A Cry for Help in Turkmenistan

By Anadurdy Khajiyev, the brother of imprisoned human rights activist Sapardurdy Khajiyev (THE WASHINGTON POST, 16/12/06):

Over the course of three days this summer, Turkmenistan's interior ministry (formerly the local KGB) arrested three people and charged them with spying: Annakurban Amanklychev of the French TV production company Galaxie-Presse and the French TV station France 2; Ogulsapar Muradova, correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; and Sapardurdy Khajiyev, a human rights activist.

Along with some other human rights activists, they were accused by the interior ministry on June 19 of spying for the intelligence services of NATO countries. They were also accused of collaborating with foreign diplomats (Henri Tomassini, a cultural officer at the French Embassy, and Benjamin Moreau, the representative in Turkmenistan of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and Western journalists (Lucy Ash of the BBC and Catherine Berthillier of Galaxie-Presse). What was their real crime? Helping journalists report on Turkmenistan's totalitarian regime.

President Saparmurad Niyazov reportedly gave orders for confessions of guilt to be quickly extracted from the detainees and made public on national TV and in the press. Muradova's three children were arrested the day after her arrest and were held in isolation at the interior ministry for two weeks without being charged. Dozens of activists, journalists and other people who "think differently" were also picked up and questioned.

The trial on spying charges did not take place. Instead, the interior ministry quickly began preparing a different trial, one in which the defendants were simply charged with illegal possession of firearms and ammunition. To have some evidence, the security services planted cartridges in Amanklychev's car.

The three detainees were treated inhumanely from the time of their arrest. They were given injections and psychotropic drugs. They were not allowed visits. Even their lawyers had difficulty getting in to see them. Their relatives were harassed, threatened with imprisonment and fired from jobs. Some are still under surveillance. Amanklychev's nephew was expelled from his school for exceptional children.

The authorities kept the date of the trial secret until the last moment. Like a Stalin-era proceeding, it finally took place (on Aug. 25) with no relatives in attendance. There were also no embassy representatives, although the families had requested their presence. Amanklychev and Khajiyev received seven-year sentences, Muradova six years. Family members have been prevented from seeing them, a violation of the law. Authorities have not responded to the families' protests.

Two weeks after the trial, we learned that Muradova had died in a political prison. No one knows where Amanklychev and Khajiyev are or what has happened to them.

On Sept. 14, secret service personnel took Muradova's adult children to the Ashgabat city morgue, where three inebriated interior ministry employees told them to sign their mother's death certificate without allowing them to see the body. When they refused, the employees prevented them from leaving and began to threaten and insult them. They finally managed to depart and requested help from the U.S. Embassy and the OSCE office. Only after diplomats intervened was Muradova's body given to the family. It had a deep head wound and marks of strangulation. One leg was broken, and the arms and legs were punctured where injections had been administered.

Muradova's children gave U.S. Embassy representatives permission to examine their mother's body and to photograph it. These photos have still not been published. The family asked the diplomats to give the photographs to human rights organizations but has not received an answer.

Some suspect Western diplomats of a double game: trading free expression in my country for the possibility of using an air base there for NATO operations in Afghanistan. As for the murder, this human rights violation -- is it to be forgotten? Will no one be held responsible?

The authorities again contacted the families of the detainees on Nov. 1. Family members were shut away for several hours in the interior ministry, where they were threatened with imprisonment if they gave information to foreign journalists or human rights organizations. When foreign delegations have come to Turkmenistan, the families have been placed under house arrest. Their phone lines have been cut and their homes watched, and they are not able to work -- this is how the families of journalists and human rights activists live in Turkmenistan.

Muradova, Amanklychev and Khajiyev thought that by helping foreign journalists, they would draw the world's attention to what is happening inside this hermetic dictatorship. Their fellow citizens are denied free speech, freedom of movement and the right to education, medical care, and free and fair elections. Seeing their country going into reverse, they would not remain silent. And they thought America's political leaders meant it when they talked of the need to promote democracy in Central Asia.