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Turkmenistan: Rights Groups Protest Sentencing Of Activist

A coalition of human rights organizations is criticizing a decision yesterday by a Turkmen court to imprison environmental activist Farid Tukhbatullin for three years. The organizations say Tukhbatullin is not guilty and should be released immediately. The groups are demanding that Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov keep a promise to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to release the man.

Prague, 5 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A coalition of human rights groups is protesting a three-year prison sentence handed out yesterday to Turkmen environmental activist Farid Tukhbatullin. A district court in Turkmenistan found Tukhbatullin, 41, guilty of illegally crossing the border and failing to report what the court said was a serious crime.

Tukhbatullin argued in his defense that he did not cross the border illegally but that Turkmen border guards forgot to stamp his passport. The second charge relates to a meeting Tukhbatullin attended in Moscow last year that was also attended by members of the country's political opposition.

The coalition includes Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, the International League for Human Rights, and the Memorial Human Rights Center. The group is demanding that Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov release Tukhbatullin.

Tukhbatullin is the co-chairman of the Ecological Club in his hometown of Dashoguz, in northern Turkmenistan.

A coalition press release today said that Tukhbatullin was jailed for allegedly refusing to disclose information about plans by exiled opposition groups to carry out a coup against Niyazov.

There was a reported attempt on Niyazov's life last November, and the Turkmen government implicated some of the people who attended the Moscow conference. But delegates who attended the conference said discussions did not include the violent overthrow of the government.

Judith Arenas of the London-based rights organization Amnesty International said her group considers Tukhbatullin to be an innocent man and now a prisoner of conscience. "We believe Mr. Tukhbatullin is an innocent man. We are indeed considering him a prisoner of conscience and will be campaigning actively for his immediate release, because we believe that he was wrongly convicted by judicial processes that leave a lot to be desired in terms of fair trials. We are very concerned that, in fact, Mr. Tukhbatullin appears to have been imprisoned and tried solely for expressing his beliefs in a nonviolent way," Arenas said.

Vitalii Ponomarev of Memorial said the Turkmen government was using the Tukhbatullin case to send a message to other activists in the country. "I think they [the Turkmen authorities] are trying by these means to frighten activists so these people will meet less with foreigners to discuss what is happening in Turkmenistan," Ponomarev said.

Arenas said the issue was raised at a meeting this week between the chairman in office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and Niyazov. She said that she hopes Scheffer will continue to press the issue. "We are hoping that the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Mr. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, will actually raise the case directly with President Niyazov, especially since President Niyazov had given his assurances to the OSCE that Mr. Tukhbatullin would be released soon. We actually hope that he will follow up on his promises," Scheffer said.

Ponomarev said he doubts Tukhbatullin would be freed soon because, he said, Niyazov does not want to free the man. "I don't think it is so much, 'will [Niyazov] be able to [free Tukhbatullin]?' as it is, 'he does not want to.' There is still some hope the verdict will be reviewed and overturned in an appellate court, but it is understood that the reason for this [verdict] is that Niyazov wants to keep people in fear, and the court system is used as a tool for this," Ponomarev said.

It is not known when Tukhbatullin's appeal will be heard, but observers say there is little precedent in the Turkmen court system for a convicted person's case to be overturned by an appellate court.

(Guanch Gueraev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)