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

Turkmen Murder Rumours Shrouded in Secrecy

A month after alarming reports of multiple murder from the southwest city of Mary, no one is sure what really happened.
By the.iwpr

Panic at the rumours of a string of grisly murders in southeastern Turkmenistan has been compounded by the complete silence of the authorities and the media.


No one could tell IWPR for sure exactly what was going on in the city of Mary - the country’s second largest (and formerly known as Merv). There were plausible-sounding but entirely contradictory stories that a lone serial killer was on the loose; Islamic fundamentalists were causing mayhem; and a couple of drug addicts had gone crazy.


Turkmenistan’s self-created image as an ideal, prosperous country does not admit the possibility of crime. Very much in the Soviet mould, the state-controlled media simply ignore the negative.


When something happens that is so big that everyone hears about it by word of mouth, the media blackout only feeds the panic and makes the rumours more and more lurid.


“The reports of murders have caused a lot of sensation, yet the authorities are trying to hush it up,” said a woman in the capital Ashgabat who has been ringing relatives in Mary to try to find out what’s going on. “They also kept silent over the casualties when there was an earthquake in Kazanjik in 1999, as if nothing had happened.”


Many other post-Soviet countries, Russia above all, have gone the other way when it comes to crime reporting. Not only are the alarming statistics published, but TV viewers also get to see the gruesome results in fly-on-the-wall police shows.


The dead silence in Turkmenistan, however, does not mean there is no crime.


In the absence of official statistics, one can only guess at the number of people jailed by considering that every year for the past decade, the authorities have released 10,000 or 12,000 people from prison under amnesty to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.


Those familiar with the penitentiary system believe that even after these amnesties, the prisons hold two or three times the number of inmates they were built for. Even if some of these are political prisoners, there is clearly a significant crime problem.


Police officers speaking in confidence say there is a worrying rise both in absolute crime figures, and in the rate of young people involved. This appears to be due to the poor state of the economy, which has created ever-greater poverty and unemployment - and drug abuse has only accentuated the social problems.


“In recent years, crime in Turkmenistan has involved not just the badly-off strata of society, but the prosperous elite too,” said a prison official who asked not to be named. “I put that down to the accessibility and proliferation of drugs, because everyone who comes in here [to the prison system] are drug-dependant.”


The official said the lack of rehabilitation programmes for prisoners and drug users was creating a “revolving door” for recidivist criminals.


However, the Mary incident - whatever it is - is of another order. According to some accounts, 27 people may have been murdered.


Rumours of a series of brutal murders first reached Ashgabat in early July. Police in the capital said on condition of anonymity that they believed a man had turned serial killer after the local authorities had harmed his business.


But a different police source suggested that a group of at least 30 armed Islamic fundamentalists had slipped across the nearby border from Afghanistan, and had begun taking pot shots at anyone they regarded as “not a true Muslim”.


These sources agreed on one point: that they had strict information not to divulge information to the general public.


What is beyond doubt is that there was some kind of serious security incident. On July 4, in a highly unusual move, the Turkmen interior ministry sent down reinforcements to Mary, including special operations units and crime investigators.


The authorities then prevented people from going to Mary unless they were resident there.


“On July 10, I was planning to visit a friend in Mary for her birthday,” said a pensioner in Ashgabat. “But at the air ticket office, I was told they couldn’t sell me a ticket because only residents of Mary, not people from elsewhere, were being allowed to buy them. The saleswoman didn’t explain further, and just said it was a temporary order and I should come back in a month.”


The panic surrounding the incident began to subside, but two weeks later fresh security units were sent down to Mary, including a number of senior military officials.


An officer in the National Security Ministry who was part of this second wave of reinforcements, told IWPR before he went that the Islamic fundamentalist theory was still the most likely. He said it was possible that members of the group had dispersed and that some were already in Ashgabat.


But the same officer said there was another story that while still confidential, was becoming the official line. This account has it that two young drug addicts killed a taxi driver and stole his vehicle, and later - still under the influence of narcotics - killed a woman and her child.


It remains impossible to guess at the veracity of the various accounts. The drug addicts story might be a damage-limitation exercise on the part of the authorities, to show that the crime was serious but containable. The Islamic extremists, on the other hand, might also be the product of over-fertile imaginations among officials who have clearly observed with concern the rise of similar militant groups in neighbouring Uzbekistan.


An official with the interior ministry confirmed that there had been an incident, but said he was unable to comment on its nature, “I cannot tell you exactly what happened in Mary, because we’re not permitted to give out that information, but what I can tell you is there certainly was an incident, that there were casualties, and that our officers are now carrying out a search operation.”


The official took a sober view of the incident’s implications for policing.


“The events in Mary force all of us in the law-enforcement agencies to think about the security system we currently have in Turkmenistan,” he said. “It appears that all our measures have proved ineffective and obsolete.”


Meanwhile, as the print and broadcast media continue to censor all mention of the Mary story, ordinary people exchange hearsay accounts and remain fearful.


“My father works in the police,” said Aylar, a resident of Ashgabat. “He’s told me not to get into private taxis bearing Mary number plates; he said it would be dangerous. I myself have heard many times that there were several murders in Mary.”