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Turkmenistan: Political Prisoner Dies Mysteriously

Human-rights organizations have called on the government of Turkmenistan to account for the recent death of political prisoner Koshali Garaev. Our correspondent looks at the circumstances surrounding the man's death.

Prague, 17 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Some days before his death, 37-year-old Koshali Garaev wrote to his wife and four young children. He told them he hoped to spend the new year with them.

But last Friday (Sept. 10), Garaev was found hanging in his solitary confinement cell in a jail near the Caspian seaport of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk), Turkmen authorities called his death a suicide. Human rights organizations suspect that foul play was involved.

Cassandra Cavanaugh, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in New York, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview that Garaev was an unlikely suicide candidate:

"This is not a man in despair. This is not a man in a poor state of heath, despite the inhuman conditions under which he was held and accused of these crimes against the state."

Sona Ballyeva, Garaev's widow, told Human Rights Watch that when she last visited her husband in his jail three months ago, he was cheerful and healthy. She also said that he hoped the Turkmen government would soon grant him amnesty.

But amnesty was not forthcoming. And human rights organizations believe that Garaev's politics may be the reason. Garaev was an associate of Avdy Kuliev, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's former foreign minister and arch rival, who is now in exile. In 1994, Turkmen authorities arrested Garaev, a Russian citizen, in Uzbekistan and brought him back to Turkmenistan. No extradition procedure was held.

The following year, a Turkmen court sentenced Garaev, together with Mukhammetkuli Aimuradov, to 12 and 15 years, respectively, in a maximum security labor camp. Turkmen authorities accused him of plotting to overthrow the Turkmen government and kill the president.

Human Rights Watch's Cavanaugh calls these charges "absurd," and says that Turkmenistan owes the world an explanation for what happened to Garaev while in custody. But she concedes such public disclosure is unlikely because of Turkmenistan's authoritarian government: "Turkmenistan is essentially a state without politics. There's only one person who makes politics in Turkmenistan. And that is the president, Saparmurat Niyazov, or [as he now calls himself] Turkmenbashi [that is, father of the Turkmen]."

Parliamentary and presidential elections have been scheduled in Turkmenistan. But Cavanaugh suspects Niyazov may simply dispense with the elections and declare himself president for life.

The restrictions placed on international and domestic organizations in Turkmenistan make human-rights monitoring a difficult job. Cavanaugh says Turkmenistan's desire to close itself off from the outside world does not exempt it from international standards:

"The most basic human right, of course, is the right to life. No one who enters a prison anywhere gives up this right."

Turkmen authorities have refused to respond to repeated requests by RFE/RL to comment on Garaev's case. Meanwhile, human-rights groups fear for the safety of Garaev's compatriot, Mukhammetkuli Aimuradov, who is still said to be alive in a Turkmen prison.