Turkmenbashi Set to Crush Dissent

An ambiguous new law may allow President Niazov to lock up anyone found guilty of disagreeing with his policies.

Turkmenbashi Set to Crush Dissent

An ambiguous new law may allow President Niazov to lock up anyone found guilty of disagreeing with his policies.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

The controversial Turkmen president's new law on treason is so vaguely worded that almost any of his citizens could be labelled a traitor and jailed for life.


The international community has expressed dismay over the legislation, which is being seen as the latest attempt to crush dissent in Turkmenistan and has been compared to Stalinist persecution.


The law is so ambiguous that, in effect, anyone who voices doubts about President Saparmurat Niazov's policies can now be thrown in jail.


The treason legislation, which came into force this month, was drafted as a response to an alleged assassination attempt on Niazov last November, when the leader's motorcade apparently came under fire in the capital Ashgabat.


Following this incident, a meeting of the republic's Council of Elders approved Niazov's draft law on December 30, 2002 - the same day that several opposition leaders were convicted of involvement in the said assassination plot and sentenced to life imprisonment.


Under the law, a Turkmen citizen will be classed as a traitor for "encroachments on the life and health of the president" and "attempting to sow doubt among people about the internal and foreign policies conducted by the first and permanent president of Turkmenistan, the Great Saparmurat" as well as "encouraging opposition to the state".


The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights' executive director Aaron Rhodes has spoken out against this "very worrying" development. "People may now be punished for freedom of thought," he said.


Life imprisonment awaits anyone found guilty of violating the law - which dictates that pardons, amnesties, parole or reduction of sentence will not apply to them.


Anyone who has knowledge of a person intending to commit what Niazov deems a crime - and does not inform on them immediately - will also be considered a traitor.


Niazov, who likes to be called Turkmenbashi or "father of all Turkmens", has also beefed up his security service by giving them almost unlimited powers to snoop on ordinary people and get confessions by any means possible.


"You should be in places where many people gather, at markets and bus stops. Arrest a dozen who criticise policies, the Rukhnam (Turkmenbashi's view on the world), and who spread gossip," said the president.


"Work them over well, and they will lead you to the specific person who is the source of these rumours."


A source in the Turkmen internal affairs ministry told IWPR that a budget has been provided for payments to informers, with the amount varying according the nature of the material provided.


Additionally, Turkmenbashi has ordered the general prosecutor's office - whose employees gathered most of the evidence against those accused of the attempted assassination - to publish a book called "Traitors of the Motherland".


The book will contain the convicted men's testimonies and confessions - believed by many to have been obtained under torture - and will send a clear warning to other opposition activists at home and in exile.


Those convicted of involvement in the attack - including exiled former foreign minister Boris Shikmuradov - have had all their property confiscated and will be detained for up to 25 years. Their first few years will be spent in jail, with the remainder in a penal colony.


Upon their release, they will be forced to live in a so-called "prescribed place" - in reality, a remote desert area of Turkmenistan unsuitable for habitation - for five years. They will not be allowed to hold any position of responsibility or leadership for a further three years after that period.


At a sitting of the permanent council of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Vienna on February 18, the body's United States ambassador Stephan Minikes said, "The US is deeply concerned by recent events in Turkmenistan, which represent further significant steps backwards for the country.


"This new treason law permits sentences of up to life in prison for a broad range of very vaguely defined so-called offences and we strongly urge the government to reconsider and reverse these decisions.


"Turkmenistan should be looking for bridges to the rest of the world, not ways of raising the walls that already surround it. No state stands to lose more by the steps it is taking - or gain more if it reverses its present course."


Murad Novruzov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Turkmenistan.


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