International human rights groups are stepping up the pressure on Turkmenistan’s interim authorities, calling for the release of political prisoners and dissidents arrested when former president Saparmurat Niazov’s was in power. Although the government is unlikely to respond to such calls, NBCentralAsia experts say it should be placed under more pressure, since the release of even one political prisoner would set a precedent for more.
On January 24, the Association for Assisting Political Emigrants from Central Asia organised a protest in front of the Turkmen embassy in Moscow. The protesters called on the Turkmen authorities to release political prisoners, in particular ecologist Andrei Zatoka, who was arrested a month ago on what they believe were fabricated charges, and demanded that prisons be opened up to international observers.
Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, based in Bulgaria, is sure that if the international community takes a tough stance, it will definitely produce results.
“It is important to support one or two Turkmen dissidents who have really suffered from the Niazov regime, and then a precedent will be set which the new authorities will not be able to ignore,” she said.
Human Rights Watch has already called on the interim authorities to release Zatoka, Turkmen Helsinki Foundation activists Annagurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Hajiev, and Muhammetkuli Aimuradov, serving an 18-year sentence he was given in 1994 after being convicted of the November 2002 attempted assassination of Niazov.
But according to Mars Sariev, an NBCentralAsia expert on Turkmenistan, it is unlikely that these political prisoners will be released soon, as it doing so could make the interim authorities appear weak.
“[They] will not release political prisoners ahead of the [February 11] presidential election, since it’s important for them to show that they are strong and able to stand up to pressure from abroad,” he said.
(News Briefing Central Asia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region.)