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46 Sentenced in Alleged Hit on Turkmen Leader

Rights activists decry closed-door trials in what opposition says was a staged coup bid by the authoritarian president.

January 26, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — In closed-door trials seen by critics as an effort to crush political opposition, 46 people have been convicted of trying to assassinate Turkmenistan's president, Saparmurad A. Niyazov, a Russian news agency reported Saturday.

The largely secret proceedings followed what the government of the Central Asian nation says was an attack on Nov. 25 on the presidential motorcade. The alleged attack did not injure the president-for-life, but four police officers were wounded, officials have said.

International human rights organizations have condemned the trials as reminiscent of 1930s purges under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Niyazov, 62, was the Communist boss of Turkmenistan in the final years of the Soviet Union and has ruled the country, a largely desert land of 4.7 million people, since 1990.

"Trials were held, and 46 people were sentenced. There are five or six other accomplices, but we are not going to look for them now," Niyazov said on Turkmen television Friday night, the Interfax news agency said Saturday.

"I have no doubt that Niyazov staged this coup attempt himself," Avdy Kuliyev, a former Turkmen foreign minister who now heads the country's Moscow-based opposition, said in an interview Saturday. "It helped him to tighten the screws even harder. His regime now is one of the most totalitarian regimes in the world."

In a December trial that lasted less than a day, Boris Shikhmuradov, another former Turkmen foreign minister who had joined opponents of Niyazov, was convicted of masterminding the alleged attack and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Television news showed Shikhmuradov confessing to terrorist acts and drug use, but he spoke with difficulty, his face appeared puffy, and his head wobbled.

"He might have been tortured, which broke his will, and he made those wild confessions," Kuliyev said.

Kuliyev added that Shikhmuradov, who was his deputy in the Foreign Ministry in the early 1990s, had "made a big mistake."

"He spoke openly about the need to violently overthrow the regime by staging a coup," Kuliyev said. "I argued with him many times that we should legalize the opposition in the country with the help of the United States and other democratic countries and international institutions, but he wouldn't agree.... He gave Niyazov a big chance to outsmart him in this game of violence where all the trump cards were in Niyazov's hand."

Other defendants were convicted this month. These include former parliament speaker Tagandurdy Halliyev, sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment; businessman Yklym Yklymov, given a life sentence; and businessman Guvanch Dzhumayev, who was accused of being a key organizer and was also sentenced to life in prison.

Niyazov has ordered that a book be published about the assassination attempt and the trials to ensure that those convicted can never again claim innocence, Turkmen media reported last week.

"The task of this publication is to stigmatize once and for all this treachery, which knows no like in our history and which should never darken our progress again," the official Neutralny Turkmenistan newspaper said.

Niyazov has sometimes been credited for avoiding the kind of civil war between government forces and Islamic militants that plagued neighboring Tajikistan after its 1991 independence. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met with Niyazov in April and thanked him for the use of Turkmen airspace by U.S. forces involved in fighting in Afghanistan.

But the authoritarian leader has gained a reputation for eccentricity. He uses the name Turkmenbashi, or "Father of all the Turkmen," and last year renamed the months of January, April and September after himself, his mother and the Ruhnama, a history and spiritual guide that he is said to have written.

A revolving 35-foot golden statue of Niyazov in the capital, Ashgabat, is perched atop the giant Arch of Neutrality, a symbol of the president's policy of remaining largely isolated to avoid the potentially dominating influences of Russia, Uzbekistan and Iran. The statue's arms are raised to welcome the sun at dawn and bid it farewell at dusk.

Shikhmuradov's conviction and sentencing "showed no regard for fundamental due process rights," New York-based Human Rights Watch said after his trial. The group said Shikhmuradov had been living in exile since November 2001 but was arrested in Ashgabat in December.

"Shikhmuradov claims he had been in the country since September to plan and lead a civil disobedience movement," the rights group said.

"Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive countries in the world," said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division. "We've seen in the past how dissidents have been tortured and sentenced to long prison terms in show trials.... There is little doubt that the text of Shikhmuradov's 'confession' was dictated to him."

The court proceedings in Turkmenistan "do not just remind one of the Stalinist trials of the 1930s," Russian political commentator Alexander Arkhangelsky wrote last week in the daily newspaper Izvestia. "It is modern Stalinism resurrected from the ashes."

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Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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