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Inside Ashgabat: The Shadow of Death

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- 2003 is now, Turkmenistan’s National Assembly has decided, the "Year of the Turkmen heroine Gurbansoltan edzhe, the [deceased] mother of the first and eternal President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Turkmenbashi." Eternal he may be, but, just as a precaution, Saparmurat Niyazov, father of all Turkmens (or “Turkmenbashi”), is giving fate and the courts a helping hand.

Worried by a mysterious assassination attempt in November, Niyazov has spent the past two months urging the courts to put his assassins--read, his strongest political opponents--behind bars. Then, strangely worried that his subservient parliament might contain a few would-be turncoats, he quietly announced on 9 January that elections would be held on 6 April, nearly two years ahead of schedule.

In the shadow of death, you can never take enough precautions. Could “terrorists” strike again to free the would-be assassins as they went to face the courts? Two days ahead of the latest set of trials, which began on 15 January, the roads to the courthouse were cordoned off.

In the shadow of death, questions receive short shrift. Could the accused be innocent? The judges wouldn’t need to weigh the evidence for long, Niyazov implied, saying that the trials of the 32 men (including 16 foreign citizens) should have been finished within a week. Somehow--why is unclear--not all of them were. Nine were sentenced on the trial’s first day (three to life imprisonment without parole). Another 10 were sent down on 18 January.

Those not locked up for life face a lifetime of internal exile and hard labor in the outer corners of an already remote country: “Let them atone for their crimes through labor; that is the way we should keep law and order in our country,” said Niyazov.

By recent standards of Turkmen justice, the judges were diligent.

His motorcade attacked on the morning of 25 November, Turkmenbashi was able by that evening to name those who had organized this “act of terrorism.” Conveniently, the organizers turned out to be opposition figures who had emigrated: former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov; the former head of the central bank, Khudaiberdy Orazov; and a former ambassador to Turkey, Nurmukhammed Khanamov.

By the next morning, 100 people had reportedly been rounded up. Four days after Turkmens broke into the compound of the Uzbek Embassy on 25 December, Shikhmuradov was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Orazov and Khanamov received the same sentence in absentia.

Were the judges’ decisions right? No, decided the National Assembly, after it was summoned by the president the day after the trial. They were too lenient. The sentences were duly upped to life imprisonment.

And is life imprisonment long enough? No, it seems. There should be no prospect of amnesty or early release for them (or even a change in prison). Nothing can be enough for people who "betrayed the great aspirations of our state, making an attempt on the holy life of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great," as the Turkmen expressed it on 16 January--though, in Turkmenbashi’s favor, he had rejected apparent calls for their execution, saying that is something only for Allah to decide.

No wonder the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) likened the cases to the “show trials” of the 1930s. The shadow of the 1930s stretched even further after Shikhmuradov was paraded on television, intoning a confession that he had organized the attempt on Turkmenbashi’s life and pleading (unsuccessfully) for mercy. “When we lived in Russia, we took drugs,” he admitted, “and, while in a state of intoxication, prepared people and recruited mercenaries to carry out a terrorist attack.”

“The person who was shown on television was no longer a human--and I’m saying this about my own brother,” said Larisa Shikhmuradova, an employee of Moscow State University, at a press conference in Moscow. Shikhmuradov appeared to have been beaten and drugged; the rest of his family in Turkmenistan is now being persecuted, including his brother, Konstantin, who was arrested and accused of 14 different crimes, including murder.

But could Shikhmuradov’s life sentence already be over? Might he already be dead? “I don’t know whether Boris is dead or alive,” said his sister. “I asked [the Turkmen authorities] if he is receiving medical attention. I asked just simple humanitarian questions, but I received no answer whatsoever.” (Nor did the family ever receive copies of the accusations against Shikhmuradov or learn where the trial took place.)


This is no longer a battle where the casualties are the politically minded. Ashgabat’s inhabitants are by now used to the all-seeing eye of Turkmenbashi’s golden statue in central Ashgabat, whose head rotates constantly. The Turkmen are also becoming more familiar with the concept that April is now called “Mother,” in honor of Turkmenbashi’s heroine-mother, who died in an earthquake when he was 8 years old. But the assassination attempt has brought the regime’s impact still closer to home.

After the demise of the Soviet Union, it had been possible to enjoy joint Russian and Turkmen citizenship. That is now a thing of the past. On 12 January, Niyazov decided that it was time to suspend the agreement, as Russia was being used a bolthole for Turkmen “criminals.” Five of his alleged would-be assassins held joint Russian citizenship.

Six of those who entered court on 13 January were Turkish citizens; Turkmenbashi, who has already put a big dent in relations with Uzbekistan by dragging Shikhmuradov from its embassy, has not said how he plans to manage relations with Turkey. But foreigners generally now face a tougher task. The government is currently working on a bill that would make visa requirements more stringent and give it legal license to monitor the activities of foreigners more closely.

“Our citizens [in Russia] will live by [Turkmen] laws,” Niyazov said, announcing his unilateral decision. How he expects Turkmen law to become international is an open question; a more pressing question is whether Russians could deport critics of Niyazov.

Most Turkmens with Russian passports and no political role, meanwhile, are wondering whether their children will now be able to study in Russian universities.

Even more than ever, then, Turkmenistan is a closed country.

Meanwhile, inside Ashgabat, while Turkmenbashi pays ever greater homage to his dead mother and muses on the (im)mortality of his “holy life,” the question in Turkmen minds is what an eternity of Turkmenbashi will bring next. One thing is for sure: It will bring more courtroom proceedings--roughly 30 other men await trial.

(Transitions Online 22.i.03)

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