SOFIA -- When Bulgaria joined the European Union in January, I believed that my country had finally left its repressive past behind. But the recent arrest and threatened deportation of Annadurdy Hadjiev, a dissident from Turkmenistan who sought refuge here, suggests that some things never change.
If Bulgaria sends this man back to Turkmenistan -- where he faces certain torture and the threat of a brutal death -- our claim to be part of a democratic, rights-respecting Europe will ring hollow. Moreover, the EU’s image as a defender of human rights around the world will be tarnished by its inability to hold member states to its own standards. The case evokes memories of the days when the KGB’s influence was pervasive, and dissidents across Eastern Europe and Soviet lands like Turkmenistan lived in fear.
Hadjiev and his family fled to Europe in 2001, escaping one of the world’s most repressive regimes: the absolutist dictatorship of the late Saparmurat Niyazov, who fancied himself as "Turkmenbashi," the father of all Turkmen.
A former deputy chairman of the Central Bank of Turkmenistan and later an outspoken critic of Turkmenbashi’s government, Hadjiev, a senior member of the exiled Watan (Republican) Party, received "humanitarian parole" -- a protected category of individuals that falls short of refugee status -- when he reached Bulgaria. He since has been subjected to violent and arbitrary reprisals in this supposed "safe haven."
And although Turkmenbashi died in December, his successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, has continued to imprison dissidents, stifle freedom of expression and scoff at democracy, as February’s rigged elections demonstrate.
Bulgaria’s persecution adds to the anguish and injustice that has befallen Hadjiev and his family. Last summer, Hadjiev’s brother and sister were arrested after they collaborated on a documentary about Turkmenistan. They were tried on trumped up charges of weapons possession and, after a perfunctory closed trial, were sentenced to seven and six years in prison, respectively.
Hadjiev’s sister, the journalist Olgusapar Muradova, died in prison several weeks later, under suspicious circumstances. Her grown children, who viewed her body, told relatives that they saw evidence of torture and that she had sustained a severe head wound. (A state-controlled autopsy implied that she had committed suicide.) Hadjiev’s two other brothers, as well as his brother-in-law and sister-in-law, have been in Turkmenistan’s notorious penal gulag since 2002, when they were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. In 2003, his elderly father-in-law was beaten by police agents and forced into internal exile.
On Feb. 19, the Bulgarian police arrested Hadjiev with the intention of sending him back to face a similar fate. This is not the first time he has been arrested in Bulgaria. After first arriving, Hadjiev and his wife were arbitrarily detained for several days, leaving their 13-year-old daughter without supervision or access to her parents. The police arrested Hadjiev again in 2002, in response to a Turkmen extradition request. After the Varna City Court refused to allow the extradition, ruling that the charges were politically motivated, the Bulgarian authorities threatened to deport him.
In 2005, the Hadjievs’ car was incinerated by a bomblike device, which they interpreted as a warning to cease their defiant challenges to the Bulgarian -- and possibly Turkmen -- authorities.
The authorities that arrested Hadjiev in February offered no arrest warrant, and have repeatedly refused him access to relatives and legal counsel. Moreover, the court has given no explanation of why it is allowing him to be tried on the same embezzlement charge that he was acquitted of in 2003.
Fortunately, Hadjiev is a fighter. Since the beginning of his travails in Bulgaria, he has battled the system by confronting the government branches responsible for his persecution. Indeed, he has sued the very prosecutor in whose hands his current extradition now rests -- an act that may be jeopardizing his right to a fair hearing.
My government has pledged its willingness live up to the legal norms that are the core of European Union membership. By releasing Annadurdy Hadjiev from jail and withdrawing the threat of extradition to Turkmenistan, Bulgaria would unequivocally demonstrate its commitment to fulfilling its obligations. By granting him political asylum, we can make a resounding statement that authoritarian regimes can no longer count on support within Europe’s borders.
Krassimir Kanev, director of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee The Japan Times April 2, 2007