Wife of missing Turkmen ex-minister Boris Shikhmuradov speaks out

By Luiza Khudaykulova
BBC Uzbek

Image caption,
Bayram Shikhmuradov and his mother Tatyana have lived with just memories of their father and husband for 10 years now

Ten years ago, in December 2002, a dishevelled figure appeared on Turkmenistan state television, confessing to plotting the murder of the country's all-powerful president.

Watching the stammering confession it was hard to believe that the accused had recently been foreign minister and one of most influential men in the country.

Boris Shikhmuradov's fall from grace was completed when a life sentence was handed down on 29 December 2002. Since then he has disappeared without trace in Turkmenistan's notorious prison system.

Now his wife Tatyana has spoken for the first time about the events and the 10 years of personal anguish she has since endured.

Mrs Shikhmuradova lives with her sons in exile, but does not want to reveal her precise whereabouts, still fearing reprisals.

Image caption,
Boris Shikhmuradov had planned to run for president

"The last time I saw him was during a short family holiday. He was making jokes about trying to find ways of getting into Turkmenistan," Tatyana Shikhmuradova told the BBC Uzbek service.

Back in 2001, Mr Shikhmuradov had declared his opposition to the government of President Saparmurat Niyazov and resigned as ambassador to China, to where he had been demoted from his previous ministerial post.

Placing himself in opposition meant he could not return to Turkmenistan.

Turkmen officials promptly accused him of illegal arms trading and opened a criminal case in absentia.

Mrs Shikhmuradova says that from then on, her husband never hid his ambition to succeed President Niyazov, the self-proclaimed Turkmenbashi or "Father of all Turkmens".

Personality cult

"Turkmens haven't had free and fair elections since 1992," Mrs Shikhmuradova says. "Niyazov was elected uncontested and he was later proclaimed life president by the Council of Elders, which did not have the constitutional power to do so."

Once in power, the president built an ever more bizarre personality cult, with portraits and even golden statues of himself everywhere, and his books compulsory reading in schools and on television.

Mr Shikhmuradov founded the People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan before deciding to go back to the country to try and mobilise people.

His family says that as far they know, his plan was to force the president to resign and to prepare for elections.

Image caption,
In a wooden confession on state television, the former foreign minister admitted numerous crimes

But his precise strategy remains shrouded in mystery, and any attempt to build up public opposition in a tightly controlled state such as Turkmenistan would have been extremely risky.

On 25 November 2002, Turkmen state media announced that there had been an attempt on the president's live, but that Mr Niyazov had escape unscathed. Mr Shikhmuradov and his supporters were immediately named as suspects.

Mass arrests followed. Mr Shikhmuradov tried to escape, but failed and he was captured within a month.

"When I heard that he was caught I was seized with terror. I was scared that he would be killed straight away," Mrs Shikhmuradova remembers. "There is an often-used official "explanation" which goes: "The suspect was killed while trying to escape". That is what I was afraid of… I felt completely lost."

But worse was to come.

'Wooden' confession

On 28 December Boris Shikhmuradov's confession was broadcast on national TV. The person his wife saw on the screen was a world away from the man his family had known.

"It was a completely different person. He was very well educated, an articulate person, an excellent speaker. But that day on the screen he wasn't himself," Mrs Shikhmuradova says. "His speech was abrupt, he used wooden phrases. He repeated the absurd accusations from the prosecutor's and president's speech."

Mr Shikhmuradov told the nation that he was not an opposition figure, but a mafioso. He claimed he took drugs, drank alcohol and that he deserved the harshest punishment.

"How was it possible to reduce a person to this state within just four days?" his wife asks.

There were numerous such confessions on television over the following days. Dozens had been arrested.

After an investigation and trial lasting just four days the Supreme Court of Turkmenistan sentenced Boris Shikhmuradov, his brother and several of his supporters to jail terms of 25 years, a punishment amended to a life sentence by the Council of Elders the following day.

Mrs Shikhmuradova remembers watching people queuing up in the council chamber to demand even worse punishment.

"They said that Shikhmuradov and his supporters were murderers, they should be lynched, buried alive, stoned and that all their family, including babies, should be burnt alive."

It has been 10 years since that trial and no-one has heard from the convicted men.

Fading hopes

Mrs Shikhmuradova and her two sons have campaigned tirelessly for a retrial, or at least for some information about the whereabouts of their father and husband.

Numerous letters to Turkmen officials have remained unanswered.

"Even during the most repressive times, be it the concentration camps or Stalin's gulags, people would find a way to let the outside world know about themselves," Mrs Shikhmuradova says. "How is it possible to keep more than 100 people in such conditions that there is no way they can let their relatives know how they are getting on?"

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Saparmurat Niyazov established an increasingly bizarre personality cult before his death in 2006

She says she has tried to banish the thought that her husband and others could be dead. But her hopes are fading.

"To begin with I had hoped to be able to help him, to get him legal aid and get him freed. But as time has passed those hopes have dwindled. Now I only want to find out whether he is alive or not. But no-one can answer that question."

In 2006, the UN discussed the human rights situation in Turkmenistan and Mr Shikhmuradov's case was highlighted.

But attempts on the part of Western officials to discuss his case have been met with short shrift.

Mr Shikhmuradov's son Bayram says that Turkmenistan has been using its reserves of natural gas and oil to deflect any criticism. "Turkmen officials know it and play that card well," he says.

Saparmurat Niyazov died in 2006. But hopes for political reform and transparency were short-lived. The new head of state, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, soon began to build his own personality cult.

He also retained his predecessor's position on the alleged coup plotters, leaving Mr Shikhmuradov's family with the same questions and still no answers.

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