Earlier this month there were reports in the Central Asian media that in February the Turkmen authorities had conducted a series of anti-terrorism arrests in Tejen which is an oasis city of 77,000 inhabitants in the southern Ahal Province. Tejen is located some 200 km south-east of Ashgabat and is not far from the border with Iran. It seems, however, that more arrests have been carried out this month by the Ministries of the Interior and National Security officials who were dispatched from the capital. The media reports have so far put the number of detained locals at around 80. They are presumably suspected of ties to terrorist and extremist organisations such as the Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Turkmenistan remains the most elusive Central Asian republics about the state of crime and security across the country and is notoriously reluctant to divulge any information about the extent of terrorist and extremist risks. In the past there were already reports about the presence of radical Islamists in and around Tejen but the city first became known to the wider public about 15 years ago thanks to the Muslim cleric Hodjaahmet Orazklychev. In late 1999 he had been invited to the Turkmen-language service of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty where he had publicly criticised President Saparmurat Niyazov’s (1985-2006) instruction to organise a children’s New Year party around a Christmas tree.
Orazklychev was more broadly known in Turkmenistan as a vocal opponent of Niyazov’s cult of personality and often aired his discontent with the glorification of the national leader who the government media eagerly called the “prophet”. Following Orazklychev’s 1999 comments the angered president retaliated by ordering, in March 2000, the seizure and burning of 40,000 copies of the Quran that the cleric himself had translated into Turkmen. Niyazov argued that the translation was inaccurate and attributed the fault to the fact that the original was in “bad Uzbek”. It later appeared that Orazklychev had actually made the translation from Arabic in 1995 after the Niyazov Administration had put up US$500,000 to print 50,000 copies of the Quran.
Although Orazklychev was promptly accused by the regime of fraud for having allegedly “extorted” money from his followers, as well as corruption and even immoral behaviour, and faced up to 25 years in prison, President Niyazov ordered him into exile near Tejen. The cleric’s house in the outskirts of Ashgabat was torn down, and he and his family had to live in his father’s mosque because they could not afford to buy a new home without identity papers, which the authorities had earlier seized.
It is unknown how Hodjaahmet Orazklychev has since fared since then but some local sources affirm that Tejen became in the early 2000s a meeting point for various religious groups, including those with radical views and a deeply ingrained suspicion towards Niyazov and his successor, Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov.