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In Turkmenistan, Thugs and Tyranny

By Saparmurad Ovezberdiyev
Friday, August 6, 2004; Page A19

On Sept. 11, 2003, the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, held a ceremony to commemorate the victims of the terror attacks on New York and the Pentagon. I had served for nearly 10 years as the Ashgabat correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Turkmen Service, and the embassy invited me to attend the memorial ceremony. But I was not to make it to the embassy that day.

The ceremony was set to begin at 6 p.m. At 2 p.m. a man who identified himself as an official of the Turkmen Ministry of Foreign Affairs called to tell me that my exit visa for travel to Russia was ready. I had been waiting for it for a year, so I left to pick it up soon after.

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The name my caller had given was a fiction. No such person worked at the Foreign Ministry. But the call lured me out of the house, and they were waiting for me. As I set off for the ministry by taxi, I noticed soldiers everywhere. One of them motioned for us to stop. Men presenting identification from the Committee for National Security pulled me out of the car, shoved me into a van and pulled a bag over my head. I soon found myself at committee headquarters, where a doctor gave me an injection, supposedly for high blood pressure.

They hauled me before an interrogator who barked questions at me, "Why do you work for RFE/RL? Why do you create problems and encourage anarchy in the country?" Then he threatened, "You'll never leave here. You're looking at 20 years." They brought me back to my cell, where I waited. Guards brought me gruel and inedible bread.

The day I disappeared, my wife went to the security committee. People there told her to try the police. The police told her to try hospitals and the morgue. On Friday my son Bakhtiyar managed to contact the U.S. Embassy on a mobile phone, since our land lines had gone dead 20 minutes after I was abducted. U.S. Ambassador Tracey Ann Jacobson called the Turkmen Foreign Ministry and said, "We know that you have him." She strongly urged the authorities to release me.

On Saturday night they hooded me again and put me in a car. They gave me back my belt, but not the press badge they had taken from me. By midnight I was home again.

I continued to report from Ashgabat. Two months later, on Nov. 14, I stepped out of my house to take out the garbage. Someone threw a bag over my head from behind, and two men began to hit me and shove me into a car. We drove for a long time as they beat me with water-filled plastic bottles, standard security committee practice to cause pain without leaving bruises. The driver asked, "Where to?" One of the men replied, "To the hole we dug for him so that we can bury him."

We came to a halt. A man told me I could pay $1,000 and go free. "Is that $1,000 for the two of you?" I asked. He grew angry and started to hit me again. "What," he snarled, "do you want to interview us for RFE/RL?" They took off my denim shirt, pulled my T-shirt up over my head, and pushed me out of the car and onto the ground. They said, "We're going to bury you alive."

Ashgabat grows cold in November. I lay on the ground barefoot, wearing only jogging pants, hooded by my own T-shirt. I heard a car pulling away. When I extricated myself and looked around, I saw that they had brought me to the Vatutin cemetery. But I was alone and alive.

After that the U.S. Embassy made efforts to protect me, at times even sending bodyguards. But the security committee continued to harass me. Its agents stood menacingly outside my house every day. In early December, one of the men who had beaten me -- I recognized the voice -- called and said, "You're still working for RFE/RL. You didn't get the message. We're going to drown you in the canal."

On July 13 I left Turkmenistan with my two sons, in no small part thanks to the efforts of the U.S. State Department. On July 15 we arrived in Washington. My third son is studying in Moscow. My wife remains in Ashgabat, where she is caring for her elderly mother.

If my story were unique, it would be my personal misfortune. But it is not unique; it is one small part of a vast tragedy that has befallen Turkmenistan under the rule of President Saparmurad Niyazov. Over the past 12 years he has plunged the country ever deeper into neo-Stalinist torpor. Institutions such as the courts and parliament are merely a facade for thuggish, arbitrary, one-man rule. Niyazov has cut school to nine years and college to two, the easier to hold sway over an ill-educated populace. Despite abundant natural resources, Turkmenistan's people are increasingly impoverished while a coterie of courtiers gorges itself on pilfered wealth.

Nevertheless, Caterpillar, Case, John Deere, Boeing and Sikorsky, Israel's Merhav Group, France's Bouygues Group, and numerous Turkish companies conclude multimillion-dollar contracts with the Turkmen government. The international community has expressed its disapproval, thus far to no avail. We must not remain indifferent to the thwarted human potential of Turkmenistan's 5 million people.

There are no sure-fire formulas for positive change in Turkmenistan, but we can be certain that if the world keeps on with business as usual, my story will be repeated over and over again.

The writer is a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company