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This week in Central Asia, the representative of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, said a series of weekend elections in increasingly isolated Turkmenistan would be unlikely to meet democratic standards, according to AFP. Speaking on Wednesday, Paraschiva Badescu, said voting for a 65-member people's assembly, 5,535 rural council seats and four parliamentary seats in by-elections looked as if they would fall far short of Western democratic standards.

The elections come as the President Saparmyrat Niyazov attempts to improve his image following international criticism of a wave of repression which followed an alleged assassination attempt on him last November. Fair elections were unlikely as the former Soviet republic "lacks political parties and candidates nominated by alternative sources", Badescu told AFP. The OSCE had not been invited to observe Sunday's poll, but would publish an evaluation, Badescu added. The size of Turkmenistan's electorate has yet to be published but is thought to number around 2.2 million of a population of 4.7 million.

On Tuesday, the US welcomed an amnesty granted by the authorities in Ashgabat to a jailed environmental activist, but said Turkmenistan still had a long way to go towards improving its human rights record. The State Department said the move, which came after the US had protested against Farid Tukhbatullin's conviction on charges of illegally crossing the Turkmen-Uzbek border and concealing a crime last month, was positive but had to be followed by additional steps.

The deputy spokesman of the State Department, Philip Reeker, said Washington still believed Tukhbatullin's trial had been unfair, and discounted the legitimacy of the confession - published in Turkmenistan’s newspapers - he had had to sign in order to get the amnesty. A day after the conviction, the State Department condemned the verdict as "politically motivated" and said it was the latest in a series of human rights abuses to have occurred since a widespread crackdown on the opposition began in November after the attack on Niyazov's motorcade.

Graft in neighbouring Kazakhstan was in the international spotlight again this week following an announcement by federal prosecutors on Wednesday that they had indicted an American banker for allegedly facilitating the payment of US $ 78 million in bribes to two Kazakh officials to procure contracts for some of the largest US oil companies. James Comey, the US attorney for New York South, said in a statement that James Giffen, the head of Mercator, a small commercial bank, had been retained by the presidency of Kazakhstan as an adviser on oil contracts to handle the transactions.

Comey said Giffen was charged with paying the bribes to the two unnamed officials in exchange for the signing of huge contracts for the sale of Kazakh oil and natural gas to Mobil Oil, Amoco, Texaco and Phillips Petroleum. The money, which transited through Swiss numbered bank accounts, was paid to the officials for the purchase of jewellery, luxury vacations and the education of their children in prestigious private schools in Switzerland, said Comey's statement.

The Uzbek authorities have finally granted registration to the Ezgulik (Good Deed) Human Rights Society, after refusing to do so for a long time, the banned Uzbek opposition website Birlik reported Monday, quoting a statement by the human rights organisation. "For the first time ever, the authorities had to register an organisation which they had been reluctant to register. We know that the country's high-ranking officials would 'complain' to OSCE member states that, as a matter of fact, Ezgulik was a political organisation which consisted mostly of opposition members," the statement by the Ezgulik said.

The report went on to say that Ezgulik's case had proved that despite considerable resistance from the local authorities, it was possible to "administer justice" with the assistance of the international community. "The authorities could have refused to register the organisation, but in that case they would have been pilloried by the international community," the report added.

Uzbekistan has been heavily criticised this year for refusing to acknowledge human rights issues.
During a news conference on Wednesday, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said it was going to launch a pilot project in 2003 to treat multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in the Karakalpakistan region of northern Uzbekistan south of the Aral Sea, the Uzland news website reported. Since MSF does not have laboratory facilities in Uzbekistan, patients will undergo medical examinations in Germany. Karakalpakistan is among the world's regions with the highest level of MDR-TB. However it appears that 13 per cent of patients there have never been given treatment for TB.

Average life expectancy for men in the Aral Sea region is just 40 years. Almost all pregnant women in the region are suffering from anaemia. A wide range of diseases is common. Most are the result of the environmental crisis caused by the desertification of the Aral Sea and the excessive use of fertilisers during the Soviet era, when the soil was contaminated by fertiliser to the point at which it contained eight times the level authorised by international standards.

Russian border guards had seized over 110 kg of heroin on the Tajik-Afghan border, border officials in Tajikistan said on Friday, according to AFP. The haul had been smuggled over from Afghanistan and left in a cache on the border for the traffickers' Tajik accomplices to pick up, the spokesman added.

Some 11,000 Russian guards patrol Tajikistan's 1,340-km border with Afghanistan, which serves as the main transport route for Afghan drugs heading for European markets. Afghanistan produces nearly 80 percent of the world's opium-based drugs. Russian guards patrolling the border have seized 1.5 mt of drugs this year alone. Last year, Russian and Tajik border guards seized 6.7 mt of drugs and killed more than 50 suspected traffickers.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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