A mass release of convicts is not in itself a sign of liberalisation.
A recent prison amnesty which failed to include high-profile political prisoners in Turkmenistan has disappointed human rights groups, who say the occasional release of large numbers of prisoners does nothing to address the problems of a deeply flawed justice system.
They argue that far from liberalising the penal system, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov is perpetuating the practices of his predecessor Saparmurat Niazov.
Every year since 1999, the authorities have announced a mass amnesty for Laylat ul-Qadr, an important date in the Muslim calendar that was marked on October 9 in Turkmenistan this year.
The list of people released named about 9,000 people, but did not include major political figures known to be in prison, notably former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who was given a life sentence for allegedly playing a leading role in an assassination attempt against Niyazov in late 2002.
“Despite the expectations of many, the list of those pardoned excluded prisoners of conscience and those referred to as political prisoners,” said a press release from the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, TIHR, an émigré group
Unofficial estimates suggest that under Niazov, some 10,000 people were sent to jail every year. Using the official list of those amnestied, TIHR calculated that 5,000 of them had been convicted in 2007, which suggests that the courts are continuing to convict far too many people despite the change of regime. After Niazov died last December, Berdymuhammedov became acting head of state before being elected president in February.
The Turkmen Helsinki Fund, another human rights organisation based abroad, says it knows of 4,000 political prisoners who it says were convicted unlawfully.
“The country is in dire need of serious judicial reform,” said the fund’s head, Tajigul Begmedova. “Under Niazov, there was never a single not-guilty verdict, and it is a common practice for courts to hand out the maximum possible term.”
She added that while hard-core criminals were often released under the annual amnesties, while political prisoners were left to serve their long sentences.
Vyacheslav Mamedov, head of the emigre Civic Democratic Union of Turkmenistan, said the government is forced to order mass annual amnesties to ease overcrowding, so this year’s releases cannot be seen a step towards liberalisation.
Despite reforms in other areas such as education and pensions, Mamedov argues that the October amnesty was at best an attempt to improve the Turkmen leadership’s image abroad.
“There is no doubt that this is a one-off PR action. They didn’t even release those imprisoned for the  assassination attempt against Niazov,” he said. “When we talk about the liberalisation of this regime, we will be able to define its starting point quite easily. It will come when citizens are given an opportunity to make real use of the rights and freedoms that arise from international conventions – freedom of expression and conscience, the right to assemble and stage demonstrations. None of that is happening in Turkmenistan.
“So this amnesty has an underlying political cause and is a one-off event; it does not affect society as a whole.”
Hopes of a wide-ranging amnesty were raised when 11 individuals who clearly did fall into the political prisoner category were freed in August.
They included the former chief Muslim cleric of Turkmenistan, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, who was not only released but awarded a senior position with the president’s Council for Religious Affairs.
In March 2004 Ibadullah was sentenced to 22 years in the “assassination plot” case which saw so many other convictions. In fact, Ibadullah had spoke out against earlier convictions, as well as against Niazov’s attempt to impose his own book, the Ruhnama, on mosques as if it were of equivalent status to the Koran.
Ibadullah’s release was interpreted by many as a public exercise move just before a United States delegation arrived in Turkmenistan.
Acacia Shields, a human rights consultant and long-term observer of Central Asia, argues that whatever its motive, the August release of political prisoners sent a positive signal, certainly more so than the subsequent amnesty.
“I see the release of political prisoners as a more significant sign of political liberalisation than the general amnesty,” she said. “Many governments all over the world comply with human rights standards just to look good, but as long as they comply with human rights standards, it’s OK.”
An Ashgabad resident, who did not want to be named, was pessimistic, asking, “How is it possible to talk about a political thaw, if cases continue to be fabricated against people seen as troublemakers? In this country, there is a functioning system for persecuting dissidents and journalists of all kinds.”
Elina Karakulova is an IWPR editor in Bishkek.