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Central Asia news

Prison riot in Ovadan-Depe near Ashkhabad brutally suppressed

19.01.2007 16:25 msk


Human Rights Turkmenistan

Turkmen human rights activists claim that 23 prisoners were executed in Ovadan-Depe. Republican Interior Ministry denounces the reports as false.

The Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights was the first to report the news. Its web site www.tmhelsinki.org posted a letter from an officer claiming personal participation in suppression of the riot in the notorious jail.

Ovadan-Depe stands for "Picturesque Hill". For all its pretty name, however, this is one of the worst places in all of Turkmenistan. The jail was built in the Kara-Kum sands on late Saparmurat Niyazov's order. He had personally designed it and even visited the construction site on several occasions. The Turkmenbashi had the jail built for his political opponents, critics of the regime, and disgraced officials. Ovadan-Depe inmates are cut off the rest of the world. No newspapers are permitted, much less TV and radio. Wardens and sentries are not permitted to talk to inmates. The cells lack any heating or air conditioning, which means that they get unbelievably cold in winter and scorching and stuffy in summer. There are also the so called "humpback" cells for troublemakers. Ceilings in them are only 120 cm high, and the inmate cannot even straighten his or her back.

According to the officer, the riots began on December 21 when the inmates were told of President Niyazov's death. "The news was broken by civilians employed on the construction site," the officer wrote. "Inmates passed it on to others, banging at the metal doors. All of the prison was in utter turmoil in no time at all. One could hear the screams "Damn you, Saparmurat! Rot in Hell!"

Soldiers with trained dogs, dispatched to Ovadan-Depe to restore order there, sicced them on inmates. The latter wouldn't be intimidated. Appearance of the soldiers seemed to encourage them instead. Inmates kept banging at the doors and bars with their metal dishes and demanding instant release. Ovadan-Depe administration called Ashkhabad for reinforcements. The powers-that-be in the capital dispatched two helicopters with a punitive force. Servicemen of special forces wearing masks machine gunned the rioters without a moment's hesitation. "Twenty-three were killed. We were told to forget what we had seen and never mention it," the officer completed his story."

Tajigul Begmedova, the head of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation who lives in Bulgaria now, said she had received the shocking e-mail from an anonymous source. "We did our best to check it out first but the Turkmen authorities never answer questions of this sort," Begmedova told this newspaper. "We decided in the long run to publish the letter in the hope to elicit at least some reaction from the authorities."

This correspondent phoned the Department of Penitentiary Establishments of the Turkmen Interior Ministry. An official there who would not identify himself denied any riots in Turkmen jails. "Where do you say you got this information? That's a lie. Make an appointment, come over, and we will tell you everything here," the official said before hanging up.

Ak Velsapar, a Turkmen dissenter and one of the founders of the opposition movement Agzybirlik who lives in Sweden, says that the massacre in the special prison could easily take place. "I'm trying to learn at least something at this point," Velsapar said. "It happened in the past, you know, and more than once. We know, because we were informed. I'm shocked..."

Human rights activists and opposition leaders do not expect to be able to learn everything about what really happened in the jail. According Begmedova, Ovadan-Depe inmates are like prisoners in a concentration camp who are not permitted visits from family or even letters.

Ex-prosecutor general Gurbanbibi Atajanova is one of Ovadan-Depe's prominent inmates. Once she presided at the trial where Niyazov's failed assassins were tried in 2002, but charges of corruption were pressed against Atajanova afterwards and she was forced to resign.

Niyazov, when he was alive, liked to visit the jail where so many of his enemies were locked up. He even brought newly appointed state officials with him so that they take a look at what defiance would earn them.

Vladimir Soloviov

Kommersant, January 19, 2007, p. 6

© Translated by Ferghana.Ru