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(New York) – Two Turkmen civil society activists convicted on politically motivated charges were freed on February 16, 2013, after serving out their prison terms, Human Rights Watch said today. Sapardurdy Khajiev and Annakurban Amanklychev, wrongfully imprisoned since their arrest in June 2006, suffer numerous health problems from their incarceration.

“Every single second Khajiev and Amanklychev spent behind bars was a terrible injustice,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “While we’re overjoyed that they’re finally free, the oppressive state practices behind their jailing persist and should be addressed.”

The authorities arrested Khajiev, Amanklychev, and Khajiev’s sister, Ogulsapar Muradova, in June 2006 on the eve of a European Parliament visit to Turkmenistan. They were associated with the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation, a Turkmen human rights group in exile, and just before their arrest they had helped a French journalist with a documentary film about the dire state of human rights in Turkmenistan.

The government, in its initial statements about the arrests, referred to the activists’ human rights and journalism work, claiming they were acts of subversion. In August 2006 a court convicted all three of illegal weapons possession after a two-hour closed trial. Muradova was sentenced to six years in prison, and Amanklychev and Khajiev to seven years each, minus several months for pretrial detention.

Muradova died in highly suspicious circumstances in custody in September 2006. No meaningful investigation was conducted into her death and no one was held to account.

There had been long and growing international pressure on the government to free Khajiev and Amanklychev. The European Parliament has since 2006 made their release one of several conditions for enhanced relations with Turkmenistan - first in the form of an interim trade agreement and then a full-fledged Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA). The French parliament’s foreign affairs committee in 2010 took a similarly welcome stance, making clear it will not approve France’s ratification of the PCA until certain human rights improvements, including the release of Amanklychev and Khajiev, have been secured.

In November 2010, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found the imprisonment of Amanklychev and Khajiev unlawful and urged their immediate release. However the Turkmen government refused to acknowledge their imprisonment as wrongful or to commute their sentences.

“The Turkmen government had every opportunity to do the right thing and release these men,” Denber said.  “Instead it made Khajiev and Amanklychev symbols of government repression.”

Turkmenistan’s government is widely recognized as one of the most repressive in the world. The country is utterly closed to any independent human rights scrutiny, media and religious freedoms are subject to draconian restrictions, and human rights defenders and other activists cannot operate openly for fear of government reprisal. The government routinely uses the judicial system as a tool for political retaliation.

The Turkmen government should promptly undertake a transparent, nationwide review of all cases that could be politically motivated and immediately release those unjustly held, Human Rights Watch said. One well-known case is that of Gulgeldy Annaniazov, a political dissident whose relatives have had no information about him since his imprisonment in 2008.

Khajiev and Amanklychev’s release should prompt Turkmenistan’s international partners to reinvigorate their calls on the government to end, once and for all, the misuse of the judicial system for political purposes in violation of international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Turkmen authorities have long used the judicial system and long-term imprisonment to suppress civic activism and settle political scores,” Denber said. “So while we celebrate Amanklychev and Khajiev’s long overdue freedom, the pressing question remains, how many others still languish behind bars on wrongful charges?”

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