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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

American Recounts His Ordeal in Turkmen Jail

APKomarovsky, left, posing with Dzhumayev in Dzhumayev's house in Ashgabat in 2001.
During a roundup of arrests following last fall's assassination attempt on President Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmen police nabbed U.S. citizen Leonid Komarovsky and charged him with conspiracy and attempted murder. Recently released after spending five months in an Ashgabat prison, Komarovsky is accusing Turkmen authorities of wrongful imprisonment, corruption and torture.

"I was among monsters there," Komarovsky said in a telephone interview from his home in Newton, Massachusetts.

On Nov. 25, Turkmen authorities announced that Niyazov's convoy had come under gunfire as it sped to the president's office early that morning. Speaking on local television, Niyazov, an iron-fisted ruler with a cult-like following, accused the local opposition of attempting to assassinate him.

Two days later, Komarovsky, 55, was arrested at the Ashgabat residence of his friend and business associate Guvanch Dzhumayev. Komarovsky, a popular Russian television journalist and scriptwriter in the late 1980s, became a businessman after he emigrated to the United States in 1995. He often traveled on business to former Soviet republics.

"I suppose I was held because I knew Boris Shikhmuradov, the former Turkmen deputy prime minister," Komarovsky said. "Niyazov publicly called him the head of the conspiracy. In arresting me, Niyazov's investigators also wanted to give the alleged conspiracy an international spin, to show their citizens that evil forces from abroad were scheming against their beloved president."

Komarovsky said he was awakened at 3 a.m. on Nov. 27 by officers of the Turkmen National Security Ministry. After informing him that he was suspected in the beating of a policeman, they took him to jail.

By that time, arrests in Turkmenistan were in full swing. Hundreds of people were being held, and, among them, Komarovsky said, was his friend Dzhumayev, who was detained an hour after Niyazov's televised address.

Komarovsky refused to cooperate with investigators until he met with a U.S. Embassy official, which he was permitted to do after one week in prison. By that time, charges against Komarovsky had swelled to include several new accusations -- an attempt on Niyazov's life, organizing a criminal gang and illegal possession and smuggling of arms and drugs into Turkmenistan.

Although Komarovsky is a U.S. citizen, he has never given up his Russian passport. Still, he did not apply to Russia for help. "There were three Russian citizens arrested in this purge, and Russian officials have never come to see them," he said. "It is impossible to imagine the torture these Russians have suffered."

Komarovsky said he was beaten in prison on seven occasions.

"They usually ushered me into a special cell designed for torture," he said. "As I entered it, they would hit me with clubs over the head and in the kidney area on my back. When I fell down, they held me to the floor underneath a few chairs. They took off my shoes and beat me over the heels with wooden sticks."

He said he was lucky to get such treatment, as other jailed suspects were tortured with electricity, which was applied to their earlobes and genitals.

"A 23-year-old Turkmen who was held in one cell with me had his kidneys damaged by the beatings," Komarovsky said. "His teeth were knocked out and his head was a mess of blood and bones. He won't survive."

Komarovsky still suffers pain in his kidneys. He walks with the aid of a cane, since his kneecap was knocked out of place. He also suffered more than physical pain. Prosecutors seized a $17,000 consignment of beer he had placed in storage. While holding him in custody, investigators demanded the pin codes of his eight credit cards, he said.

"Investigators were frenetically greedy because under Turkmen law prosecutors get half of what is confiscated from convicts," he said. "My friends, the Dzumayevs, were thrown from their home by investigators, and I saw an investigator driving the Dzumayevs' Mercedes."

Komarovsky said inmates could bribe prison officials for certain favors. A meeting with one's family went for $200. A night with a prostitute cost $100. And a dose of raw opium could be had for as little as $2.

He said he was the only inmate in the prison who was allowed to bathe every day and use the toilet whenever he wanted. Others were escorted to toilets twice a day and were prohibited from washing for weeks. Komarovsky said he was also the only inmate who was allowed to receive food parcels, which the U.S. Embassy regularly delivered.

Eventually, a greater relief arrived. Komarovsky met one day in the lobby of the prosecutor's office with several fellow suspects who were awaiting interrogation. They begged him for help. "'Leonid, you will inevitably be released because you are an American citizen,' they told me," Komarovsky said. "'Tell the investigators what they want, sign any paper they wish. But get out and tell the world what they are doing to us here.'"

Komarovsky then informed Turkmenistan Prosecutor General Kurbanbibi Atadzhanova, who oversaw his case, that he wanted to write a book about Turkmenistan. Komarovsky was soon given access to a computer located in the prosecutor's office. He eventually compiled two books. In one, he described the plot against Niyazov as prosecutors wanted to see it. In the other, he simply praised Niyazov for his efforts in improving the life of his compatriots.

Niyazov approved of the books. He personally edited them, sending penciled versions back to Komarovsky in prison.

By that time, 46 suspects in the Niyazov assassination attempt had been sentenced in court, some of them to life in prison. Komarovsky said he was the only suspect who was released.

"I was not afraid of a trial because the Turkmen authorities then would have to permit U.S. officials and real lawyers to attend the hearings," he said. "Turkmen suspects were tried in prisons without anyone from outside allowed to be present. And their Turkmen defense lawyers cooperated with prosecutors."

Last month, on April 24, Komarovsky was called to Atadzhanova's office. Niyazov wanted to talk to him by telephone. Niyazov told him that he had decided to release him, provided that Komarovsky published his two books in Russia and the United States. Prodded by Atadzhanova, Komarovsky thanked the president and agreed.

Two days before his release, on April 28, Komarovsky was forced to make a televised confession, though he said he did so after being drugged. "Investigators injected something in my vein and I don't remember what happened to me afterward," he said.

Now at home, Komarovsky is writing a book about his ordeal. He plans to create a humanitarian relief organization to help Turkmen political prisoners. "I must do all in my power to help these people live until their release," he said. "With what goes on in Turkmen prisons, they have almost no chance to do so."