Analysts suspect the release of Turkmen political prisoner Muhametkuli Aymuradov is a one-off, and does not mean other dissidents will be freed in the near future.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch reports that Aymuradov was released on May 2. He had spent 14 years in prison after being convicted of terrorism charges in 1995. According to Human Rights Watch group, he was denied access to a lawyer during the pre-trial investigation and was not informed of the evidence and witness testimony to be used against him.
Aymuradov was extradited from neighbouring Uzbekistan, where he was detained in 1994 without an arrest warrant being issued.
He served his sentence at the Krasnovodsk maximum-security prison, which is located in the Caspian Sea port of Turkmenbashi and is known for its poor conditions.
In December 1998, Aymuradov received a further 18-year imprisonment on charges of attempting to escape. His supporters say these allegations, like the earlier case against him, were invented because he had previously been in contact with dissidents.
In 2001, his overall sentence was cut in half under a general amnesty issued by the then president Saparmurat Niazov.
Many human rights activists and commentators say they were expecting Aymuradov to be freed. He had served his entire sentence, and his family was notified in February that he was to be released in early May.
There are many political prisoners still incarcerated in Turkmenistan, and observers are sceptical that their cases will be reviewed.
“The authorities have repeatedly displayed their indifference to this category of convicts, and there’s no indication the situation is going to change greatly,” said one observer in Ashgabat.
In a report covering 2008, the United States watchdog group Freedom House listed Turkmenistan among the world’s most repressive states.
Another analyst based in Ashgabat recalls the optimistic mood that briefly appeared following the release in August 2007 of 11 individuals convicted when Niazov was in power. President Niazov had died the previous December and his successor Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov was seen as a reformer.
The 11 included two former deputy prime ministers, Yolly Gurbanmuradov and Dortkuli Aydogdiyev, as well as the country’s former top Muslim cleric, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah. All three had been convicted of treason charges.
“Remember how enthusiastic we became after the pardon issued to people we viewed as political prisoners and dissidents,” said the analyst.
The international community, too, saw these releases as the dawn of liberalisation. But this has failed to materialize, and many political prisoners remain in jail.
They include Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiyev, who were connected with the human rights community and who got seven years each on weapons charges, and Gulneldy Anniazov, who returned to Turkmenistan in 2008 after six years in exile and was promptly arrested.
Nothing is known of the fate of 50 people convicted folling a failed assassination attempt on Niazov in 2002.
Maria Lisitsyna, who works for Human Rights Watch in New York, is concerned that the Turkmen authorities are not prepared to grant amnesty to the political prisoners.
“It is too bad the Turkmen government has not yet demonstrated the political will to launch this process,” she told NBCentralAsia. “The authorities should admit there’s a problem and start reviewing all these cases.”
However, a judge in Turkmenistan’s Supreme Court, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the government is not really interested in the hundreds of people wrongfully convicted and now serving jail terms. The reason, he said, was that most were sentenced in Niazov’s time, and Berdymuhammedov is reluctant to assume responsibility for their cases.
“Our president just doesn’t want to get involved in this matter, and that’s that,” said the judge.
(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)