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 Monday, 30 December, 2002, 13:24 GMT
Turkmen ex-minister jailed over 'plot'
A poster of the president is carried through the streets of Ashgabat during a parade (pictures: Rory Mulholland)
President Niyazov has ruled the country with an iron fist
A leading Turkmen opposition activist has been sentenced to life imprisonment for plotting to kill the country's president.

We sentence him to life imprisonment. And we will put aside the word - death. Allah decides that

President Saparmurat Niyazov
Boris Shikhmuradov, a former foreign minister, is alleged to have masterminded an attack on President Saparmurat Niyazov in the capital Ashgabat last month.

The president escaped unhurt when gunmen raked his motorcade with machine-gun fire on 25 November

On Sunday, Mr Shikhmuradov appeared on state television apparently confessing to involvement in the plot.

However critics have likened the process to the show trials conducted under Stalin in the former USSR in the 1930s.

Sweeping arrests

President Niyazov, speaking on state television, said demands that Mr Shikmuradov be executed had been rejected.

Golden statue of President Niyazov. Picture Rory Mulholland
Golden statues of the president are dotted across the capital

"We sentence him to life imprisonment. And we will put aside the word - death. Allah decides that," the president said.

Mr Shikhmuradov was initially sentenced to 25 years in jail by Turkmenistan's Supreme Court.

But his sentence was amended by the People's Council, after the assembly was shown footage of Mr Shikhmuradov at its session on Monday.

More than 40 were arrested following the attack, including relatives of suspects.

During his confession, Mr Shikhmuradov said he had planned the assassination attempt while under the influence of drugs.

Speaking slowly and deliberately, Mr Shikhmuradov said he and his group of alleged conspirators had planned to overthrow the constitutional order in Turkmenistan.

A website run by Mr Shikhmuradov's Popular Democratic Movement said he had voluntarily returned to Turkmenistan to put an end to "persecution of innocent people".

Personality cult

The 62-year-old Turkmen president has been in power in the country since before independence from the USSR in 1991.

Turkmen men
Few people dare to criticise the president

The self-styled "Father of all Turkmens" has constructed a personality cult around himself harking back to the days of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, and likewise tolerates no opposition to his rule.

Streets and towns have been given his name and a recent decree renamed the months of the year and days of the week after the president, his mother and Turkmen folklore heroes.

A giant golden statue of the president, revolving on top of a tower so that it always faces the sun, has been built in the centre of Ashgabat.

Turkmenistan has the fifth-largest deposits of natural gas in the world but most of its population live in abject poverty.

See also:

26 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
25 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
19 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
13 Aug 02 | Asia-Pacific
08 Aug 02 | Asia-Pacific
19 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
18 Dec 02 | Country profiles
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