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The European Parliament must halt further consideration of an important trade agreement with Turkmenistan, Human Rights Watch said today.

The European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee today approved a proposal for an interim trade agreement with Turkmenistan, which has one of the most repressive governments in the world. The full parliament could vote on the measure as early as April.

“The Turkmen government has an appalling human rights record, as the committee well knows,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “That’s why it is so shocking that it would choose to squander the E.U.’s leverage by rewarding such an egregious human rights violator.”

A joint letter from Christian Solidarity International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Crisis Group had urged the Committee not to endorse the proposal.

Turkmenistan, headed by president-for-life Saparmurat Niazov, remains one of the most repressive and closed countries in the world. The government tolerates no dissent, allows no media or political freedoms, and has driven into exile or imprisoned political opposition, human rights defenders, and independent journalists. Dissidents are treated as criminals and are subject to internal exile, forced eviction from their homes, and confiscation of their personal property; several have been forcibly detained in psychiatric hospitals.

The government has banned opera, ballet, circus, the philharmonic orchestra, and non-Turkmen cultural associations. Followers of faiths other than Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy have faced criminal prosecution, police beatings, deportation, and in some cases demolition of their houses of worship.

The country is rich in natural gas, but most of the population lives in grinding poverty. In 2004 President Niazov was reported to have ordered the dismissal of an estimated 15,000 health-care workers and for their replacement with military conscripts. In 2003 the government limited compulsory education to nine years, and it has cut back drastically on state-funded health care.

The European Parliament proposal endorses an Interim Agreement with Turkmenistan, which would regulate “trade and trade-related relations” until a full Partnership and Cooperation Agreement is ratified by the member states and the Turkmen government.

The European Parliament decided not to advance an Interim Agreement with Turkmenistan in 2001 and again in 2003, citing the government’s poor human rights record. But the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, adopted today, cited as signs of progress Turkmenistan’s abolition of the death penalty, prison amnesties, a new law on child labor, and visits to the country by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s rapporteur on national minorities. The joint letter from the three nongovernmental organizations disputed the validity of these measures as signs of progress.

“These measures are certainly welcome, but to accept them as real progress is a colossal mistake,” said Cartner. “It would not prod the government to change, but would instead squander E.U. influence.”

The joint letter said that an Interim Agreement should be conditioned strictly on significant, measurable, and sustainable improvements in human rights conditions.

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