The Short Distance Between Sanity And Madness In Turkmenistan
July 28, 2011. During March’s Norouz celebrations in Tehran, when Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s received a two-seater airplane from his Iranian counterpart, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Jumageldi Mulkiyev made some odd scenes.
Upon the editor in chief of "Turkmen World’s" return from Iran, Mulkiyev was dismissed from his position and put into a psychiatric hospital in Ashgabat. He was then released after eight days.
At the time, 80-year-old pensioner and civic activist Amangelen Shapudakov was already sitting in another psychiatric hospital. Fortunately, thanks to international pressure, he was released after 43 days. According to his account, doctors did not force him to take any medication. But, when he returned home, several elders and the local village leader’s father came to his house to tell him to stop criticizing the authorities.
Both cases are demonstrative of a tried and true tactic of the Turkmen regime: sending critics to mental institutions.
Although both of the above incidents appear politically motivated, Mulkiyev’s "madness" is a bit different. He did not try to form a political party or criticize the government. To the contrary, he was a loyal adherent of former President Saparmurat Niyazov’s personality cult, becoming editor in chief of "Turkmen World" in the process. But it seems that he made a grave mistake in publishing his historical novels.
Under Niyazov, the publishing of Turkmen writers ceased completely because only one book was promoted, Niyazov’s own "Ruhnama" (Book of the Soul). However, thanks to his successor’s repeated demands for more readable books, Mulkiyev became one of the first writers to be published after the death of Niyazov in 2006. Nevertheless, one never knows what might trigger trouble in a lawless country.
Deputy Prime Minister Maysa Yazmuhammedova threatened Mulkiyev by saying that "he first got paid by publishing his novels in a state journal, and then later made money by publishing them in a state publishing house, and that his eyes will be opened in prison."
According to Mulkiyev’s former colleague, after hearing this, he couldn’t sleep and made "madman’s" gestures during the Norouz celebration in Tehran. Some others say that Mulkiyev might have feigned insanity in order to avoid being sent to prison. After his release from the psychiatric hospital in Ashgabat, according to local journalists, Mulkiyev was taken to Mary province by his relatives to rest. As a Turkmen saying goes, "Stay away from the kicker" or "Bail out your head from the bad."
Little Room For Dissent
Shapudakov has a different story. He traveled to Ashgabat to complain to the Interior Ministry about local corruption. As he told RFE/RL, police officers in the Kopetdag district of Ashgabat beat him up, drove him back to his home village of Garrygala, and told him that if he returned to Ashgabat again, worse would happen to him.
Sazak Durdymyradov, a civic activist from Baherden and the leader of the unregistered Advantage Party, was also forcibly put into a psychiatric hospital for two weeks in 2008.
Shapudakov and Durdymyradov, two "inconvenient" people, are known to international human rights groups, as they have been held in mental institutions for voicing their criticism ever since Berdymukhammedov came to power over four years ago. However, because Turkmenistan is a closed country, there are cases where people put into mental institutions or imprisoned for their opinions go unnoticed.
One such instance is that of Nurmuhammed Agaev from the Kahka district, who has been held in a psychiatric hospital in Boynuzyn since 2006. The reason for his detainment was selling radio receivers that receive RFE/RL signals. One day, a man approached Agaev in the bazaar, asking for such radio receivers. When Agaev replied that he sold them, he was immediately taken to a madhouse.
The case of 69-year-old pensioner Kakabay Tejenov’s case is another untold story. On January 4, 2006, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for writing critical letters to the government. However, the following month, the Turkmen delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe claimed in a statement that Tejenov "has never been detained and he is not confined in any medical institution."
This assertion was contradicted, however, when Gurbandurdy Durdygulyyev, another outspoken critic of the government, was released from the psychiatric hospital in Boynuzyn on April 11, 2006, and revealed that Tejenov was indeed being held there. (When Tejenov was released, he told RFE/RL that, as a side effect of medications he was given, his urinary tract was blocked and he was forced to undergo surgery at a urology department of the hospital in Turkmenaba).
Durdygulyyev had been forcibly confined to a psychiatric hospital in 2004, after asking President Niyazov for authorization to hold a peaceful political demonstration. He was only released after 54 U.S. congressmen wrote an open letter to Niyazov protesting his imprisonment.
...Or Political Opposition
The carting off of political dissidents to mental hospitals is not something that started with the detainment of Durdygulyyev seven years ago. In the mid-1990’s, Niyazov twice committed a senior teacher of Turkmenistan’s Polytechnic Institute, Durdymyrad Hojamuhammedov, to a psychiatric hospital.
Hojamuhammedov was the co-chairman of the Democratic Party, which attempted to gain official recognition in 1991 soon after Turkmenistan became independent. Hojamuhammedov’s second stay in hospital abruptly ended in April 1998, just before an official visit by Niyazov to the United States. At the same time, however, the Turkmen government was holding other dissidents such as Meretmuhammed Berdiyev, Valentin Kopisev, and Rufina Arabaova in psychiatric hospitals as well.
The other leader of the unregistered Democratic Party, Handurdy Hangeldiyev, had been put into a psychiatric hospital in 1982 for criticizing the government and the ruling Communist Party. But he was released three months later upon the death of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Hangeldiyev’s freedom, however, did not last for more than a week, as he was recommitted to the hospital after criticizing the appointment of a local party official in the Gazanjyk district.
Hangeldiyev was told that the appointment was made not because of party machinations but because the "people had spoken." Hangeldiyev replied: "Gazanjyk is my birthplace. If I start a campaign, perhaps people will elect me." For this, was put back into a psychiatric hospital, and released after a month.
After his second release, he focused on writing scientific papers. However, he didn’t get a chance to defend his dissertation due to political obstacles that the authorities put in front of him. When he wrote complaints to the Kremlin, he was confined to a psychiatric hospital for a third time. Doctors released him after four months with a final warning that if he continued to dissent, he would be sent to a more rigorous mental institution in Tashkent.
Ultimately, Niyazov did not allow the recognition of Hojamuhammedov’s and Hangeldiyevs’s Democratic Party. But he borrowed one idea from them, renaming Turkmenistan’s Communist Party the Democratic Party and bestowing membership on almost all former communists.
’A Home For The Sane’
In 1984, a young colleague of mine published a collection of poems by Annasoltan Kekilowa, who had been forcibly put into a psychiatric hospital, and where she passed away 12 years into her institutionalization. In the book, he presented a note written by doctors at the hospital: "The patient recovered, stopped writing complaints, and admitted that her former thoughts about our party’s mistaken policies and her involvement in politics were due to her own health issues."
My old colleagues tell me that in the 1960s, another Turkmen poet also faced this kind of death. Payzy Orazov attempted to form the People’s Party and was consequently imprisoned in Moscow’s Butyrka prison. His rescue came in the publishing of a poem titled "Long Live Castro" in the "Izvestia" daily. In truth, he was released with the support of the editor in chief of "Izvestia" at the time, Aleksei Adzhubei (Nikita Khrushchev’s son-in-law). But he was subsequently put into a psychiatric hospital in Turkmenistan. Orazov ultimately had to move to Tajikistan after being released.
Finally, there is the case of Bazargeldi and Aydjemal Berdiyev, who got rich in the construction business and consequently attracted the attention of the regime. In late 1998, they were unlawfully detained, beaten, and their assets were unlawfully confiscated. Aydjemal, who was pregnant, suffered a miscarriage. Their search for justice, and their battle to retrieve their property, resulted in Aydjemal being placed into a psychiatric hospital as a result of her interview with RFE/RL.
Paradoxically, Turkmenistan’s mental institutions have become a home for the sane.
Yovshan Annagurban is a broadcaster with RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL