(Washington, D.C.--October 13, 2006) The recent death of RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova in a Turkmenistan prison is a tragic example of the overall human rights condition in that country, according to two experts on Turkmenistan. During a briefing at RFE/RL last week, moderated by RFE/RL Acting President Jeff Trimble, Nina Ognianova and Rachel Denber concurred that the Turkmen government is one of the most repressive in the world and the international community missed an opportunity to use its leverage to secure the release of Ogulsapar Muradova before her death in prison.
Denber, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division, said that while Turkmenistan is rich in energy resources, it has widespread socio-economic and cultural problems caused by the government's policies. "This is one of the rare examples of a government that is sending its country on a backwards course," Denber said. She noted that Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's "clown image" distracts from a serious discussion of the "total devastation" he has caused in Turkmenistan. Furthermore, Denber said Turkmenistan's government -- one of the most authoritarian in the world -- does not tolerate independent thinkers, instead driving them into exile, sending them to prison, or otherwise silencing them.
Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the lack of education in Turkmenistan is of most concern for the country's future. Under the current regime, Ognianova said, libraries throughout Turkmenistan, other than the central library in the capital, have been closed; the years of mandatory schooling has been cut to only nine years; and what is taught comes from the "Rukhnama" (Book of the Spirit), which is self-penned by Niyazov. Ognianova noted that RFE/RL broadcasts are the only independent source of information that exists in Turkmenistan -- which poses a problem for RFE/RL stringers, she said, because the government considers it a "crime" to work for RFE/RL.
Both Denber and Ognianova said the international community, particularly the United States and Europe, can and should play a greater role advocating change in Turkmenistan. Denber said Muradova's death is a "wake-up call" for western policy-makers, and she said the EU missed an opportunity to save Muradova by tying her release to the negotiations for an "interim trade agreement with Turkmenistan." Denber added that both the U.S. and Europe have significant interests in Turkmenistan, which include energy security, Turkmenistan's border with Iran, and Russia's returning influence. Denber and Ognianova also questioned why the US had failed to designate Turkmenistan as a "country of particular concern," under the International Religious Freedom Act.
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