- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 1, 2003

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan Maral Yklymova studied abroad, had a good job and saw her impoverished home country as a land of opportunity where her education and connections put her in a privileged elite.
That was before her father and uncles were implicated in a reputed assassination attempt on Turkmenistan's president for life, Saparmurat Niyazov.
Since Nov. 25 when authorities say attackers led by former government insiders shot at the president's car Miss Yklymova has been fired from her job and evicted from her apartment. Most of her belongings were confiscated, along with her passport, and she says she was held under house arrest for nearly a month.
Miss Yklymova initially took refuge with 11 of her relatives in two small apartments, sharing winter clothes and sparse money. But officials evicted them in late January, scattering them to find shelter with friends and other relatives across the capital.
Things could get worse: Authorities have threatened to move relatives of those accused in the Nov. 25 attack to a desolate region in northern Turkmenistan.
"It's like a nightmare. Every morning I wake up and tell myself it's not true," Miss Yklymova, 24, said in fluent English before her latest eviction.
Shadows from a fire warming soldiers standing guard nearby flickered on the apartment walls while she talked. "I don't know what is going to happen to us," she said.
Mr. Niyazov, who has led the country since 1985 when it was part of the Soviet Union, has drawn international ridicule for some of the eccentric steps he has taken to build his personality cult. January is now called Turkmenbashi his adopted last name meaning "Father of all Turkmen" and a gilded statue of the president in the center of Ashgabat rotates to always face the sun.
But since Nov. 25, arrests, repression and closed trials have swept away talk of a "Disneyland dictator," evoking instead comparisons to Soviet leader Josef Stalin's harsh regime. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), one of the main watchdogs for human rights in the former Soviet bloc, is investigating the crackdown.
Mr. Niyazov has said about 60 people were arrested after the attack on him. But Western officials in Ashgabat say the number likely is more than 200 including family members who were detained temporarily for no offense other than their last names.
The affair has raised worries of growing instability in this gas- and oil-rich country bordered by Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
"Turkmenbashi's continued rule is not merely a somewhat comical despotism but a serious threat to stability in the whole region," the International Crisis Group, a Europe-based think tank, said in a recent report.
Western diplomats are split over whether the assassination attempt actually occurred. Exiled opposition members say it was fabricated as a pretext for obliterating critics of Mr. Niyazov's rule.
The official version is that gunmen opened fire as the president was driving to work but his car escaped damage. Four police officers were reported injured in an ensuing shootout.
The opposition denied any role in the attack, only to see one of its leaders former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who had been living in exile in Moscow pop up on Turkmen television under arrest, taking responsibility in a confession his relatives say was likely to have been drug-induced.
Even people on the street have doubts. They question whether the supposed plot could really have included former top officials, who would have known the assault rifles said to have been used would have no effect on Mr. Niyazov's armored black Mercedes which he likes to drive himself.
High-ranking Turkmen officials rarely talk to Western reporters, but lower-ranking officials don't wait for questions before denying the attack was bogus. They say the plot was orchestrated from abroad by countries that covet Turkmenistan's natural resources.
Which countries? "Wise people know," one official said.
Western diplomats acknowledge the government's right to prosecute attacks on its president. But that hasn't stemmed their criticism, and the United States and nine other Western governments initiated the OSCE probe into accusations of human rights abuses.
Turkmenistan has sought to portray its response to the reputed Nov. 25 attack as part of the U.S.-led war against terrorism, which it backs, and has refused to cooperate with the OSCE investigation.
A small contingent of American soldiers works here, supporting refueling stops by U.S. military transport aircraft en route to Afghanistan.
That cooperation didn't stop Turkmenistan from issuing a blistering response to State Department criticism of the post-Nov. 25 crackdown: An open letter signed by editors of the country's state-controlled newspapers targeted Ambassador Laura Kennedy for speaking by phone to Mr. Shikhmuradov, the opposition leader, after the incident a tacit admission of the degree of surveillance here.
For now, Miss Yklymov's relatives and other families wait, and wonder what will happen to them.
On the day of the reputed assassination attempt, Miss Yklymova recalled, she was awakened by a commotion outside her apartment near the site of the incident. She saw a group od soldiers outside.
She said she went to her job as a sales executive at the Sheraton Grand Turkmen Hotel not knowing what had happened. That afternoon, her boss called her to his office where two plainclothes police officers were waiting to take her to her apartment, which they searched for hours. That night, other officers took her in handcuffs to a police station.
"They said I was the daughter of a terrorist, and I was a terrorist myself and that I had blood on my hands," she said.
Miss Yklymova's father, Saparmurat Yklymov, is a former deputy agriculture minister who has been accused of being linked to the attack. He left Turkmenistan in 1994 and lives in exile in Sweden, which granted him citizenship last year.
Miss Yklymova said she was questioned for a couple of days and then kept under house arrest while officers waited in her apartment to ambush her uncle, businessman Yklym Yklymov. She was freed when he was arrested elsewhere Dec. 21, and Yklym Yklymov was sentenced in January to life in prison after a closed three-day trial.
Miss Yklymova doesn't deny that some of her relatives may be involved in the opposition, but she says they aren't capable of violence. At least seven relatives remain in custody, and family members charge they have been tortured.
Since her release, Miss Yklymova has tried unsuccessfully to retrieve her identification papers and get government agencies to confirm to her former employer that she was held under house arrest. The official reason for her firing was her absence from work.
"As soon as I say my name, the attitude changes," she said. "They all advise me just to be silent for my own sake and wait. Wait for what, I don't know."

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