Since succeeding Turkmen “president for life” Saparmurat Niyazov on December 22, 2006, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov has swiftly moved to consolidate power and improve Turkmenistan’s international image with an assuredness that has startled analysts.
First, on May 16 Ashgabat announced that Akmurat Redzhepov, head of the feared State Security Council and secret police as well as a close crony of Niyazov, was being transferred to “other,” unspecified duties, followed on July 31 by news that Redzhepov had been sentenced 20 years imprisonment for corruption and other unspecified crimes.
Then on August 10 came an announcement that Berdimukhamedov had pardoned 11 prominent individuals sentenced in 2002-2003 for their supposed involvement in a November 25, 2002, assassination attempt against Niyazov. Berdimukhamedov’s August 9 decree was published in Turkmen newspapers (Itar-Tass, August 10). While the pardon does not include all individuals arrested in connection with the attack, the news is certain to diminish Turkmenistan’s reputation as one of the world’s most brutal violators of human rights.
Those pardoned include Turkmenistan’s former chief mufti, Nasrullah Ibn Ibadullah, former justice minister Yusup Haitiv, former deputy minister of agriculture Imamdurdy Yklymov, and one woman, Olga Prokofeva. The authorities did not provide a complete list of the names of those pardoned.
Following the alleged assassination attempt, Niyazov went on state television and said that the attackers had emerged from a car and two trucks and opened fire, telling viewers, “I was not aware of anything and came to work. Then at work I was informed that there was a shoot-out going on there” (Itar-Tass, November 25, 2002). Turkmen television subsequently broadcast footage of automatic weapons, pistols, pump-action rifles, masks, camouflage equipment and radios purportedly used in the assassination attempt.
Many analysts doubted the Turkmen government’s version of events, seeing the purported assassination attempt instead as an effort by Niyazov to crack down on the opposition. Former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov, living in exile in Russia since 2001, was quoted on the Turkmen opposition Gundogar website as saying, “Niyazov deserves as many deadly gunshots as lives and destinies he has ruined.” Besides Shikhmuradov, the government was quick to blame other prominent Turkmen exiles as being behind the attack, including Yklymov, former Turkmen ambassador to Turkey Nurmukhamet Khanamov, and former deputy prime minister and Central Bank head Khudayberdy Orazov. Shikhmuradov surrendered to Turkmen authorities on December 25 and five days later received a 25 year-prison sentence. In a televised confession reminiscent of the Stalinist show trials Shikhmuradov called himself a traitor and a drug addict and praised Niyazov.
Hundreds of people were arrested in the immediate aftermath of the alleged assassination attempt. Sixty were eventually convicted of involvement, receiving prison terms ranging from 12 to 25 years. Following the incident, Turkmen security officials even searched the Uzbek embassy in Ashgabat after the Turkmen Prosecutor-General’s Office accused it of sheltering Shikhmuradov and subsequently expelled Uzbek ambassador Abdurashid Kadyrov over his alleged involvement in the assassination attempt.
Following his pardon, Ibadullah was effusive in his praise of Berdimukhamedov, telling reporters on Turkmen state television, “People have lost their way and committed big sins and then repented — I applaud the President who gave the chance to repent and to be accepted — [I am] thankful to the President who accepted our repentance…In the remaining part of my life I will work and serve our people, our country, our homeland, and our President.”
Since 1993 Ibadullah had served as Qazi of the State Qaziyat of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Turkmenistan until being appointed the country’s chief mufti in 1996. From April 1994 to January 2003 Ibadullah also served as chairman of the Turkmen President’s Religious Committee and deputy chairman in the President’s Council for Religious Affairs. But on March 2, 2004, Turkmenistan’s Supreme Court convicted Ibadullah of involvement in the assassination attempt on Niyazov and sentenced him to 22 years’ imprisonment for treason. A number of Western organizations, including Amnesty International, took up his case.
Many analysts believe that Ibadullah was, in fact, arrested because he opposed the mandatory use of Niyazov’s Ruhnama text in mosques and his stated opposition to imposing the death penalty on the November 25 conspirators.
Berdimukhamedov clearly sees the pardons as burnishing his image both in Turkmenistan and abroad. Ibadullah’s release carries the added benefits of helping to repair Turkmenistan’s image in the Muslim world as well as the Central Asian region. Notably, the pardon did not include any of the country’s most prominent political opposition figures.
Berdimukhamedov will have a harder time convincing Western powers, especially Washington, that the releases represent a significant change of policy. The U.S. government’s 2006 report on human rights in Turkmenistan noted, “Former government officials and others imprisoned for various alleged crimes, including those implicated in the 2002 armed attack against the president, were singled out for harsh treatment” (http://turkmenistan.usembassy.gov/hrr2006.html).
Berdimukhamedov evidently plans further releases. After announcing the pardons at a cabinet meeting, the president said, “As you know, we used to pardon convicts on the eve of Gadyr Gijesi [the “Night of Forgiveness”]. We pardoned at least 8,000 people, or 11,000-12,000 people at most. What do you think if we issue similar amnesties several times a year from now, on the eve of holidays?” (Km.ru Novosti, August 11). Whether future amnesties will include the tens of thousands imprisoned under Niyazov or any of the other prominent political prisoners detained after the events of November 25, 2002, including Shikhmuradov, remains to be seen.