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Rights groups call for release of prisoner of conscience

[Turkmenistan] The cult of the leader. IRIN
Under former president Saparmyrat Niyazov, who died late last year, controversial topics such as drug trafficking and drug addiction were largely taboo
Rights groups are calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Mukhametkuli Aymuradov, a prisoner of conscious now serving a 33-year-long sentence in energy-rich Turkmenistan for alleged anti-state crimes; charges many believe to be fabricated. "We are very, very concerned that he may not survive," Maisy Weicherding, a researcher for Amnesty International's (AI) Caucasus and Central Asia division, told IRIN from London on Monday, describing his current health condition as appalling. The 59-year-old grandfather, who survived a heart attack earlier, suffers from a number of ailments, including a gastric ulcer, cholecystitis, and recurring inflammation of the kidney and bladder. Despite that, Aymuradov has recently been transferred to a maximum-security prison in the Caspian port town of Turkmenbashi, known for its particularly harsh conditions and more than 500 km from his home in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, prompting AI to issue an appeal for his release. Such cases are hardly unusual in Turkmenistan, a reclusive Central Asian state under the strict rule of authoritarian president for life, Saparmurad Niyazov or Turkmenbashi, father of all Turkmens, as he is known. Following the collapse of the former Soviet Union and independence in 1991, the largely desert nation of 5 million has had an abysmal human rights record on issues of political dissent, religious minorities and civil society. First arrested in October 1994 in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, Aymuradov and his co-defendant Khoshali Garayev were forcibly taken to Turkmenistan by members of the Turkmen Committee for National Security, the local equivalent of the KGB. Charged with conspiracy against the state, including "attempted terrorism", Aymuradov was sentenced to 15 years in 1995, before receiving an additional 18 years in 1998, allegedly for having broken prison rules, the AI statement read. And while there was no substantive evidence that either of the men had been guilty of the charges brought against them, or had used or advocated violence, Weicherding believed there was compelling circumstantial evidence to support allegations that the two were being punished solely because of their association with exiled opponents of Niyazov, including Avdi Kuliev, a former foreign minister and leading opposition figure. Meanwhile, the death in custody of co-defendant Garayev in unexplained circumstances in September 1999 has served only to heighten the watchdog group's concern for Aymuradov's safety, as well as to rally others to do the same. "His treatment is absolutely consistent with the mistreatment of other prisoners of conscience. All prisoners in Turkmenistan suffer from inadequate conditions," Erika Dailey, director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, told IRIN from Budapest. "What makes the mistreatment of prisoners of conscience distinct from the average is isolation," she said, explaining that the government tended to keep them apart from families; often not allowing them to receive the most minimal parcel of food or medicine. Aymuradov's wife last saw her husband in April 2004 before his transfer while he was being held at a detention centre in the town of Tedzhen, more than 200 km east of the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, according to AI. Since then she has travelled twice to Turkmenbashi, but has yet to be allowed to see her husband or pass any food on to him. Prison officials told her that Aymuradov was "in quarantine" for two months and no request for a visit would be granted. Only on 13 August, did she learn that she would be allowed to visit her husband, who is confined indoors, with no exercise outdoors. Asked what needed to be done, Weicherding called on the international community to further their calls for Aymuradov's immediate release; something they have been doing for years already. "We want his unconditional release on humanitarian grounds," the activist said, calling on the international community to step up the pressure. "I know everyone has been trying to do this for a number of years - but unfortunately unsuccessfully."
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