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Turkmenistan: Human Rights Group Conducts Fact-Finding Mission

Prague, 3 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A prominent independent human rights organization has sent a team of observers to Turkmenistan at the invitation of the government.

The four-man team, from the New York-based Human Rights Watch, arrived in Turkmenistan last week (January 29) and will stay in the country for two or three weeks. The team is led by the organization's executive director, Kenneth Ross.

Ross told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service early this week that the visit is only the second by the organization since Turkmenistan became an independent state in 1991. The first visit was in 1993.

The team is conducting what Ross called a fact-finding mission. Team members will speak with both government officials and with ordinary citizens to gauge their attempts, successful or unsuccessful, to exercise their human rights.

Kenneth Ross: "The way we are going to conduct this inquiry is exactly the same way we operate in every other country where we work, in that we try as much as possible to speak firsthand to people who have personal information about the human rights situation here. That is to say, on the one hand, we want to speak to the government officials who have responsibility for areas involving human rights and, on the other hand, we want to speak with individuals who might have attempted successfully or not to exercise their individual freedoms."

In its annual report on human rights in December, Human Rights Watch criticized the Turkmen government, saying -- to quote -- it "continued to deny its citizens virtually all civil liberties." It also criticized the country's restrictions on academic freedom and its lack of an independent media.

During its current visit, the Human Rights Watch mission says it will give special attention to proposed changes in the legal system ahead of Turkmenistan's parliamentary elections set for December. Human Rights Watch will be asking how the changes could affect the rights of persons to speak freely, associate with others and register political parties.

Kenneth Ross: "We are going to be looking at a broad range of freedoms, such as the freedom of individuals to speak out, to organize with others, to associate with others, to register organizations that they might form, to pray freely in whatever religion they want and to organize that religion freely. We will also look, if we can, at issues of imprisonment and conditions of prisons ... the full range of human rights as we do in every other country where we work."

At the conclusion of the visit, the team will share its findings and views with the Turkmen government.

According to the organization's standard policy, information will be made available to interested nations, including the United States and countries in Europe. Companies doing business in Turkmenistan, including oil and gas corporations, also will have access to the team's findings.

Ross said that Human Rights Watch is the largest international human rights organization in the United States and the second largest worldwide after Amnesty International. The organization has a dozen offices around the world and works on a regular basis in some 70 countries.