ASHGABAT (Reuters) -- Turkmenistan, a gas producing nation on the Caspian Sea, will free 1,697 prisoners including 29 foreigners in a mass amnesty, its president said on May 15.
The reclusive nation has tried to open up since the death of autocratic leader Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006. The West, which sees it as a potential new energy supplier, supports its efforts but human rights groups say progress has been slow.
"The amnesty is in line with the humanistic traditions of our nation set out in the constitution," President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said in televised remarks.
Turkmenistan's total prisoner population is unclear but rights groups say it includes political prisoners. No other details were available on the amnesty.
Turkmenistan frees thousands of prisoners annually in what rights groups see as a populist gesture designed to promote its image as a country respecting justice and democracy.
Niyazov tolerated no dissent and locked up political opponents during his 20-year rule. He dotted the nation with statues of himself and renamed months and streets after himself and his relatives.
Berdymukhammedov, trying to end Turkmenistan's isolation and bring in more foreign investment, has been chipping away at Niyazov's legacy and trying to soften Turkmenistan's image abroad.
But organizations such as Human Rights Watch say political freedom has not improved and accuse the government of violating people's basic liberties.