Turkmen opposition figure arrested in Bulgaria
Date 2007/3/13 10:53:00 | Topic: News
|International Herald Tribune|
SOFIA: A prominent Turkmen opposition figure is being held in prison in Bulgaria as the authorities await further documents from Turkmenistan before deciding on his possible extradition.
The Turkmen authorities accuse Annadurdy Khajiev, who served as deputy governor of the Central Bank of Turkmenistan from 1992 to 1998, of helping steal $41 million from the bank in 2002.
Khajiev was arrested Feb. 22 in Varna on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast, where he has lived since 2001.
The Varna district court denied a previous extradition request for Khajiev and his wife, Tajigul Begmedova, on the same charges in 2002, concluding that Turkmenistan's case was "aimed at persecuting and punishing him for his political beliefs."
The court also concluded that since Khajiev was neither in Turkmenistan nor on the bank's staff at the time of the theft, and had no access to the Swift payment system, he could not have committed the alleged crime.
Based on the current warrant from Interpol in Ashgabat, the Varna district court can keep Khajiev detained until April 3.
Khajiev is one of the leaders of Watan, a banned opposition political movement founded in Turkmenistan in 2000. He and Begmedova, who now heads the Bulgaria-based Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, both received humanitarian residence status in Bulgaria three years ago.
International human rights groups say they are concerned about Khajiev's physical safety and warn that the detention indicates that the Bulgarian authorities may consider Turkmenistan more democratic since a new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, was elected last month.
Berdymukhammedov got 89 percent of the vote in an election criticized in the West as undemocratic. No opposition parties were allowed to participate.
But the new leader has signaled that he plans to keep a lower profile than his predecessor, the late Saparmurat Niyazov. He announced over the weekend that he wanted to abolish state-funded dance and music concerts honoring the president.
Still, if returned to Turkmenistan, Khajiev "would face an almost certain risk of torture or other ill-treatment in custody" because of his political activities, according to a letter to the Bulgarian court signed by Human Rights Watch, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and Reports Without Borders.
Khajiev's sister and brother, Ogulsapar Muradova and Sapardurdy Khajiev, were arrested and convicted of illegal weapons charges in the summer of 2006. Muradova was found dead in prison in September, under circumstances the U.S. State Department called "suspicious." She had worked as a journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and was a human rights activist in Turkmenistan.
"It's like the repression during the time of Stalin," said Begmedova. "You are investigated not because you are accused as a criminal, but because you are related to the accused."
She said that 19 of her and her husband's family members had been interrogated, detained, jailed or had their property seized during the investigation into the bank theft.