According to unconfirmed reports, 23 people died when prison staff used force to put down a mutiny by political prisoners warders in the wake of President Saparmurat Niyazov’s death last month.
Human rights activists and other commentators say that regardless whether the report is confirmed, the case underlines that the Turkmen authorities must show their commitment to change by releasing all political prisoners.
The Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, a foreign-based rights group, reported on January 17 that unrest broke out at the Ovadan-Depe prison, located in the Karakum desert north of Ashgabat, after inmates heard of President Niyazov’s death. As political prisoners demanded to be released immediately, the prison administration reacted by shooting 23 people dead, according to the report.
Immediately after Niyazov’s death on December 21, Turkmen human rights and political groups called on the government to release all prisoners of conscience and conduct an unbiased of all appeals concerning unfair pre-trial proceedings and convictions. On December 24, for instance, the Democratic Civic Union of Turkmenistan and the Union of Independent Lawyers said new laws were urgently needed to amnesty and rehabilitate all political prisoners.
NBCentralAsia commentators say these calls are even more relevant now that the election campaign for a new president is under way, and also in light of the reports from Ovadan-Depe.
“A gradual amnesty reminiscent of the one that followed Stalin’s death, and which led to Nikita Khruschev’s ‘thaw’, could encourage the public to start believing in the candidates’ campaign promises,” said Mars Sariev, NBCentralAsia expert on Turkmenistan.
According to some estimates, more than 140,000 people have gone through the prison system since President Niyazov took charge of an independent Turkmenistan in 1991. About 10,000 people are sent to jail every year. In a country whose laws make criticising the president tantamount to treason, about half of those convicted are being punished because of their political or dissident background.
Commentators inside Turkmenistan tell NBCentralAsia that after Niyazov died, many people began hoping the prisons would open their doors and people convicted on fabricated charges would have restitution. However, none of the six candidates running for the February 11 election has touched on the issue.
A television journalist who was present when acting president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov met voters in the Balkan region said, “I did not find out the most important thing – whether they plan to keep on snatching people and imprisoning them. More than anything else, people want there to be an amnesty. The prisons are full.”
Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, says that the government does not have the capacity to reform the law-enforcement and judicial systems straight away, but it could issue pardons to political prisoners.
“We’re demanding pardons for about 4,000 people who are all been victims of the regime. They all were convicted unlawfully. Some could have their sentences reduced. Maybe they are completely innocent.”
However, Begmedova recognises that the acting administration is made of “experienced, hardened individuals who are exploiting the security agencies’ fear of change to consolidate their own positions and continue repressive policies”.
Sariev agreed, adding that if the government freed all its opponents, it would be “signing its own death warrant”. It may therefore begin by releasing people deemed to be of lesser significance.
(News Briefing Central Asia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region.)