President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov’s decision to pardon 11 political prisoners could lead to a wider amnesty for hundreds of others, say NBCentralAsia observers.
On August 9, Berdymuhammedov pardoned 11 people who had been sentenced to between five and 25 years by the country’s Supreme Court when the late Saparmurat Niazov was president. The 11 were held at the Ovan-Depe, a high-security prison surrounded in secrecy.
Among those freed are businessman Iklym Iklymov, who was given a life sentence after being convicted of being part of an assassination plot against Niazov in 2002, and the former mufti or chief Islamic cleric Nasrulla ibn Ibadullah, who was given 22 years in the same case. Ibadullah had been designated a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.
On August 13, four days after freeing Ibadullah, President Berdymuhammedov offered him a senior position, as an advisor on the Religious Affairs Council, which is part of the presidential administration.
The 11 freed prisoners appeared in the interior ministry, where they made speeches repenting for their offences and thanking the government for its mercy.
NBCentralAsia observers say many Turkmen citizens have waited a long time for the government to make such a hope, and this release could be the first step towards a wider amnesty.
NBCentralAsia’s sources in the Turkmen police services say the authorities are drawing up lists of several hundred people who could be released.
Human rights monitors outside the country say there around 4,000 political prisoners in Turkmen prisons.
“There is now hope that all of the positive changes that we have seen of late are going to be lasting ones,” said an NBCentralAsia source in Turkmenistan.
In July, the authorities abolished “internal visa” requirements for people travelling within the country and announced that they were working on simplifying visa procedures for travel to Russia. However, there are still blacklists of people who are restricted in their movements.
Vyacheslav Mamedov, who fled to the Netherlands to escape persecution by the Turkmen authorities and now heads the Civil Democratic Union of Turkmenistan, an émigré group, says the releases make him more optimistic. He hopes that those who were freed will find the strength to continue working.
“There is hope that the government will free other patriots as well in the near future”, he said.
Some human rights activists are concerned that because the individuals concerned were released under amnesty rather than receiving a pardon or having their sentences overturned, they do not have the right to claim compensation.
“If just half of the who have suffered demanded the restoration of justice and compensation including the return of confiscated apartments, cars and other property, no budget would be big enough to cope,” said an observer in Ashgabat.
Tajigul Begmedova, the head of the Turkmen Helsinki Fund, an émigré group based in Bulgaria, says the long years of dictatorship in Turkmenistan has created a distorted sense of what justice and amnesty mean, so it is unlikely the original criminal cases against the 11 will be reviewed fairly.
“The government is still not disclosing the facts of these recent cases where amnesty was granted,” she said. “In all probability, their convictions were fabricated. And that means that ideally they should have had restitution.”
(News Briefing Central Asia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region.)