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Turkmenistan: President Announces Amnesty, Excluding Political Prisoners

Berdymukhammedov says he will keep issuing regular pardons (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has announced the imminent release of 1,269 prisoners -- a group that apparently does not include the country’s most well-known imprisoned dissidents and human rights activists.

The list of prisoners, including 190 women, was published on February 14 in official Turkmen media. They are expected to be released on the eve of Flag Day on February 19.

Most of those granted amnesty have been imprisoned for less than three months. But RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reports from Ashgabat that there are no political prisoners among the latest pardoned inmates, even though some 1,100 of them have been in prison for under three months.

Berdymukhammedov, who has announced several other amnesties since taking office a year ago, has said prisoners would be pardoned on a regular basis, much as was done under his late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

On February 13, the president reiterated that he would continue the policy. “As I said in the past, we will amnesty prisoners several times a year on the eve of each holiday,” he said.

The fate of Turkmenistan's most prominent political prisoner, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, remains unclear. Shikhmuradov was charged with masterminding an alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov in November 2002. Many fear he has died in prison.

Shikhmuradov's son Bairam, who is the leader of the unregistered Republican Party of Turkmenistan, tells RFE/RL from Moscow that he has not seen his father since late 2002. He and his relatives have tried many times to get information about his fate, but all attempts have failed.

“Unfortunately, the situation has not changed at all. We don't know anything about when he could be released or whether he is alive. It has been five years in January since he was imprisoned," Bairam Shikhmuradov says. "Niyazov said that relatives would be allowed to visit those imprisoned on charges related to [the incident] on November 25 [2002] only after they had served five years in prison. But there has been no progress. We keep writing to Turkmen authorities regularly. But they have never responded. Visits are out of the question.”

Imprisoned Activists

Human rights activists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev have been in prison since June 2006 on what human rights groups say are trumped-up charges. The two men were detained along with Ogulsapar Muradova, an RFE/RL correspondent who died in custody a few weeks later, apparently from ill-treatment.

Anna Sunder-Plassman of London-based Amnesty International says Amanklychev and Khajiev are considered prisoners of conscience by the rights group, which is skeptical of the practice of prisoner amnesties. "We also believe there are a number of political prisoners," she says. "They should receive fair retrial where all the evidence could be considered fairly and where they would have proper legal assistance. So, our organization has an ambiguous position toward prisoner pardon because we believe there should be a proper judicial review in political prisoners’ cases. Nevertheless, we would, of course, welcome if prisoners of conscience were released by presidential pardon.”

Sunder-Plassman urges the Turkmen authorities to hold fair trials of those prisoners and to conduct a “fair and thorough” investigation into allegations of torture.

The country's former chief mufti, Nasrullah Ibn Ibadullah, became the first prominent political prisoner to be released under Berdymukhammedov. Ibadullah was sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2004 for involvement in the alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov. He was released in August 2007 and was allowed to return to work with the state Council for Religious Affairs.

In the most recent mass amnesty, in October 2007, some 9,000 people were pardoned. Among them were Boris Shikhmuradov's nephew and his sister-in-law.

Also amnestied was Geldy Kyarizov, the former director of the governmental association Turkmenatlary (Turkmen Horses) and an internationally renowned breeder of the famous Akhalteke horses. Kyarizov was the subject of numerous clemency appeals to the Turkmen government by rights organizations.

He had been held in detention since January 2002 and, according to Amnesty International, has long suffered from poor health. Kyarizov's prison term for alleged abuse of office and negligence was due to expire in April 2008.

Bairam Shikhmuradov says he is not sure his father will be among those pardoned this time. But “hope is always there," he says, adding that he welcomes the planned release of more than 1,200 people. "I’d be very happy to see a few acquaintances’ names on the list. I believe that some day all people who ended up in jail because of unfair charges will be set free. Of course, I mean those who are still alive.”

(RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

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