NBCentralAsia observers say the release of Turkmenistan’s former chief mufti along with other political prisoners is unlikely to lead to further releases as the authorities are too nervous of their position to free those who may pose a threat.
On August 9, former chief mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah and ten other political prisoners were pardoned by President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov and released from prison. Four days later, Ibadullah announced on national television that he had been offered a position with the president’s Council for Religious Affairs.
Ibadullah, the chief Muslim cleric in Turkmenistan and an influential member of the Uzbek minority, served as the council’s deputy chairman from 2002 to 2003.
In March 2004, he was sentenced to 22 years in the Ovan-Depe high security prison after being convicted of treason charges for his alleged involvement in an assassination attempt against the late president Saparmurat Niazov in late 2002.
However, his arrest was thought to be more closely linked to his opposition to Niazov’s policies. Ibadullah had protested against the death sentences handed down to individuals supposedly involved in the assassination attempt and also against Niazov’s insistence that his treatise, the Ruhnama, was used as a text in the country’s mosques.
An NBCentralAsia observer in Ashgabat says that while people in Turkmenistan expect more political prisoners to be released soon, he believes the government is frightened of letting potentially powerful figures back into society.
“I am not sure that Berdymuhammedov would release former high-ranking officials. The authorities were very reluctant to even [forgive Ibdullah] and the influence of such people is feared,” the observer said.
Other commentators believe Ibadullah was released as part of Berdymuhammedov’s drive to recruit better government officials, which is proving difficult due to the shortage of competent advisors in Turkmenistan.
But Viacheslav Mamedov, the head of the émigré Civic Democratic Union of Turkmenistan. does not think Ibadullah’s case will set a precedent, saying the government is unlikely to release other influential political prisoners without weighing up the threat they might pose.
Further amnesties will depend on the “security profile” of those released and how useful pardons are as a public relations tool for government.
“The authorities are hesitant right now, and activists accused of attempting to murder Niazov, or those with experience in organising popular demonstrations, are not expected to be [allowed to become] widely involved in public life,” he said.