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ALMATY (Reuters) -- Human Rights Watch urged Turkmenistan to improve its "abysmal" rights record.

The Central Asian state gained the reputation of one of the world's worst human rights abusers during the 21-year autocratic rule of former leader Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in late 2006.

His successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, has reversed some of Niyazov's more quixotic policies. But rights groups say the authorities have continued censorship, cracked down on dissent, and kept limits on access to information.

"Today's [UN Human Rights Council] session in Geneva is a golden opportunity for Turkmenistan's leadership to show it is ready to make a genuine commitment to reform," HRW Central Asia researcher Maria Lisitsyna said in a statement.

"The countless victims of human rights abuse in Turkmenistan deserve nothing less."

HRW said Turkmenistan had rejected earlier UN recommendations such as releasing political prisoners, reviewing all past cases of political imprisonment, and lifting travel bans on human rights defenders.

It also called on Turkmenistan's foreign partners, in particular European Union member states and the United States, "to advance the recommendations of the UN review as part of their dialogues with Ashgabad, and overall to press the Turkmen leadership for concrete human rights improvements."

The West has stepped up diplomatic contacts with gas-rich Turkmenistan after Berdymukhammedov pledged to open its economy to foreign investment and diversify natural gas exports currently dominated by Russia.
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