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Bulgaria must deny Turkmenistan’s extradition request for Annadurdy Khajiev, a Turkmen dissident, and release him from detention immediately, Human Rights Watch said today.

The extradition hearing starts on April 12 at the Varna District Court in eastern Bulgaria.

“It’s shocking that Bulgaria is seriously considering extraditing Khajiev to Turkmenistan,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “There’s no doubt that he’ll risk persecution and torture if he’s sent back to Turkmenistan, one of the most repressive countries in the world.”

Khajiev, a prominent member of Turkmenistan’s exiled opposition movement, fled to Bulgaria in 2001 and is awaiting a decision on his application for refugee status.

This is the second time the Turkmen government has sought Khajiev’s extradition to face charges of involvement in the theft of about US $41 million from the Central Bank of Turkmenistan, where he served from 1992-1998 as deputy chairman. In 2003, the Varna District Court rejected Turkmenistan’s first extradition request on the grounds that the charges were politically motivated.

The first extradition request was made by the government of Turkmenistan’s president-for-life Saparmurat Niazov, who created one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Niazov died in December 2006 and was succeeded by Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who came to office through the February 11 pro forma election. Berdymukhammedov has made some improvements in social and economic benefits but has given no indication whatsoever that he would end the systematic human rights violations that characterized the Niazov era. Turkmenistan continues to brutally suppress any dissent and torture of detainees is still a widespread problem.

“Khajiev and his family suffered enormously under the Niazov regime, and now that he’s dead, they’re still suffering,” said Cartner. “Extraditing Khajiev to Turkmenistan would seriously violate Bulgaria’s obligations under international law, which prohibits returning people to places where they are likely to face persecution or torture.”

Khajiev’s family members in Turkmenistan have endured retribution for his political affiliations and for the human rights work of his wife, Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, a Bulgaria-based human rights group that monitors and reports on human rights conditions in Turkmenistan.

In August 2006, Khajiev’s sister, Ogulsupar Muradova, a journalist and affiliate of the Turkmenistan Helsinki Human Rights Foundation, was convicted along with his brother, Sapardurdy Khajiev, and Annakurban Amanklychev, on politically motivated charges of illegal weapons possession. All three were associated with the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. Muradova died in custody under suspicious circumstances several weeks after the trial. Security agents harassed and threatened Muradova’s adult children following her death. The threats included specific references to the activities of Khajiev and Muradova in Bulgaria.

Khajiev’s two brothers, as well as a brother-in-law and sister-in-law, have been in custody since 2002, when they were arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. On August 31, 2003, Khajiev’s elderly father-in-law, Sazak Begmedov, was seized by agents of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, beaten, and forced into internal exile in Dashauz, a remote area of Turkmenistan near the border with Uzbekistan.

Article 3 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) prohibits inhuman treatment and torture including the return, expulsion, deportation or extradition of any person to a country where he or she would face a real risk of exposure to such treatment.

Article 3 of the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment also imposes an obligation not to return a person to any place where he or she is in danger of being subjected to torture. Khajiev’s extradition would also violate the 1951 Refugee Convention, which bans the return of refugees and asylum seekers to countries where they face persecution (refoulement).

On February 19, 2007, Varna police detained Khajiev as he was renewing his humanitarian status document (card of subsidiary protection beneficiary). Khajiev was released briefly the next day, and appeared in court as ordered that afternoon, when the arrest warrant was expected to arrive from Sofia. He has been in custody ever since. On March 30, Varna District Court rejected Khajiev’s request to be released pending the extradition hearing.

Human Rights Watch is not aware of any evidence that Khajiev is a flight risk or would obstruct justice. To the contrary, Khajiev voluntarily submitted to arrest on February 20, 2007 and previously on December 4, 2002, the first time Bulgaria considered an extradition request for him. Khajiev’s wife told Human Rights Watch that his health has deteriorated significantly since he was put in detention.

“The Bulgarian authorities should release Khajiev immediately,” said Cartner. “There are no legitimate grounds to keep him in custody while the court considers the extradition request.”

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