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Turkmenistan: Opposition Leader Freed But Remains A Kept Man

One of Turkmenistan's leading opposition figures was released from prison last month under terms of a general amnesty. However, an international human rights groups says Nurberdi Nurmamedov is far from being truly free. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier spoke with the rights group Amnesty International about the case:

Prague, 11 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A leading Turkmen opposition figure, Nurberdi Nurmamedov, has been released from prison but remains under police surveillance in his Ashgabat home.

The co-chairman of the unregistered Agzybirlik opposition party was jailed last year on charges of "hooliganism with intent to commit murder." He was freed last month under a general amnesty extended to thousands of prisoners across the country on the occasion of the holy Islamic night of Kadir.

Amnesty International, in a statement this week, however says Nurmamedov's release came at a high price to his personal integrity. Amnesty's Anna Sunder-Plassman tells RFE/RL:

"This was not an unconditional release. He (Nurmamedov) had to repent on state TV. He had to confess his guilt and swear an oath of loyalty to the president."

International human rights and press freedom organizations have frequently criticized the Turkmen government for its repression of opposition figures and restrictions on speech not approved by the state.

Turkmenistan has one officially registered political party: that of President Saparmurat Niyazov. Critics of the government face severe retribution.

Amnesty International said in its statement that the organization believes "Nurmamedov was imprisoned solely because of his peaceful opposition activities and his open criticism of the Turkmen president."

Sunder-Plassman says Nurmamedov's criticism of the Turkmen parliament naming Niyazov "president for life" in 1999 was apparently the excuse Turkmen authorities had been seeking to jail him:

"Nurmamedov is a well-known opposition figure in Turkmenistan. He was one of the very few to openly criticize President Niyazov's policies. And shortly after Nurmamedov had criticized Niyazov's appointment to president for life in December 1999, he was arrested and sentenced -- at a trial that did not meet international fair trial standards -- to five years imprisonment."

Nurmamedov's son Murad faced charges of hooliganism also. Sunder-Plassman says the reason for the younger Nurmamedov's trial is obvious:

"[Nurmamedov's] son Murad was also put on trial in order to punish him for the opposition activities of his father put pressure on his father."

Nurmamedov remains under what Amnesty International calls "strict police surveillance." But Sunder-Plassman says his case is not unique:

"This case is certainly not an exception. We have a number of concerns in Turkmenistan. The opposition inside the country has nearly been silenced and most active members of the political opposition are in exile, face harassment (in Turkmenistan) or are imprisoned in Turkmenistan."

Sunder-Plassman says religious persecution is continuing as well:

"Many supporters of religious minority groups face persecution. The last Christian missionaries were deported from Turkmenistan last year. None of the religious prisoners fell under the latest presidential amnesty."

Nurmamedov has signed a statement in which he promises not to leave Ashgabat. He will join a small but growing number of political and religious opposition figures who, in effect, are in internal exile. They did not flee Turkmenistan when they had a chance and to ensure their silence the Turkmen government seems now to prefer keeping them in the country.

(Naz Nazar of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report)