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(New York, December 9, 2008) - A Turkmen human rights activist, Valery Pal, was freed on December 6, 2008 from prison, where he was serving a sentence following a politically motivated prosecution, Human Rights Watch said today.

"We are delighted that Valery Pal is finally free and can return to his family," said Maria Lisitsyna, Central Asia Researcher at Human Rights Watch. "But Pal, like many others in Turkmenistan, should not have been in prison to begin with. The government should immediately and unconditionally release the other activists, whose only crime was their peaceful human rights work."

Turkmenistan remains one of the most repressive and authoritarian countries in the world two years after the death of Saparmurat Niazov, who had himself declared president for life. Hundreds of people, perhaps more, languish in Turkmen prisons following unfair trials on what appeared to be politically motivated charges. Draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, association, movement, and religion remain in place.

A computer engineer, Pal had helped civic activists use information technology to send information about Turkmenistan to the outside world and also participated in several human rights projects. He was imprisoned last February 21 in connection with the alleged theft in 2004 of printer cartridges and other equipment at the oil refinery where he worked. On May 13, he was sentenced in the city of Mary to 12 years in prison on embezzlement charges.

 Pal was amnestied with about 400 others by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in honor of the Turkmen holiday "Neutrality Day," as a humanitarian act. Pal will continue to have a criminal record, though.

"While Pal's release is certainly welcome, Turkmenistan needs to take further steps to meet its international legal obligations," said Lisitsyna. "It should free all the political prisoners and allow activists and civic groups to operate freely and without fear of persecution. These steps would send a strong message that Turkmenistan is serious about human rights."

Human Rights Watch calls on the Turkmen government to release the following prisoners:

  • Mukhametkuli Aymuradov, sentenced in 1995 to 15 years in prison on politically motivated charges of anti-state crimes and sentenced again in 1998 to an additional 18 years for allegedly trying to escape.
  • Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, who are affiliated with a Turkmen human rights group in exile and were sentenced in 2006 to six to seven years of imprisonment on bogus charges of possession of ammunition. They are being held incommunicado and, according to their relatives in exile, have not been allowed any visits by their families since they were imprisoned.
  • Gulgeldy Annaniazov, a former political prisoner who lived from 2002 until 2008 in exile in Norway, where he holds refugee status and who returned to Ashgabad last spring. Annaniazov was arrested at home without a warrant, was charged with illegal border crossing (for returning to his own country) and was sentenced on October 7 to 11 years in prison. His family does not have information on the exact charges against him or his whereabouts.

The government of Turkmenistan should start a transparent nationwide systemic review of all convictions and imprisonment of activists on political grounds, Human Rights Watch said.

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