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Turkmenistan: Western Concern Over Arrests

Prominent Turkmen and foreigners amongst scores arrested following bid to kill Niazov.
By Nyazik Ataeva

The international community has expressed concern over a wave of arrests in the wake of the attempted assassination of President Saparmurat Niazov last month.

Human rights organisations say over 100 people have been detained since the incident, on November 25. Suspects include prominent Turkmens such as the former foreign minister, and a number of foreigners, including a US citizen.

Turkmenbashi, or "The father of all Turkmens", as Niazov likes to be called, was en route to his office when his motorcade was attacked. The prosecutor general Kurbanbibi Atajanova told journalists that 30 "terrorists" were involved in the incident. Each of them were expecting a payment of 25,000 US dollars, she said.

Turkmen television duly showed footage of automatic weapons, pistols, pump-action rifles, masks, camouflage equipment and radios. Yet as special security experts have pointed out, Turkmenbashi is widely known to use an armour-plated Mercedes, so attacking his car with an automatic weapon would be akin to firing a catapult at a tank.

In a broadcast on the evening of the attack, the president pointed a finger at opposition leaders currently exiled in Moscow. The former prime minister, head of the central bank, first deputy minister of agriculture and ambassador to Turkey, Boris Shikhmuradov, Khudaiberdy Orazov, Saparmurat Yklymov, Nurmukhamet Khanamov respectively, were all named as suspects.

Arrests immediately started in Turkmenistan and two progress reports on the investigation have been broadcast as part of the Vatan (Homeland) news programme. The reports included interrogations of suspects and confessions by "criminals who have come to their senses" of a kind which Turkmen viewers have become quite accustomed to. On this occasion, a whole series of people read out identical testimonies.

"I admit that I have committed a heinous crime. Punish me! I was put up to this by Shikhmuradov, Khanamov, Yklymov and Orazov. Shikhmuradov was in charge, he assigned our roles," confessed well-known businessman Guvanch Jumaev in flawless Turkmen, although he is known to have only a smattering of the language.

Jumaev has been named by the authorities as the main local organiser of the attack. He was arrested the same day, along with his elderly father, brother and son. The following day Leonid Komarovsky, who'd been staying with Jumaev, his longstanding friend and business partner, was arrested. The authorities described Komarovsky as a "mercenary from Moldova with a US passport" and charged him with helping prepare the attack. Neither his family nor US consular officials have had contact with him since his arrest.

Other prominent suspects include the former speaker of parliament Tagandurdy Khallyev, whose arrest came less than a month after the president gave him permission to retire. The prosecutor general's office claim that on the day before the attack Khallyev, who remains a deputy, promised the conspirators that "if the attack was successful he would rally support within the parliament and offer every assistance to the conspirators".

Former foreign minister and OSCE representative for Turkmenistan Batyr Berdyev and a number of provincial governors are also in custody. Foreigners arrested include three Chechens, three Russian citizens, six Turks and one ethnic Armenian, whose citizenship has not been revealed.

Officially orchestrated public meetings in which crowds have called for the guilty to face the death sentence have raised the question of whether the assassination attempt will be used as a pretext to suspend Turkmenistan's current moratorium on capital punishment.

Despite the serious nature of the alleged crime, Turkmenbashi has announced on television that the investigation will end on December 22. Those who believe that the alleged assassination attempt was a crude farce, staged in order to legitimise a widespread purge, are hoping that date will at least signal the end of the arrests.

International concern at the arrests is mounting. The permanent council of the OSCE has announced that it will be holding a special meeting to discuss the escalation of detentions since the attack, while the US State Department has expressed concern that Komarovsky has been deprived of consular assistance.

The Turkmen authorities appear unperturbed. This spectacle was not staged for the benefit of the outside world. It is a domestic drama, for an audience, which must believe what it is ordered to believe.

Nyazik Ataeva is the pseudonym for an independent journalist in Turkmenistan.

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