Prague, 2 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian journalist Nikolai Mitrokhin, a correspondent for the Moscow-based Panorama news agency, has visited and written about Turkmenistan on numerous occasions since the country gained independence in 1991.
He is one of only a few independent journalists to have been allowed to enter the country in the past few years. The Turkmen government limits the opportunities for foreign journalists to visit the country and often restricts them to certain areas.
Given these circumstances, it's often hard for journalists to independently confirm claims made by human-rights organizations and other governments concerning freedom of the press and individual rights in Turkmenistan.
Mitrokhin managed to enter Turkmenistan again last month and recently discussed his observations with Roznazar Khuodaiberdiev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. His visit lasted several days and he visited Dashkhovuz, the capital Ashgabat and Charjoi.
RFE/RL asked Mitrokhin about what he was able to see in Turkmenistan during his visit.
Mitrokhin said: "You ask what is new? I took my last trip to Turkmenistan a year ago. I can't say if this is good or bad, but nothing has actually changed since then. The only object of general attention is the tower built in Ashgabat on top of which stands a statue of the leader President Saparmurat Niyazov, which revolves three times a day."
Mitrokhin said several presidential amnesties given to some 20,000 prisoners since the start of 1999 have left the streets of some Turkmen cities unsafe.
There is no independent confirmation of his claim. The Turkmen Foreign Ministry was contacted this week by RFE/RL but refused comment on Mitrokhin's claim. However, Niyazov himself admitted earlier this year that the crime rate in the capital is on the rise but gave no reasons for the increase.
Mitrokhin reported that people told him that they used to fear the militia, but they now are more afraid of the amnestied criminals. He said that people in Ashgabat told him there had been "a series of murders of women and armed robberies." He said those amnestied included "lots of drug addicts needing money for new drugs." He said people are afraid to be on the streets at night.
Mitrokhin said that authorities in the Turkmen city of Tashshauz have begun a program under which students are taken to see prisons as a way to persuade them to avoid criminal activities.
"The most sensational local news is the school excursions to prisons as a preventative measure against gangsters acquiring a mystique among children. Kids see the reality for themselves and don't like it. I also heard that Ashgabat is following the Tashshauz experience, but I didn't get any confirmation about that."
Mitrokhin said he also heard reports of violations of human rights aimed at Christian sects, specifically naming the Baptists as being harassed by the authorities. Other allegations include intimidation of people trying to form a union and a journalists' association. In both these cases, Mitrokhin claims to have heard that Turkmen State Security representatives broke up meetings and recorded the names of those in attendance.
The claims cannot be independently confirmed. But in a recent report by the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Niyazov was listed as one of the world's 10 worst enemies of the press, lending credibility to the allegations concerning the problems with the Turkmen journalists' union.
And the U.S. State Department's recent human rights report on Turkmenistan lends credence to Mitrokhin's information about Baptists being harassed. The U.S. report notes that Turkmenistan's recently amended law on religion reaffirms a number of important religious freedoms but also tightens government control of religious groups. The report says that a requirement that religious organizations have at least 500 members to be legally registered has prevented some minority religions from legally establishing themselves.
Mitrokhin also gave some insight into social conditions in Turkmenistan. He said there is poor availability of food and that even in "the homes of the local elite, the food they had on the table was, in the best case, on the level of a very poor Moscow family."
Mitrokhin believes he is unlikely to be allowed to return to Turkmenistan any time in the near future. Ashgabat announced last month that, beginning in June, it will require even citizens of other CIS countries -- excluding Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan -- to obtain visas before traveling to the country.