TURKMEN AND HORSES

TURKMENISTAN’S OBSESSION WITH HORSES

Turkmenistan’s 5 million people loves horses and people cherish the Akhal Teke breed in particular. Turkmenistan is the only former Soviet state in Central Asia where eating horse meat is strictly taboo. The late leader Saparmurat Niyazov opened a $20 million leisure center for horses in 2004, complete with a swimming pool, air-conditioning, and a medical center. The present Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, an avid equestrian, wrote a 2008 book about Turkmen horse breeds.

Horses have traditionally been the key to a Turkmen tribe’s power, and served as their major status symbol. Turkmen have traditionally loved and valued their horses as much as neighbors and family and clan members. One Turkmen saying goes: "Water is a Turkmen's life, a horse is his wings, and a carpet is his soul." The Turkmen Akhal-Teke breed of horse is the national emblem. |+|

Suzanne Merkelson wrote in Foreign Policy: “Apparently one animal does get the Turkmen seal of approval: horses. So much so that” Berdymukhammedov “issued a presidential decree on ordering that national beauty contests for the country’s thoroughbred horses should be held every April, coinciding with a celebration of the "annual horse days." [Source: Suzanne Merkelson, Foreign Policy, February 8, 2011]

According to a presidential decree the best horses of the breed, distinguished by shimmering coats, long delicate necks and legs and popularly revered as "the wings of the Turkmen," will be chosen "to promote the glory of the heavenly racehorse worldwide," the decree said. Special awards will be given to craftsmen for the best carpet featuring the horse, the best "holiday attire" for the breed, the best portrait and even sculpture. [Source: Reuters]

Horses and Turkmenistan History

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “With the mountains of Iran and Afghanistan stacked up on its southern border, Turkmenistan was once a land of nomadic horse breeders in search of grazing pastures. It attracted conquerors—Alexander the Great, the Parthians, the Arabs, the Mongols—but because of its considerable size (it is almost a hundred and ninety thousand square miles), its inhospitable terrain, and its fierce tribalism it was not easily governed.”

Turkmenistan was never an objective of conquest but it has been crossroads for conquerors on their way to lands worth conquering. Alexander the Great, the Mongols, Tamerlane: they all stopped here, but not for long. After the conquerors left Turkmenistan was left to warring tribes who fought among themselves and raided caravans that entered their territory and harassed villages within range of their horses.

Historians believe that the original Turkmen were nomadic horse-breeding clans known as the Oghuz from the Altai region of what is now Mongolia and Siberia. They began migrating from their homeland around the 6th century, then were driven out by the Seljuk Turks, and formed communities in the oases around the Kara-kum deserts of modern Turkmenistan and also parts of Persia, Anatolia and Syria. The name Turkmen was used in 11th century sources to refer to groups among the Oghuz that converted to Islam.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Turkmen, as more than two dozen tribal groups of Turkic ethnic and linguistic heritage are collectively known, were pastoral nomads who lived in encampments, raised livestock, bred horses, and occasionally plundered settled areas for booty and slaves. In order to ensure year-round green pastures for their animals, the tribes moved two or three times a year. The Turkmen first appear under this name in Central Asian written sources in the ninth century, and by the eleventh century some groups had migrated westward as far as Iran, Syria, and Anatolia, while others had remained in the area that is present-day Turkmenistan. [Source: Department of Islamic Art. "Turkmen Jewelry", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, August 2011]

Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, was obsessed with Turkmenistan's famous horse breed, the Akhal-Teke. His writing on the Akhal-Teke is quite enamored. "I caress his head. I comb his mane. I look into his eyes that are like apples." He decreed that a planet should be named after them and had his favorite horse — Yanardag — placed on the national currency. When foreign leaders met him, Niyazov often presented them with a horse. In 2004, he opened a $20 million leisure center for horses in 2004, complete with a swimming pool, air-conditioning, and a medical center.

Enjoying Horse Races in Horse-Mad Turkmenistan

Equestrian events are family affairs in Turkmenistan.Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska wrote in Eurasianet.org: “Each weekend crowds gather in the Turkmen capital’s opulent hippodrome to enjoy the nation’s favourite sport: horse-racing. The venue is impressive. Completed in 2011 at a cost of $100m to showcase the country’s venerated breed, the Akhal-Teke, spectators must walk through an entrance adorned with a large portrait of strongman president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov astride a horse. [Source: Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, Eurasianet.org, November 22, 2015 +++]

“Each Sunday afternoon the grandstand fills up fast. Horse-racing is an important family event in the country – an opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to come together, a rare luxury in a country where few mass gatherings are permitted, unless they are being held in celebration of the state and its leaders. Students wearing identical tracksuits dominate the front rows. The back seats are occupied by older viewers, nervously exchanging information about the jockeys. Girls in red dresses and twin braids, a hairstyle typically worn by unmarried young women, are also out in force. +++

Leaflets containing information about the riders circulate widely among the spectators and although gambling is prohibited, none of the young men in the stands make any secret of their betting, and the police officers standing watch pay little heed to the experienced betters calling out numbers, sums and names. When the horses move off from the track’s start line a hush descends over the crowd. Some observers start cheering passionately, egging on their favourites, while other gaze on in rapt attention. Their muscular bodies topped by jockeys in bright, colourful jerseys are a majestic sight as they move over the 1,000 meter course. Once they cross the finish line, the tension eases, the winners collect their money, and the cycle of betting begins all over again.” +++

Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov said: We will never relax our attention to our race horses, as they are our pride and glory and source of our inspiration. Born on the Turkmen land, Ahalteke horse is a symbol of a striking harmony, beauty, gracefulness and incomparable swiftness given to it by nature and developed by the labor and mind of a man.” +++

Berdymukhammedov and Horse Beauty Contests

Turkmenistan’s current president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is surpassed Niyazov in his adoration of horses. “In addition to being Turkmenistan’s "Protector," Berdymukhammedov has written a book on Akhal-Teke horses. Among his titles are 'National Horse Breeder'. Turkmen now celebrate the Day of Akhal-Teke, and the horse breed is hailed as the nation's "pride and glory."

In February 2011, Turkmenistan's president issued a decree that beauty contests should be held every year for the country's thoroughbred horses. The BBC reported: The decree by President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov will see horses of the ancient Akhal-Teke breed take part in a competitition every April. The best horses of the breed will be picked "to promote the glory of the heavenly racehorse worldwide", it says. [Source: BBC, February 7, 2011]

The national competition will also include an award for the best carpet featuring the horse, the best "holiday attire" for the breed, the best portrait and the best sculpture. The second presidential book, "Akhaltekke: Our Pride and Glory," was published in 2009.Among the few times that Berdimuhamedov appears in public is when he rides an Akhal-Teke on National Horse Day.

Berdymukhammedov’s horsemanship is a central part of the image he portrays to the nation’s citizens. The entrance of the $100 million Ashgabat hippodrome, completed in 2011, is adorned with a large portrait of Berdymukhamedov astride a horse. Berdimuhamedov once said: We will never relax our attention to our race horses, as they are our pride and glory and source of our inspiration. Born on the Turkmen land, Ahalteke horse is a symbol of a striking harmony, beauty, gracefulness and incomparable swiftness given to it by nature and developed by the labor and mind of a man.” +++

Berdymukhammedov Escapes Injury in a Horse Race

In April 2013, Berdymukhammedov narrowly escaped serious injury after riding a horse to victory in a national racing event. The BBC reported: “Soon after the president crossed the finish line his horse fell, throwing him in front of other galloping horses which only just missed him. Officials who rushed to aid him were left with a public-relations nightmare. The accident was a major embarrassment to aides more used to presenting their leader in the best possible light. The riding event was meant to celebrate the horsemanship of Turkmenistan's strongman ruler. It marked the climax of a three-day annual holiday celebrating the national Akhal Teke horse breed, which is revered in Turkmenistan. [Source: BBC, April 30, 2013 /=\]

“A BBC correspondent says that it only became clear just before the race that the president would be taking part. The announcement - made in the Turkmen language only - was greeted with a huge cheer by a crowd several thousand strong which seemed genuinely to wish their leader well, our correspondent adds. /=\

“But just after President Berdimuhamedov crossed the finish-line, his horse fell directly in front of dozens of journalists invited to cover the event. He was flung forward, landing heavily on the ground as other horses sped by. The course commentator was lost for words as the president lay still for several seconds before dozens of black-suited security guards rushed over to attend to him. An ambulance eventually took him away. /=\

“Our correspondent says that there was a shocked silence in the stadium for about 30 minutes and no public announcements were made. Some spectators began to cry in expectation of bad news. Foreign reporters trying to confirm that it really was the president who had taken a fall were asked by their minders not to make telephone calls, record video footage or report what was happening. /=\

“After about 40 minutes the president reappeared in traditional Turkmen dress to a large round of applause. He calmly waved at the crowd, apparently unharmed, and the event resumed as if nothing had happened. Journalists were then assembled by officials and asked politely to erase all pictures and footage taken of the incident, which was described as a "sporting accident" of no interest to people at home or abroad. But footage of the accident was nevertheless taken out of the stadium.” /=\

Berdymukhammedov Raises New Horse Monument and Fires Horse Official

In 2013, Berdimuhamedov ordered the building of a monument to honor the favorite horse of his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov. According to Horsetalk.co.nz: Berdimuhamedov has ordered that a monument be built to honour Yanardag (Fiery Mountain), the stallion that belonged to Niyazov. Niyazov elevated the role of horses in Turkmen society, placing an image of Yanardag in the national emblem. [Source: Horsetalk.co.nz, October 8, 2013 |^|]

Earlier in 2103, Berdymukhammedov “sacked the head of the national state equine association for purportedly failing to promote the horse industry. Berdymukhamedov, in a televised government meeting on February 18, fired Allanur Oraznazarov, pointing to a consistent fall in the number of animals in state stables. Berdymukhamedov railed against empty horse-sport complexes, the quality of work in horse-rearing facilities, and the poor standard of veterinary medicine, treatment and specialists. “That is why our horse-breeders can’t take part in competitions abroad,” he told lawmakers.” |^|

“The president, in ordering the new statue, said it would improve the architectural and urban landscape of the city of Ashgabat. He gave permission for the city’s administration to engage contractors to construct the monument at a major intersection. Construction is to be construction in October 2013, with the monument to be commissioned in March 2014, the state news agency of Turkmenistan, TDH, reported.” |^|

Berdymukhammedov Order Proper Horse Burial and Renaming Horses

In November 2015, Berdymukhammedov issued a decree that covered the renaming and burial of Akhal-Teke horses. Charles Recknagel of Radio Free Europe wrote: “The Turkmen president likes to tightly control things in his country. So perhaps it should be no surprise that Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has issued a decree governing virtually every aspect of the life of Turkmenistan's national symbol -- the purebred Akhal-Teke horse. [Source: Charles Recknagel, Radio Free Europe, December 20, 2015 *~*

“The new order makes it illegal to change an Akhal-Teke horse's name during its lifetime. The name of each horse must remain as recorded at birth in the studbook, or genealogical record, kept for the breed by the government. For example, Kerwen (Caravan) cannot be renamed Melegush (Orange Bird) just because the owner changes his mind and decides he likes the new name better. *~*

“Under the November 21 decree, every Akhal-Teke horse must get a proper burial -- or at least, it must be buried in an area designated by local authorities and in the presence of an official, who will register the death. What kind of area is to be designated is not immediately clear. Currently, there are no special interment grounds for horses and owners bury their animals far from populated areas without notifying authorities their horse has died. A small ceremony is common, with the owner and his friends covering the dead animal's head with a fabric like a funeral shroud before lowering it into a deep pit. *~*

“The stated purpose of the new law is to protect the pedigree of thoroughbred Akhal-Teke horses by tightening regulations around breeding and record-keeping. It also aims to develop and promote equestrian sports in Turkmenistan, including international competitions, in order to highlight the Akhal-Teke as a national treasure.” *~*

Horses and Berdymukhammedov Personality Cult

The attention that Berdymukhammedov directs towards Akhal-Teke horses also seem aimed at boosting his own image by linking himself with Turkmenistan’s beloved horse breed as he builds his own personality cult. Charles Recknagel of Radio Free Europe wrote: In 2014, Berdymukhammedov “unveiled a massive golden statue of himself astride an Akhal-Teke in downtown Ashgabat.” Under his direction “state scribes have penned some 40 poems lauding his favorite personal horse, Ak Khan (White King). In this poem, Berdymukhammedov is referred to as Arkadag, or Protector, a title he has taken for himself: "It's a celebration of earth and sky today, my Arkadag is riding on his white horse. Let God award him what he wishes, my Arkadag is riding on his white horse."[Source: Charles Recknagel, Radio Free Europe, December 20, 2015]

All that is in addition to Berdymukhammedov periodically riding in public races in which he is guaranteed to take first prize, since no jockey dares to overtake him. The president is generally considered a good horseman but took a tremendous fall in 2013 during a race in the capital's hippodrome when his horse Berkarar tripped immediately after crossing the finish line. The name Berkarar, which means "stability," is drawn from Berdymukhammedov's frequent public pronouncements that the period of his rule is "the felicitous era of a stable state." In Turkmenistan, it is illegal to watch the video that shows his fall.

The president's intense interest in equestrian sports is part of a wider political strategy that began under Niyazov of promoting sports of all kinds to draw public attention away from Turkmenistan's domestic problems and to raise Ashgabat's international standing. The efforts often come at the expense of ordinary citizens as the government demolishes neighborhoods to make way for new sports complexes or to beautify the capital ahead of major international competitions.

Geldy Kyarizov: Famed Turkmen Long Rider and Akhal Teke Advocate

Geldy Kyarizov is an accomplished long-distance horse rider, a long-time advocate for the purity of Turkmenistan’s Akhal Teke breed and an internationally renowned breeder of Akhal Teke horses. He served as the director of the Government Association Turkmenatlary (Turkmen Horses), the highest Turkmenistan government position related to horses under Niyazob before being imprisoned in 2002.

Merhat Sharipzhan of Radio Free Europe wrote: “A longtime champion of the desert country's iconic Akhal Teke horse breed, he was instrumental in returning the majestic animal to prominence after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union -- whose government had barred individuals from breeding and owning the horses in order to discourage private farming and nationalist sentiment and allowed the rare horses' meat to be used for consumption, which went against Turkmen traditions and mentality. [Source: Merhat Sharipzhan, Radio Free Europe, December 5, 2015 ***]

According to Horsetalk.co.nz: “Kyarizov, who once completed a remarkable 4300 kilometers ride to highlight the strength of the Akhal Teke horse, played a crucial role in preserving the breed under Soviet rule. Kyarizov was recently honoured, becoming the first Turkmen to be made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He has also been made a fellow of the Long Riders’ Guild, joining an elite group of equestrian explorers to be honoured by both organisations. [Source:Horsetalk.co.nz, September 15, 2015 <|>]

“In the late 1980s, Kyarizov recognized the desperate need to save Turkmenistan’s endangered Akhal Teke horses. He immersed himself in protecting, preserving and promoting the breed. This ancient line, which dates back to days of antiquity, had become endangered during the time of the Soviet Union. To promote the cause, Kyarizov rode 4300 kilometers from Ashgabat to Moscow. The journey, which took him across Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, required him to ride 360 kilometers across a waterless desert. Upon his arrival at the Russian capital, Geldy successfully petitioned Soviet government officials to intercede on behalf of Turkmenistan’s horses. His induction into the Guild recognised him as the greatest Turkmen Long Rider in the history of modern equestrian travel. <|>

Geldy Kyarizov Becomes Turkmenistan’s Minister of Horses

Merhat Sharipzhan of Radio Free Europe wrote: Kyarizov's role in the reversal of the breed's fortunes made him something of a national hero and landed him a place in the elite under Niyazov, who appointed him minister of horse breeding. The ministry was later transformed into the Turkmen Atlary (Turkmen Horses) State Agency, which Kyarizov led until he suffered an abrupt change of fortune.” In his senior government role, Kyarizov secured state funding for a large equestrian complex in the capital, complete with the nation’s first veterinary laboratory. [Source: Merhat Sharipzhan, Radio Free Europe, December 5, 2015 ***]

According to Horsetalk.co.nz: ““In the years after his ride, he has continued to make valuable contributions as a historian and breeder of Akhal Teke horses. After extensive travels to various parts of the Soviet Union he managed to locate prized specimens of the Akhal Teke blood line. He then began a breeding programme to preserve the horses for posterity. The most renowned success in his breeding programme was Yanardag. He was an Akhal Teke stallion considered so beautiful and perfect that the president of Turkmenistan placed his image on a national stamp, ordered a statue erected in his honour and named Yanardag as the national symbol of the country. Maksat was another stallion that marked the breed’s resurgence. This stallion, who has a pedigree going back thousands of years, was presented to then British prime minister John Major as a gift from the Turkmen nation. [Source:Horsetalk.co.nz, September 15, 2015 <|>]

Following Kyarizov’s initial success as a breeder, traveller, lecturer and educator, he secured government funding to establishment a large equestrian complex in the capital, complete with the nation’s first veterinary laboratory able to perform the DNA testing necessary to set up a new stud book for the Akhal Teke. On the 10th anniversary of Turkmenistan’s independence, he organized the “Parade of the Horses”, during which more than 1000 Akhal Tekes marched through the hippodrome in Ashgabat. His educational conferences, equestrian journeys, academic investigations, and genetic research have proved invaluable in promoting the national breed. Kyarizov has been acknowledged by scientists, breeders and equestrians worldwide as an expert on Akhal Teke horses.

As a result of his efforts, in 1998 the president at the time, Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov , appointed him the General Director of “Turkmen Atlary”, a Cabinet level government position which placed him in charge of the state equestrian organisation of Turkmenistan.

Arrest and Imprisonment of Geldy Kyarizov

In January, 2002 Kyarizov was imprisoned with a six-year sentence on the trumped up charges of "abuse of office" and "negligence". Following President Niyazov’s death 2006, Kyarizov was freed in October 2007, a few months before his sentence was due to expire in April 2008. He was freed by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a former dentist turned politician who also worships Akhal Teke horses and even wrote a book about them. Berdymukhammedov ordered Kyarizov’s release during amnesty in which 9,000 prisoners were released. Kyarizov had been the subject of numerous clemency appeals to the Turkmen government by rights organizations. According to Amnesty International he was in ill health during his time in jail.

Merhat Sharipzhan of Radio Free Europe wrote: He was arrested on December 31, 2002, on charges of negligence and abuse of office that he said were groundless and politically motivated. Kyarizov was swept up in a purge launched by Niyazov after what Turkmen authorities said was an assassination attempt against him five weeks earlier, on November 25. Several dozen so-called Novembrists -- former officials associated with the alleged ringleader, then-Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov -- are known to have been imprisoned in Ovadan Depe, which Niyazov ordered built the same year to house convicted political activists, opposition figures, and alleged Islamic extremists. [Source: Merhat Sharipzhan, Radio Free Europe, December 5, 2015 ***]

“Shikhmuradov, who was sentenced to life in prison, was widely believed to have been held in Ovadan Depe as well -- but there have been widespread reports saying that he was tortured to death.Turkmen officials have never revealed Shikhmuradov's location, and have neither confirmed nor denied reports of his death. The authorities did not formally accuse Kyarizov of involvement in the alleged assassination plot, but he was under constant pressure over suspicions among the authorities — which he says were misplaced — that he was a member of Shikhmuradov's circle.” ***

According to Long Rider’s Guild founder CuChullaine O’Reilly, Kyarizov became a man condemned by his past. Niyazov, who had once hailed him as a champion because of his efforts to save the Akhal Teke breed, stripped Kyarizov of power, publicly humiliated him, imprisoned on “fabricated charges” and denied medical treatment. Kyarizov O’Reilly said, was effectively held as a political captive. [Source: Horsetalk.co.nz, September 15, 2015]

Kyarizov Imprisoned for Doubting the Purity of Akhal Tekes in Turkmenistan?

Long Riders’ Guild founder CuChullaine says that Kyarizov’s life began spiralling out of control the moment he publicly argued that impure horses – specifically thoroughbred crosses introduced to bloodlines from 1997 to 2002 – had to be weeded out from the breed. It provoked the resentment of other Akhal Teke breeders, and incited the anger of the Turkmen government, he wrote. [Source:Horsetalk.co.nz, September 15, 2015 <|>]

O’Reilly asserted: “We believe Kyarizov’s unlawful detention is connected to the government’s unjustified concern that Akhal Tekes will be revealed to have been genetically diluted by the deliberate introduction of thoroughbred blood. Thus politicians in Ashgabat may mistakenly believe that by silencing Kyarizov they can protect the equestrian myth enshrined by their leaders. [Source: Horsetalk.co.nz, September 15, 2015 <|>]

“Turkmenistan might wish to continue that pretence but the rest of the world need not agree. The truth about Akhal Tekes is widely known and easily accessible. A quick check of a public source such as Wikipedia instantly reveals that it is common knowledge that Turkmenistan’s Akhal Tekes are genetically suspect. At present Akhal Teke horses in Turkmenistan are not registered with any other studbook. The main reasons for this are allegations of a heavy infusion of thoroughbred blood into the breed to create faster horses for racing in Turkmenistan. <|>

“There are estimates that as many as 30 percent of the horses in the Ashgabat hippodrome were not purebred. This may have also been a main reason for the fabricated charges against … Kyarizov, who tried to avoid and remedy the secretive out-crossing and found himself in severe opposition to fellow breeders.” <|>

O’Reilly notes that, ironically, in the intervening years since Kyarizov’s arrest, other countries such as Italy, England and America have excelled in breeding pure Akhal Teke horses. He called at the time for Berdymukhamedov to recognize and respect Kyarizov’s human rights; to review his case without delay; to provide justification for keeping him and family detained; to either release Kyarizov or face the condemnation of the world. <|>

Kyarizov’s Life in a Turkmen Prison

Merhat Sharipzhan of Radio Free Europe wrote: After armed guards led Geldy Kyarizov through the gates of Ovadan Depe, a prison in the Turkmen desert outside Ashgabat, they tore the sack off his head and told him, "Only God can help you now." A little later, cellmates in the maximum-security prison's "special block" had another warning for the newcomer: "Nobody has left this place alive yet," they told him. "People only arrive here." [Source: Merhat Sharipzhan, Radio Free Europe, December 5, 2015 ***]

“Kyarizov described Ovadan Depe as a "horrific" place whose inmates rarely saw the sky and were starved to the point of emaciation and despair. Ovadan Depe means "picturesque hill" -- a name derived from the prison's location on a rare rise in the Kara-Kum desert 50 kilometers northwest of Ashgabat, the Central Asian country's capital. The name is a piece of bitter irony for inmates, according to Kyarizov. ***

“When he was there, prisoners were allowed outside their cells once a week, for seven minutes, when they were escorted out of the special block for a shower and a shave. "In those seven minutes, while they take you through a corridor -- a 3-meter by 4-meter room with a metal grate above -- you can see the sky," he said. "Nobody sees the sky otherwise. In the cell, the window has a very thick metal grid and it is covered by metal blinds on the outside. You cannot see anything directly through it. You have to bend to be able to see the sky." ***

“He spent nearly five years in a string of jails and prisons before he was sent to Ovadan Depe in 2006. "They brought me to the Ovadan Depe prison with a sack on my head," he said. After it was removed, Kyarizov was quickly struck by the security at Ovadan Depe, which was much tighter than at any of the other lockups at which he had been held. Some of the cells were shut behind iron doors bearing the inscription: "To be opened only in presence of three services: Interior Ministry, KGB and Prosecutor's Office," he said.Former officials, including Kyarizov, were held in the prison's separate "special block," an imposing structure whose main gate opened vertically to ensure it could never be left ajar. Inside, each cell had a vertical door and a second lattice door with a hole for food delivery, he said, adding that "it is also locked and sealed. Nobody can open it."

Kyarizov Describes 'Torture By Hunger' in a Turkmen Prison

"They do not torture inmates with electricity or tear the flesh off their bodies with red-hot tongs. No, it is not necessary to do that there. People are simply deprived of food there -- they torture by hunger," Kyarizov told Radio Free Europe."Only skin and bones are left," Kyarizov said of the inmates. "And they look at each other like monkeys in a zoo." [Source: Merhat Sharipzhan, Radio Free Europe, December 5, 2015 ***]

Merhat Sharipzhan of Radio Free Europe wrote: Kyarizov's cellmates were so thin that they looked "scary." And they told him that a few months before his arrival, prominent politician Geday Akhmedov -- a former provincial governor who had been decorated by Niyazov as a Hero of Turkmenistan -- starved to death in the same cell. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner was a thin slice of bread and a small portion of watery millet porridge with no meat, oil, or fat in it -- but, like the bread, with plenty of sand and small stones. At lunch, each inmate also got a plastic bowl of "soup" -- just boiled water, sometimes with a few scraps of onion or potatoes. ***

“A cup of weak, tepid tea was allowed in the morning, and replaced at lunch and dinner with the boiled leaves of the camelthorn plant. According to Kyarizov, the food given to inmates was made with leftovers from the meals cooked for the armed guards, young Turkmen conscripts. "In just five months I lost almost 40 kilograms. I weighed 96 kilograms when they brought me to Ovadan Depe, and my weight was 59 when I was released," Kyarizov said. "That is just in five months imagine what happens to those who spend years there."” ***

Kyarizov's recollections of Ovadan Depe are echoed by more recent reports from groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty international, and Crude Accountability about conditions there. Crude Accountability, a U.S.-based organization that focuses on petroleum-impacted communities in the Caspian Sea region, said in a 2014 report that "torture is widespread in Ovadan Depe." ***

"Beatings are a regular occurrence.... Sources describe the use of dogs, batons, and subsequent loss of consciousness, damage to the kidneys, and the inability to walk," the report said. "'Kartsers' or cylindrical dark solitary confinement cells, are also used as a means of torture. The minuscule amounts of food and water, combined with mosquito infestations and extreme temperatures made the stays in the kartsers a psychologically and physically impossible form of torture." The report's description of food, or lack of it, is similar to Kyarizov's account. It said a source who spent several years in Ovadan Depe "received no food except hot wheat porridge and pumpkin, which was passed to the inmates inside their cells. There was never any meat." ***

Kyarizov After His Release from Prison

“Following his release from prison, Kyarizov was granted a Russian visa, but was prohibited from leaving Turkmenistan. In September 2015, Geldy Kyarizov stepped safely on to Russian soil, following his controversial detention in his homeland. Kyarizov’s son, Daud, who lives in the United States, confirmed to supporters that his father had arrived in Moscow. His arrival is the culmination of ongoing behind-the-scenes efforts by his supporters to secure his freedom through diplomatic channels, with Kyarizov considered a political prisoner by many. [Source: Horsetalk.co.nz, September 15, 2015]

Kyarizov told Radio Free Europe that his release saved his life. But he was barred from leaving Turkmenistan after he refused to publicly express his gratitude to Berdymukhammedov in a televised statement. Merhat Sharipzhan of Radio Free Europe wrote: And he found himself shut out of the horse-breeding business, unable to find a job working with the animals due to his "criminal record." The authorities took the last of his horses, which had been kept by his wife, Yulia Serebryannik, and had his house razed, saying it had been built illegally -- another claim Kyarizov called groundless and politically motivated. [Source: Merhat Sharipzhan, Radio Free Europe, December 5, 2015 ***]

“Kyarizov had to abort an attempt to leave Turkmenistan in December 2014. With Russian visas and tickets to Moscow in hand, he and his family went to the airport only to have their documents canceled by officials who said they were barred from leaving the country. But in September he and close relatives were permitted to leave one by one -- a change of heart he ascribes to international pressure on Turkmenistan to improve its human rights record. ***

“Kyarizov has no plans to return to Turkmenistan, where he fears he and his family would not be safe. But he said people who want change in Turkmenistan should speak out. "If they keep their mouths shut, this situation will never end," Kyarizov said. Silence "gives tyrants a free hand," he added. "Keeping silent is bad. I say that not because I am now free and therefore I am brave. No. I say that because I know that thousands of people are still in jails there." ***

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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