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Turkmenistan: Annual Amnesty Set To Free 7,000 Convicts -- But Why?

  • Antoine Blua

Amnesties have become an annual tradition in Turkmenistan to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. This year, more than 7,000 convicts are expected to be pardoned. RFE/RL asks analysts what motivates a regime known for its poor human rights record to make such a move.

Prague, 31 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov signed a decree this week on 29 October giving amnesty to more than 7,000 prisoners. They should be freed on the Night of Omnipotence, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan in Turkmenistan. It falls this year on 21-22 November.

The amnesty will apply to elderly, young, and sick prisoners who are serving sentences for minor crimes.

Niyazov, at a 24 October Cabinet meeting, announced the amnesty.

"The resolution on amnesty in honor of the Night of Omnipotence is ready now," he said. "It is necessary to be prepared to send [the prisoners] to their homes."

Turkmenistan's annual amnesty honoring the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr -- literally, "the breaking of the fast" and marking the end of the holy month -- is declared in accordance with a 1999 law. Niyazov has previously declared amnesties on an irregular basis.

Niyazov has drawn strong international condemnation for human rights abuses over the course of his rule. So why has he -- according to statistics from the Prosecutor-General's Office -- amnestied about 120,000 prisoners in the 12 years of Turkmenistan's independence?

Turkmen officials claim that amnesties demonstrate Niyazov's compassion and his eagerness to bring some sort of social justice to a country with almost no rule of law.

Bess Brown is an expert on Central Asia who freelances for RFE/RL. She says Niyazov may use the amnesties as a way to demonstrate to his critics that he is in fact complying with his country's human rights commitments. Also, Brown adds, Niyazov might believe -- erroneously -- that annual amnesties are popular among the Turkmen public.

"Various officials will tell you that very few of the people who are released in the amnesties return to crime, that they go back to their families and are accepted back into society. I have even had police officials tell me that the law enforcement agencies try [to] find them jobs and try to help them reintegrate into society. [But] the feeling of the population of Turkmenistan is that nothing really is done. And practically any inhabitant of Ashgabat will say that the crime rate goes up immediately after the amnesty," Brown said.

While petty criminals have hope of being amnestied, Turkmenistan's prisons remain tightly closed for officials convicted of crimes committed while serving the state, political prisoners, and the estimated 100-plus people convicted of involvement in the alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov in November 2002.

Anna Sunder-Plassmann is a researcher on Central Asia at Amnesty International, a London-based human rights watchdog. She says that the release of all prisoners of conscience would be a step in the right direction. She also calls for the resolution of human rights abuses in Turkmenistan in general, such as attacks on, torture and ill-treatment of political opponents.

"We think it would be particularly important that the prisoners of conscience Kurban Zakirov and Nikolai Shelekhov [who were sentenced for refusing to serve in the army] would be released, and also the political prisoner Mukhametguli Aymuradov. Those are cases that were recently raised also by the European Parliament. And we think it would be very important that all those convicted in connection with the November 2002 events would be retried and all torture allegations would be investigated and also the allegations about death in custody," Sunder-Plassmann said.

Jehovah's Witnesses Zakirov and Shelekhov have been excluded from past amnesties because they have objected to the formal repentance requirement of swearing loyalty to the president on the Koran.

Erika Dailey is director of the Turkmenistan Project at the Open Society Institute in Budapest. Noting that Turkmen prisons rapidly refill with new prisoners, she describes the amnesties as a "revolving door" that simply exchanges old inmates for new ones.

The amnesty system, Dailey stresses, is "quite notorious" as a means for fueling corruption within the prison and security systems.

"There are a lot of relatives of some of the people incarcerated who are prepared and in a position to pay a certain amount of money as bribes in order to have their relatives fall under the amnesty," Dailey said.

Dailey also points out that there is no reliable way to check whether a total of 7,000 prisoners will effectively be released.

With more than 20,000 people currently estimated to be in jail, Turkmenistan may have one of the world's highest per-capita prison population rates at 490 out of a population of 100,000. Observers, though, say there is no reliable way to gauge how many Turkmens are actually in prison.

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