Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov’s unexpected death on December 21, 2006, triggered a wave of uncertainty both inside Turkmenistan and internationally. The “light of the Turkmen” had established an extravagant personality cult that many compared to Stalin’s. Oddly enough, Niyazov died on Stalin’s birthday.
In a more ominous parallel, Niyazov’s death apparently sparked a prison uprising among political detainees in Turkmenistan’s Ovadan-Depe incarceration center, riots that were brutally suppressed. If the incident is confirmed, no easy task given Turkmenistan’s nearly absolute media control, the Ovadan-Depe revolt will pose a serious challenge to Western governments seeking to improve their relations with Ashgabat even as they insist on improved human rights conditions in the post-Soviet space.
According to the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Humans Rights, unconfirmed reports state that on December 21 23 people died after prison staff at Ovadan-Depe used military force to suppress a revolt mutiny by political prisoners (Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, January 17). Apparently, upon hearing of Niyazov’s death, the political prisoners demanded to be released immediately. The Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation’s source was someone who worked at the prison.
The majority of Ovadan-Depe’s inmates are people convicted of participating in the November 25, 2002, attempt to assassinate Niyazov in Ashgabat. Ovadan-Depe’s most prominent prisoner was former prosecutor general Gurbanbibi Atadzhanova, who actually presided at the trial of Niyazov’s purported assassins. On April 24 last year Atadzhanova appeared on Turkmen state television confessing to stealing property and taking bribes (RFE/RL, April 25, 2006). After being convicted of corruption and other crimes Atadzhanova was sent to Ovadan-Depe to serve a 20-year prison sentence. Conditions there were so harsh that on May 6 Atadzhanova reportedly attempted suicide (Deustche Welle, May 8, 2006).
Located 44 miles north of Ashgabat in the Karakum (“black sands”) Desert, Ovadan-Depe is a custom-built facility for political prisoners and opened in June 2003. Niyazov personally participated in the design and supervised construction of Ovadan-Depe, which was initially meant to hold 150 inmates and is surrounded by three concentric rings of fencing. After construction at Ovadan-Depe was complete Niyazov flew by helicopter to the site to inspect it. Niyazov liked to visit the facility, even bringing newly appointed officials so that they could see what awaited them if they opposed his regime (Kommersant, January 19).
On December 21 construction workers building additional facilities at the prison passed on the news of Niyazov’s death. Detainees quickly spread the news and a clamor arose, with a number of prisoners shouting, “Damn you, Saparmurat! Rot in Hell!” and demanding their immediate release. In an initial attempt to quell the disturbances, armed soldiers with dogs were dispatched to the prison, but the prisoners’ cries for freedom apparently even unsettled the canines.
Prison authorities then requested assistance from Ashgabat, which sent two helicopters with armed Special Forces soldiers wearing balaclava helmets. In their indiscriminate shooting 23 prisoners died and an undetermined number were wounded. When Turkmen Helsinki Foundation contacts called the Ministry of Internal Affairs for additional details they were told, “Where do you say you got this information? That’s a lie. Make an appointment, come over, and we will tell you everything here,” before abruptly hanging up (Kommersant, January 19).
In another historical parallel, rioting among political prisoners erupted when Stalin’s demise was announced. Specifically, Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, stirred a spirit of rebellion in the massive Gulag archipelago. In Kazakhstan’s Steplag prison division and Russia’s central Vyatlag administration prisoners celebrated the tyrant’s death the day it was announced (Viktor Berdinskikh, Vyatlag). As the “politicals” in the special camps had been kept isolated from “ordinary” prisoners and criminals since 1948, the atmosphere was ripe for rebellion (Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History). Prisoner revolts flickered throughout the prison camp system, most notably detention centers in Vyatka, Kolyma, Noriilsk, and Vorkuta.
On May 16, 1954, in the most serous insurrection, inmates of the Kengir camp in Kazakhstan rose up and held the facility for 40 days before the panicked authorities in Moscow sent in airplanes, T-34 tanks, and 1,700 troops to quell the rebellion (“Sorok dnei Kengira,” Glava 12, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Arkhipelag Gulag). Survivors said that between five and seven hundred prisoners were either killed or wounded in the uprising. In an interesting aside, Solzhenitsyn remarked of Chechen former prisoners who had been exiled to the settlement outside the camp, “You cannot accuse the Chechens of ever having served oppression…the men of Kengir only had to display independence and courage — and they immediately won the goodwill of the Chechens!” Moscow subsequently ameliorated some of the harsher camp conditions, and two years after the revolt Kengir itself was closed.
The Ovadan-Depe disturbances provide an opportunity for Western democracies to affirm that their commitment to human rights extends beyond mere words. The post-Stalinist uprisings led to a quick easing of camp conditions. But so far, not one of the six Turkmen candidates running in the February 11 election for president has even mentioned the purported incident at Ovadan-Depe. To release such high profile political prisoners would certainly not help the case of Niyazov’s successors.
It remains to be seen if the West’s quest for inexpensive energy will quell outrage at the shooting of unarmed political prisoners. Moscow and Beijing, so far the frontrunners in the race for Turkmenistan’s energy assets, have maintained a studious silence over the events at Ovadan-Depe.