Turkmenistan: Beating, Jail Time For Chewing Tobacco

Another contributor to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service has been taken into custody. (More on other cases here, here, and here)

Khudayberdy Allashov has been helping us get a balanced picture of the situation in northern Turkmenistan; his version of events does not necessarily match the sanguine narrative of Turkmenistan's government.

On December 3, the police arrived at Allashovs home, reportedly beat Allashov, and arrested him and his mother.

The charge was possession of "nasvai," or "nas," a form of chewing tobacco.

And "nasvai" is what I want to talk about.

Anyone who's roamed Central Asia will be familiar with nasvai; it is everywhere. Not everyone partakes in chewing nasvai, but many people do; and not just men, I've seen older women take a pinch.

It is so common that artisans routinely make and sell special bottles and other containers so people can store their daily ration in it, and those with fancy nasvai containers love to show these off and take great pride when they receive compliments.

A Matter Of Taste

You pop a little bit onto your hand, open your mouth, tilt your head back a little, and lightly toss it into your mouth, usually so it rests under your tongue. Then you leave it there, expectorating occasionally, until the last bit loses its flavor, at which time you expel the remnants.

Some nasvai is very dry, some is moist; it depends on a person's taste.

And after plov, nasvai is probably the most debated topic in Central Asia. Everyone who uses it has an opinion on where the best nasvai comes from.

I first saw nasvai in 1990, when I was studying in Tashkent, during the days when Uzbekistan was a republic in the Soviet Union. No one ever said it was illegal, and the fact that people used it openly in public suggested that authorities did not care.

When I was traveling in Central Asia in the 1990s, it was easy to purchase nasvai at almost any bazaar -- from the border of China to the Caspian Sea, from the borders of Iran and Afghanistan well into the steppe of Kazakhstan. People had it on tables -- usually more than one variety, in fact.

I tried nasvai a few times. My instructions when I worked in the villages were "to live like the people there live, and participate in whatever they were doing."

Nasvai didn't do much for me. The first couple of times, like cigarettes for a nonsmoker, it could produce a very mild "buzz" that lasted a few seconds.

Flimsiest Excuse

In recent years, some governments -- not only in Central Asia, but in Russia for example -- have banned sales of nasvai. But few people in law enforcement ever bother to do anything about it.

This is where we return to Khudayberdy Allashov. He and his mother are being accused of possessing 11 kilograms of nasvai. Police told Allahov's wife he could face seven years in prison for it, although Turkmenistan's Criminal Code states that the possession of nasvai is punishable by a fine for the first offense and, if caught a second time, a person could face up to one year in prison.

I've said it in an earlier article, and I'll say it again now: Turkmenistan is a failing state. When someone may be put in prison for seven years for possessing a substance that is prevalent across Central Asia, a substance that not even the Soviet government prohibited, that is a sign of a desperate government.

Turkmenistan is running out of money, its people are running low on food, unemployment is climbing, and yet the government talks about a prosperous nation in an "Age of Happiness."

And after years of imprisoning perceived regime opponents on charges many international rights organizations, and others, called fabricated, the Turkmen government has come up with the flimsiest excuse yet for putting someone in prison.

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