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Turkmenistan: Opposition Groups Begin Meeting In Prague

Prague, 27 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Representatives from Turkmen opposition groups began a three-day conference in Prague today. They are meeting to devise a strategy to bring more international pressure on Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov (pictured) to implement democratic reforms and ease controls on the media.

The group also hope to come up with a common strategy for influencing events in Turkmenistan from abroad.

Most of Turkmenistan's opposition now lives outside the country. Those opposition figures who remained in Turkmenistan are either in prison or under house arrest.

Turkmenistan's government has been criticized this month by Amnesty International, the OSCE, and the Russian Duma for its poor record on human rights.

Petr Zalmayev is the CIS coordinator for the New York-based International League for Human Rights. He is attending this weekends meeting and explained to RFE/RL what the group hopes to achieve in Prague.

"The purpose of [the conference] is for opposition forces, all of which are having to function in exile, to come together and strategize about how to try to influence the international community and policy-making establishment more effectively [and] to see if some kind of coordinating body or a forum, an opposition forum, can be created to act as a unified front, as a unified counterbalance to the regime of [Turkmen President] Niyazov."

Turkmen opposition groups are not free to hold such meetings in their own country, where human rights abuses and violations of democratic freedoms have been documented for years.

Reports say the groups are trying to recover after being implicated by Niyazov in a failed assassination attempt against the Turkmen president last November. The groups have distanced themselves from the attack, but reports say their domestic standing may have been diminished when former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov confessed on national television to plotting the crime. He had earlier come out on the side of the opposition.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe later criticized Shikhmuradovs appearance, saying the confession appeared to be forced and recalled images of the Stalinist purge trials of the 1930s. Shikhmuradov also showed signs of being drugged during the appearance on television.

This weekends meeting comes at a time of mounting international criticism of the Niyazov regime.

The OSCE's Freimut Duve told Russian radio Ekho Moskvy on 16 September that the Niyazov government was manipulating the media in the same way as, "the Nazis" during World War II. Duve said the Turkmen media are forced to carry racist remarks in, "a clear language of fascism," and transmit show trials of opposition politicians.

U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Stephan Minikes said during a recent visit to Turkmenistan that while economic cooperation with the resource-rich country was desirable, it could not come at the price of ignoring human rights violations.

"The reason for that is that the United States cannot stand by vis-a-vis any country with which we have diplomatic relations and close its eyes to the human-rights issue, even though in the commercial area and in other areas of cooperation where there can be very productive relations -- on that front we can't separate the two."

Amnesty International also had criticism for the Turkmen government this month. On 12 September it issued a press release that said, "the human rights situation in Turkmenistan has been appalling for years." The statement said the situation has become even worse since the reported attempt on Niyazov's life.

Turkmenistan remains largely isolated and relations with neighboring have Russian deteriorated sharply after the Niyazov government earlier this year abruptly ended a dual-citizenship agreement with Russia. The decision has led to the forcible expulsion of many ethnic Russians.

And a Russian newspaper, "Nezavisimaya Gazeta," earlier this month (10 September) reported that eight officials from the Turkmen embassy in Moscow had been asked to leave the country. According to the daily: "Russian special services caught some Turkmenistan special services agents and Turkmenistan diplomats red-handed. They are suspected of involvement in some crimes, including planning [to kill] Turkmenistan dissidents."

The paper said the eight may have had something to do with the beatings, in Moscow, of a Turkmen opposition leader, former Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliev, and of a Moscow reporter for the Turkmen service of Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in July, and the correspondent's son early this month.

(RFE/RLs Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)