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Turkmen Report: November 3, 2003

3 November 2003
Turkmenistan Issues New Banknote On Anniversary Of National Currency Introduction
1 November 2003

Turkmenistan marked the 10th anniversary of issuing its national currency by introducing its highest-denomination banknote -- a 10,000-manat note, AP and ITAR-TASS reported on 1 November.

The new note bears a portrait of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, as do all previous manat notes, but the 10,000-manat note also has Niyazov's signature. Previous bank notes have the signatures of former central-bank chiefs Khudaiberdy Orazov and Seidbai Kandimov. Orazov joined the Turkmen opposition and is currently in exile. Kandimov is serving a prison sentence for corruption.

At the official rate, 10,000 manats is worth less than $2. At the black-market rate 10,000 manats is worth about $0.50. (AP, ITAR-TASS)

Russian Human Rights Activists Concerned About Situation In Turkmenistan
30 October 2003

Russian human rights activists said that the Central Asian republics have the poorest human rights records in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Interfax reported on 30 October.

"Central Asia has the highest number of prosecutions for political motives and the largest population of political prisoners in the CIS," Valentin Gefter of the Memorial human rights center told a news conference on 30 October. Gefter said that he is particularly concerned about the human rights situation in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Memorial's Vitalii Ponomarev noted that Turkmenistan's prison population has increased following last year's assassination attempt on the president. He also recalled that the Turkmen authorities decided to pull out of the dual-citizenship agreement with Russia, thus violating the rights of many Russian citizens living there. (Interfax)

Turkmen President Amnesties 7,000 Prisoners
30 October 2003

Turkmen newspapers reported that Saparmurat Niyazov has signed a decree granting amnesty to more than 7,000 prisoners, AP reported on 30 October.

The official "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" newspaper said the amnesty applies to elderly, young, or sick prisoners who are not serving sentences for violent crimes. The prisoners will be freed on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which takes place on 21-22 November at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Niyazov, who faces international criticism for human rights abuses in Turkmenistan, regularly announces amnesties and freed some 8,000 prisoners last year. (AP)

Turkmenistan To Rubberstamp Oil Deal With Itera
29 October 2003

The agreement between Russia's Itera oil and gas company and Turkmenistan on the extraction of mineral resources in the Caspian will be signed by President Niyazov on 12 December, ITAR-TASS reported on 29 October.

"We have agreed with Saparmurat Niyazov that the final version of the production-sharing agreement will be signed on 12 December," Itera Chairman Igor Makarov said. "Prior to that, on 6 November, our company, Zarubezhneft, and Rosneft will hold a joint meeting of the boards of directors to endorse our program. So we can say that we have begun the implementation of the project," he said.

Experts say oil extraction in Turkmenistan's sector of the Caspian may exceed 15 million tons a year. Itera plans to build a gas-processing plant in Turkmenistan with a capacity of 10 billion cubic meters a year. "Up till now there were disputable clauses concerning production sharing, terms of investment, and product return," Makarov said. (ITAR-TASS)

Niyazov In Good Health, TV Says
29 October 2003

For the second time in two months, Turkmenistan's state television reported on 29 October that doctors who examined President Niyazov have found him in good health, AP reported the same day. The 63-year-old Niyazov has led Turkmenistan since 1985, and since Turkmenistan's 1991 independence he has built a vast cult of personality around himself.

Earlier this month, Niyazov did not take part as expected in commemorations of the 1948 Ashgabat earthquake, reportedly because he was suffering from a cold and gout. The report said that prompted his German physician, Hans Meisner, to conduct an examination.

The examination by Meisner, who performed open-heart surgery on Niyazov in 1997, followed a September examination by a team of German doctors. Meisner said his latest examination left him "completely satisfied" about Niyazov's health. (AP)

OSCE Urges Turkmenistan To Cooperate With Pro-Democracy Efforts
27 October 2003

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on 27 October called on Turkmenistan to cooperate with the organization's efforts to promote democracy.

The OSCE envoy to Central Asia, Martti Ahtisaari, met with Turkmen President Niyazov in Ashgabat. After the talks, Ahtisaari said he had emphasized to the president that the OSCE's member states are working to become more democratic and open societies. He said the OSCE wants to help Turkmenistan with this process.

Niyazov, who has been in power since 1985, has been criticized for resisting democratic changes and isolating Turkmenistan from the international community. The talks came as Turkmenistan celebrated its Independence Day with a military parade in the capital. (AP)

Annual Amnesty Set To Free 7,000 Convicts In Turkmenistan, But Why?
31 October 2003

By Antoine Blua

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov signed a decree this week on 29 October giving amnesty to more than 7,000 prisoners. They should be freed on the Night of Omnipotence, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan in Turkmenistan. It falls this year on 21-22 November. The amnesty will apply to elderly, young, and sick prisoners who are serving sentences for minor crimes.

Niyazov, at a 24 October cabinet meeting, announced the amnesty. "The resolution on amnesty in honor of the Night of Omnipotence is ready now," he said. "It is necessary to be prepared to send [the prisoners] to their homes."

Turkmenistan's annual amnesty honoring the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr -- literally, "the breaking of the fast" and marking the end of the holy month -- is declared in accordance with a 1999 law. Niyazov has previously declared amnesties on an irregular basis.

Niyazov has drawn strong international condemnation for human rights abuses over the course of his rule. So why has he -- according to statistics from the Prosecutor-General's Office -- amnestied about 120,000 prisoners in the 12 years of Turkmenistan's independence? Turkmen officials claim that amnesties demonstrate Niyazov's compassion and his eagerness to bring some sort of social justice to a country with almost no rule of law.

Bess Brown is an expert on Central Asia who freelances for RFE/RL. She says Niyazov may use the amnesties as a way to demonstrate to his critics that he is in fact complying with his country's human rights commitments. Also, Brown adds, Niyazov might believe -- erroneously -- that annual amnesties are popular among the Turkmen public. "Various officials will tell you that very few of the people who are released in the amnesties return to crime, that they go back to their families and are accepted back into society. I have even had police officials tell me that the law enforcement agencies try [to] find them jobs and try to help them reintegrate into society. [But] the feeling of the population of Turkmenistan is that nothing really is done. And practically any inhabitant of Ashgabat will say that the crime rate goes up immediately after the amnesty," Brown said.

While petty criminals have hope of being amnestied, Turkmenistan's prisons remain tightly closed for officials convicted of crimes committed while serving the state, political prisoners, and the estimated 100-plus people convicted of involvement in the alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov in November 2002.

Anna Sunder-Plassmann is a researcher on Central Asia at Amnesty International, a London-based human rights watchdog. She says that the release of all prisoners of conscience would be a step in the right direction. She also calls for the resolution of human rights abuses in Turkmenistan in general, such as attacks on, torture and ill-treatment of political opponents. "We think it would be particularly important that the prisoners of conscience Kurban Zakirov and Nikolai Shelekhov [who were sentenced for refusing to serve in the army] would be released, and also the political prisoner Mukhametguli Aymuradov. Those are cases that were recently raised also by the European Parliament. And we think it would be very important that all those convicted in connection with the November 2002 events would be retried and all torture allegations would be investigated and also the allegations about death in custody," Sunder-Plassmann said. Jehovah's Witnesses Zakirov and Shelekhov have been excluded from past amnesties because they have objected to the formal repentance requirement of swearing loyalty to the president on the Koran.

Erika Dailey is director of the Turkmenistan Project at the Open Society Institute in Budapest. Noting that Turkmen prisons rapidly refill with new prisoners, she describes the amnesties as a "revolving door" that simply exchanges old inmates for new ones. The amnesty system, Dailey stresses, is "quite notorious" as a means for fueling corruption within the prison and security systems. "There are a lot of relatives of some of the people incarcerated who are prepared and in a position to pay a certain amount of money as bribes in order to have their relatives fall under the amnesty," Dailey said. Dailey also points out that there is no reliable way to check whether a total of 7,000 prisoners will effectively be released.

With more than 20,000 people currently estimated to be in jail, Turkmenistan may have one of the world's highest per-capita prison population rates at 490 out of a population of 100,000. Observers, though, say there is no reliable way to gauge how many Turkmens are actually in prison. (RFE/RL)