September 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Those who expected any pledges of political liberalization in Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's address to the United Nations must have been disappointed. In his first-ever speech at the UN General Assembly session on September 26, the Turkmen president addressed a number of issues, but human rights was not among them.
Earlier this week, however, Berdymukhammedov faced tough questions on human rights from students at New York's Columbia University. He reiterated his promise to amnesty thousands of prisoners in early October. Some 9,000 prisoners are expected to be pardoned on the eve of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan's Laylat ul-Qadr, or Night of Power, which falls on October 10 this year.
Berdymukhammedov said that in the future each official holiday will bring an amnesty, which replaces the once-a-year amnesty that was customary during Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's leadership.
Berdymukhammedov also shed light on the fate of Turkmenistan's most prominent political prisoner, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov. Shikhmuradov was charged with masterminding the alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov in November 2002. The fate of Shikhmuradov and another opponent of Niyazov, Batyr Berdyev, have been unknown since their imprisonment. Many feared they had died in prison.
In response to a student's question, Berdymukhammedov said he is "positive" the two men are alive.
Not Seen His Father Since 2002
That statement brought hope to the two men's families. Bairam Shikhmuradov is Boris Shikhmuradov's son and also a leader of the unregistered Republican Party of Turkmenistan. He told RFE/RL from Moscow that he had not seen his father since late 2002. He and his relatives have tried many times to find information about Boris Shikhmuradov, but all attempts have failed.
Shikhmuradov says Berdymukhammedov became the first Turkmen official to openly answer questions about Shikhmuradov and Berdyev, although he did not actually mention the men by name.
"Eleven people were in prison for some five years. They were tortured there. God knows what else they experienced. And those people returned home. It is not just window-dressing. It is a real act." -- Bairam Shikhmuradov
"The last time they were mentioned was by Niyazov some four years ago," Shikhmuradov says. "During Niyazov's meeting in Ashgabat with the diplomatic corps, this issue was raised. And Niyazov said, 'They will be in prison. They will be denied visits for five years. After five years, visits will be allowed.' "
Shikhmuradov says Turkmen authorities had refused to give any information about the men and have pretended that neither the men nor the cases ever existed.
Many Turkmen await the October amnesty with great hope. Some expect the release of Shikhmuradov and Berdyev, among others. But Bairam Shikhmuradov says he is not sure his father will be among those pardoned.
Probe Demanded Into Muradova's Death
The fate of another victim of the Niyazov regime -- RFE/RL Ashgabat correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova -- was also raised ahead of Berdymukhammedov's meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the sidelines of his UN visit. The New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists urged Rice to demand an independent probe into Muradova's death in a Turkmen jail in September 2006.
Muradova's body was returned to her family on September 14, 2006. The circumstances of her death are still unknown. Her relatives say her body displayed signs she had been beaten.
The Rice-Berdymukhammedov talks were mostly about the Turkmen economy and its energy sector, including possible cooperation with U.S. companies. They also reportedly discussed the development of political freedoms and an independent judiciary in Turkmenistan. It is not clear whether the two sides touched upon the fate of Muradova or political prisoners.
A U.S. delegation visited Turkmenistan in late August to discuss human-rights issues with the Ashgabat officials. Catherine Cosman, a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, was part of the delegation. She told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that Turkmen people feel more optimistic and hopeful about recent changes since Berdymukhammedov became president.
However, Cosman says there is a long way to go in terms of the human-rights situation. "The government has undertaken a few symbolic steps -- so far only symbolic ones -- and has indicated a willingness to undertake some structural reforms," she says.
One of the significant steps of the Turkmen government was a release of 11 political prisoners in early August. Among them was the country's former chief mufti, Nasrullah Ibn Ibadullah. Ibadullah, 60, was sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2004 for involvement in the alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov. He was allowed to return to work as an adviser at the state Council for Religious Affairs.
Many welcomed the move, although some skeptics said it was merely an act aimed at sending positive signals to the West before Berdymukhammedov's trip to the UN.
Bairam Shikhmuradov says the release of the political prisoners is a genuine step toward a political liberalization in the country.
"I strongly object to those who have said this step by President Berdymukhammedov was only window-dressing," he says. "Eleven people were in prison for some five years. They were tortured there. God knows what else they experienced. And those people returned home. It is not just window-dressing. It is a real act. It is the first step the new authorities have taken in order to put an end to Turkmenistan's catastrophic human-rights situation."
Shikhmuradov adds that the Turkmen president has so far looked indecisive and needs to take more practical steps to support his declarations about improving the country's human-rights record.
Cosman agrees. She says Berdymukhammedov should authorize the release of all political prisoners. She adds that such a release should be done not on the condition of a pardon, but rather a full rehabilitation.