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Turkmenistan21 December 2006

Call for release of journalists and political prisoners after the death of Saparmurat Niyazov

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Reporters Without Borders has urgently called on the Turkmen interim authorities to “turn the death of the president to advantage and put an end to the oppression of their compatriots.”

The worldwide press freedom organisation said, “In particular we call for the release of all journalists and human rights activists imprisoned in Turkmen jails in extremely harsh conditions, very often for simply working with foreign media.”

It added that it remembered in particular Annakurban Amanklychev, Sapardurdy Khajiyev (detained since June 2006) and Ogulsapar Muradova, who died under torture last September aged 58. The three journalists and activists with the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation were arrested for their pro-democracy campaign and for working on a documentary about their country.

“We hope it is not too late for Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khadzhiev, even though there has been no news of them for several months.” It added.

More than 10,000 prisoners were amnestied in Turkmenistan on 16 October 2006, but unfortunately no journalist was among them. Many dissidents remain in jail.

President of the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation, Tajigul Begmedova, a nominee for the Reporters Without Borders-Fondation de France press freedom prize, said on the phone, “There are almost 4,000 political prisoners still in Turkmen jails.”

“They are mostly dissidents, not opposition figures, who had the misfortune to express opinions at variance with official propaganda. Their state of health is extremely worrying, many need medical attention. They should be urgently released.”

Saparmurat Niyazov, who had been in power since 1985, died from a heart attack at 0110 local time on 21 December 2006. The “Turkmenbashi” (leader of all Turkmens) had been suffering from heart problems for several years and had heart surgery in Germany in 1997. News of his death was announced the same day on Turkmen television, which showed a national flag bordered in black and a portrait of the president.

It is not yet known who will be Niyazov’s successor. A special commission has been appointed to organise the funeral, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. In the Soviet era, the men carrying out this duty often ended up as successors to the dead political leader. This is why the deputy prime minister is likely to be the future president of the republic.

Turkmenistan is Central Asia’s most repressive regime. Its citizens are virtually banned from travelling abroad and an overwhelming personality cult had developed around President Niyazov. He was first secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party in the Soviet period. He was elected president after the country’s independence in 1991, a job which he combined with that of prime minister and secretary general of the sole legal political party. He had himself reconfirmed president in elections which regularly gave him more than 90% of the votes cast. One in 1999 named him president for life. Turkmenistan has large hydro-carbon resources and, despite reports on the appalling human rights situation, it enjoys the support or acceptance of most countries. Reporters Without Borders latest world press freedom rankings put the country in 167th place (out of 168), just ahead of North Korea.

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