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The successor to President Sapurmurat Niazov of Turkmenistan, who died on December 21, should make it a priority to turn around that country’s disastrous human rights record, Human Rights Watch said today. It also called on the government in the interim to take such measures as the immediate release of political prisoners.

Niazov, 66, died of a heart attack after 21 years as president of Turkmenistan.

“Turkmenistan under Niazov became one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should now end the abuses associated with Niazov’s government. It should make a start by freeing political prisoners, ending travel restrictions, and setting up free and fair elections.”

Niazov, who was president for life, terrorized government and society. Frequent purges of his government resulted in lengthy prison sentences for officials. He personally controlled the country’s foreign-held hard currency accounts. His official title was Turkmenbashi, or father of the Turkmen people, and he also called himself a prophet. Niazov’s Rukhnama, or book of the soul, a collection of his sayings, is paramount in school curricula and is required reading for civil servants, who must pass exams on their knowledge of it. Niazov’s pervasive personality cult gained much attention abroad.

“Many foreigners found Niazov’s personality cult amusing, but to people in Turkmenistan living under his regime, it was no laughing matter,” said Cartner.

The Turkmen government tolerates no dissent, allows no media or political freedoms, and has driven into exile or imprisoned members of the political opposition, human rights defenders and independent journalists. Dissidents are treated as criminals and have been subjected to internal exile, forced eviction from their homes, and confiscation of their personal property. Several have been forcibly detained in psychiatric hospitals. Torture is rampant in places of detention. In September, Olgusapar Muradova, a human rights defender and Radio Liberty correspondent, died in highly suspicious circumstances in prison after being convicted on politically motivated charges of illegal weapons possession. Dozens of people arrested in the wake of an armed attack on Niazov in 2002 are believed to be held incommunicado following closed trials. Great numbers of people are thought to be blacklisted and banned from leaving the country, and the government denies entry to foreign journalists and human rights defenders.

The government banned opera, ballet, the circus, the philharmonic orchestra and non-Turkmen cultural associations. Religious believers, particularly 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.

Under Niazov the government has sent the country backwards in social and economic development. The country is rich in natural gas, but most of the population lives in grinding poverty. In 2004, Niazov was reported to have ordered the dismissal of an estimated 15,000 healthcare workers and replaced them with military conscripts. Beginning in 1994, the government limited compulsory education to nine years, and it has cut back drastically on state-funded healthcare.

“The government can act now to stop some of the worst aspects of repression,” said Cartner. “We hope that in the longer term, it will reverse the social and economic regression afflicting Turkmenistan.”

Human Rights Watch is calling on the government to release political prisoners, including:

  • Andrei Zatoka , an environmental activist detained on December 17, 2006;
  • Amankurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, both arrested in June 2006 and associated with the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation, a Bulgaria-based human rights group;
  • Mukhmatkuli Aimuradov, a political prisoner since 1994 serving an 18-year sentence on trumped-up charges of plotting to assassinate Niazov.
  • Human Rights Watch also called for immediate review of the sentences of more than 50 people imprisoned on charges related to the attack on Niazov in 2002 and of the great numbers of officials who were arrested as a result of government purges in recent years.

    Human Rights Watch further urged an immediate end to the draconian limits on access to information in Turkmenistan.

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