Batyr Mukhamedov still vividly recalls his incarceration in Shagal prison in eastern Turkmenistan, where torture, routine beatings, food deprivation, overcrowding and disease have yet to receive the international concern they deserve, activists told IRIN.
"There are no constraints on the police, interrogators or national security officials in using torture," the 44-year civil law attorney told IRIN from Moscow. "They are given full authority to do as they wish."
But Mukhamedov, sentenced to three years imprisonment on what he says were trumped up drugs charges for defending a Jehovah's witness - fired from her job because of her faith - is also a survivor. Others, however, have not been so lucky.
"I knew two people, both physically fit, who were tortured to death. What they did to these men behind the prison's walls cannot be described."
Testimonies such as Mukhamedov's are critical in understanding the reality of Turkmenistan's prison system. The largely desert, but energy-rich state, has an abysmal human rights record, say rights groups. Local media outlets are controlled by the state, political opposition is banned and Western journalists and rights groups are prevented from entering the country altogether.
"Information about prisons in Turkmenistan is indeed scarce, due to the complete lack of transparency and access," Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Europe and Central Asia division, told IRIN from New York, noting that as the government did not tolerate independent NGOs, there remained no meaningful access by local NGOs.
According to a recent country report by the watchdog group, the Turkmen authorities continue to violate basic rights, crush all dissent and further isolate the country from the rest of the world.
Following the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has worked hard to tighten his control over the country's five million inhabitants, with little concern for international human rights standards. The country's burgeoning prison population and stories such as Mukhamedov's reflect that.
"Conditions are extremely brutal and harsh," Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation (THF), told IRIN from the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Varna, where her group is based.
Although officially there were 15,500 people imprisoned in Turkmenistan, Begmedova claimed the real number to be much higher.
Denber noted that HRW had received credible, detailed eyewitness and victim accounts of severe torture and ill treatment within the prison system, involving both detainees who were considered to be political prisoners and those whose incarceration had no known political motivation.
"The attitude towards political prisoners is the harshest and it is not because the guards or prison administration don't like them. There are special instructions from Ashgabat on how to treat them," Vitaly Ponomarev, head of the rights NGO Memorial, told IRIN from Moscow.
Since a reported assassination attempt on Niyazov in November 2002 and a subsequent further crackdown on opposition within the country, most political prisoners were kept at the new Avadan-tepe prison, finished in February 2003, Ponomarev explained. "Conditions there are the hardest," the activist said, noting that there were reports of torture and some inmates in need of urgent medical assistance.
Meanwhile, relatives of detainees faced almost insurmountable obstacles and entrenched corruption in meeting family members and providing them with much needed food and medical supplies - essential for their survival.
"The high numbers of inmates means that a disproportionately high percentage of the population has been incarcerated or had relatives incarcerated and therefore tasted first-hand the power of the state to control everyday life," Erika Dailey, director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, told IRIN from Budapest.
Conditions were marked by gross overcrowding, with prisons being unsanitary and rife with infectious diseases such as TB, with virtually no access to medical care, Dailey added.
"The high rates of arrests and frequent amnesties, coupled with the state's policy of banning diagnosis and therefore treatment of infectious diseases, means that Turkmenistan has become a breeding ground for epidemics of TB and other deadly diseases," she maintained.
The situation is also dire for foreign prisoners, who lack access to family support altogether. Referring to the considerable number of Russian, Iranian, Uzbek and Azeri nationals currently being incarcerated, Mukhamedov remarked: "Their situation is the worst."
But for those currently being held inside Turkmenistan, their plight looks set to continue without outside intervention.
"The international community should press first and foremost for access to Turkmen prisoners for local and international monitoring groups," Denber said, describing transparency as the first step towards ending abuse in any closed system.
That challenge could prove difficult, however. According to Dailey, currently no humanitarian or human rights groups have any access to places of detention.
Just last year, the US ambassador to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Stephen Minikes, called upon the government of Turkmenistan to allow access to those in detention and prison after the reported death in custody of a former high-ranking intelligence official, as well as a civil society figure, in April 2003. There were credible allegations that malnutrition and a lack of medical care contributed to these deaths, Minikes said, warning that other prisoners were reportedly also in a critical condition.