family to Brussels.


Relatives, acquaintances, even neighbours of those who fall foul of Turkmenbashi can expect rough treatment.


A young Ashgabat man told IWPR how he was held for a month simply because they had once lived near Shikhmuradov, “After the so-called assassination attempt…. three of my friends and I were held at a National Security Committee [NSC] detention centre for a month, simply because we lived on the same street as the main suspect, Boris Shikhmuradov, and were friends with his nephew.


“I don’t want to recall the way we were treated. It was only a month later that the NSC realised that we truly didn’t know anything and were of no interest to them, and released us. They didn’t apologise, and they even threatened that we shouldn’t complain about what had happened, otherwise we’d really get it. That’s the sort of humane country we live in.”


Murad Novruzov is the pseudonym for a journalist in Ashgabat.