Turkmenistan's Crackdown: A View From Jail
I was born in Turkmenistan and lived there until I emigrated a few months ago. Prior to last year's assassination attempt against president Saparmurat Niyazov, I couldn't envision circumstances that would make me leave my homeland. Of course, I did not anticipate the attempt against the president's life, much less think that I would become embroiled in the crackdown that followed the attack.
In retrospect, the assassination attempt should not have come as such a shock. There were a number of signs that some people in Turkmenistan wanted to overthrow Niyazov's regime. In several large cities, including the capital, leaflets calling for resistance to the regime were distributed. There were also spontaneous rallies against regional authorities. These events seemed isolated however, most people kept their ideas to themselves, expressing their political views only within a small circle of family and close friends.
This may have been the reason why so many people were skeptical when, on the evening of November 25, 2002, Niyazov, speaking on live television, announced that he had survived an assassination attempt. Doubts remained when several months later, the confessions of the arrested "assassins" and "terrorists" were broadcast on national television. I, too, did not believe the reports.
I certainly could not have imagined that less than a month later I would find myself in the pre-trial detention facility of the Ministry of National Security awaiting investigation among the same "terrorists" I had seen on television. Ironically, it was in detention where I met people with whom I could have an open, critical discussion of the regime. My fellow detainees were not only critical of the regime, but, within the limits of their particular circumstances, they were trying to bring about change.
What I first noticed was that many of my fellow detainees were successful by Turkmenistan's standards. Many had held high-level positions and enjoyed various privileges from the regime. Many were important businessmen. They all lived in good houses and apartments, owned luxury cars and had no financial worries. They could have gone on enjoying their comfortable lives had they chosen to do so, but they did not. These men were united by the fact that they wanted to improve the social, political and economic life of the country. And for this idea they risked not only their fortunes, but their personal freedom.
I found myself detained with some of the accused ringleaders of the assassination attempt who were often interrogated by the General Prosecutor's Office. During these interrogations, the accused ringleaders had the opportunity to see their relatives, talk to them, and even receive clothes and food from them. Relatives told them how their houses and property were confiscated, that many had lost their jobs, and their children expelled from institutes and schools. In some cases, their children were even refused entry to kindergartens.
Perhaps most outrageous was the fact that their relatives- wives, parents, and siblings- were also subjected to beatings and torture by the investigators. The detainees knew well what that meant, since most had been tortured and beaten themselves. One accused ringleader, Yklym Yklymov, was brutally beaten. On another occasion, detainees Timur Dzhumaev and Jazgeldi Gundogdyev were beaten, choked with gas masks and tortured with electric shocks.
It is one thing to be tortured by government officials, but something totally different to know that your loved ones are tortured because of you. It seems that those meetings with relatives were organized by prosecutors deliberately, to place additional psychological pressure on the suspected ringleaders. After all, Turkmen law enforcement authorities usually prohibit contact between prisoners under investigation and their relatives and friends. I was not one of the "terrorists," and investigators did not allow me to call my mother, let alone meet any of my relatives.
In prison, a moment seems like an eternity. But time does pass. We worried more and more for our friends and relatives; we thought about them constantly. I had no contact with my family and assumed that the government was repressing them as well. It was incredibly difficult to come to grips with the fear that your loved ones were suffering, and that it was impossible to do anything to ease their situation. Despite this concern, none of the "terrorists," five of whom I got to know as cellmates, regretted that they had participated in the events. Quite the opposite, they said that if they had a chance to repeat what they did, they would still have done it, maybe differently, but the goal would have been the same- to overthrow President Saparmurat Niyazov.
It may seem unbelievable, but despite the horrific conditions, I am glad that I had the chance to meet these detainees. I know that torture, harsh prison condition, and repression against them did not break their convictions.
I was released after 102 days of confinement, three months of which I spent in isolation. It turned out that while I was in prison my name had often been mentioned by the foreign media, including Radio Liberty. I had attained a certain degree of notoriety, especially in my hometown of Dashoguz. This attention caused people to change their attitude toward me.
In the days immediately following my release, I was shocked by the actions of some people I thought I knew well. They avoided me. If they happened to see me, some would cross to the other side of the street. At the same time, men and women whom I did not know well, or at all, came up to me on the street and asked questions about what I had experienced. Some even thanked me.
The situation did not change when, according to local tradition, we invited many people to a festive dinner to celebrate my release. Not everybody came. As we found out later, somebody had spread a rumor that agents of the Ministry of National Security were planning to film all the guests with a hidden video camera and then summon them for interrogation. It was only a few days after the dinner that some of those who had avoided the celebration started showing up at my home. Some were driven by curiosity, others by the desire to show that they were not afraid.
This feeling of fear of the regime- fear for oneself and one's relatives- forces Turkmen citizens to be silent. This is exactly what the authorities were hoping for when they launched their crackdown. The idea was to imprison and repress several hundred people in order to intimidate millions.
This fear is nothing new; it had been there since the Soviet era. Even during Perestroika Niyazov sought to "guard" the people of Turkmenistan from democratic influences. Niyazov is now even more intent on isolating Turkmenistan from outside social, cultural, and political forces. Something has changed, however, among many Turkmen citizens. More and more people are no longer content to remain silent. Instead, they are embracing the belief that it is finally time to take action to prompt the development of democracy in Turkmenistan.
Farid Tuhbatulin is a co-founder of the non-governmental NGO, Turkmenistan Helsinki Initiative. In the first half of the 1990s, he worked with the NGO Dashoguz Environmental Club, carried out legal-awareness programs, and gathered information on human rights violations in Turkmenistan. He participated in various international legal and human rights conferences. On December 23, 2002, after taking part in one of such conference in Moscow that was attended by both human rights activists and several representatives of the Turkmenistani opposition, he was arrested in his home city of Dashoguz by officers of the Ministry of National Security and sentenced to three years of imprisonment. As a result of political pressure from the OSCE, the U.S. government and a number of international human rights and environmental organizations, he was released on April 2, 2003, on condition that he confess and apologize for his "crimes."
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