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Prison amnesty viewed as routine

Activists have largely dismissed a proposed amnesty for thousands of prisoners incarcerated in Turkmenistan's overcrowded jails, describing the annual event as mere window dressing to disguise an otherwise abysmal human rights record. "These amnesties occur every year," Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, told IRIN from the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Varna on Tuesday, noting, while such events were important, they did little to help those incarcerated for their political views or opposition to the government. "These amnesties do not cover political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. Every year it is criminals, people convicted for minor offenses and drug abusers who are pardoned," the Turkmen activist said. Acacia Shields, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) in New York agreed. "Without release of political prisoners, the amnesty is most accurately seen as a routine method used by the Turkmen government to reduce the prison population; making room for newly convicted prisoners," she told IRIN, adding such amnesties failed to include any remedy for human rights abuses that attend convictions, such as illegal arrest, unfair trial, or physical mistreatment of detainees and prisoners. "Unless the amnesty recently declared in Turkmenistan is an exceptional one that provides for the release of people accused of crimes related to their political beliefs or affiliations, it is significant only for a select group of convicted common criminals," she maintained. On Saturday, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov announced an amnesty for up to 9,000 prisoners, a move which has become an annual tradition in the reclusive, energy-rich, Central Asian state. The amnesty would begin on 8 November and finish two days later, according to media reports, marking an end to the holy month of Ramadan. "Let's release all those who regret their mistakes," Niyazov, who has maintained a tight grip on the largely desert state since the country gained its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, reportedly said. But rights activists remain unconvinced of his sincerity. "The mechanism of amnesties was launched in response to a crisis in the judicial and law enforcement system and an unwillingness to reform it," Vitali Ponomarev, head of the Central Asia project with the Moscow-based Memorial human rights centre, told IRIN from the Russian capital, stressing that such amnesties had taken place annually since 1999. Describing the Turkmen judicial system as repressive, Ponomarev noted many inmates were serving lengthy terms for minor crimes. "This has led to an extremely overcrowded Turkmen prison system and the law enforcement system simply cannot cope with the numbers," he observed. Although officially there were some 15,500 people imprisoned in the country, many speculate the numbers to be much higher. A recent report by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty suggested that the country of 5 million might have one of the world's highest per-capita prison rates at 490 for every 100,000 inhabitants. "We don't know how many are actually in prison in Turkmenistan," Dr Aaron Rhodes, excecutive director of the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation (IHF), told IRIN. "Without having confidence in official data and with no way to independently verify, there is no way to monitor the situation, which is a serious human rights issue." But it was the plight of thousands of political prisoners languishing in Turkmen prisons that remained the greatest concern. Rather than focusing on the amnesty - which did not appear to benefit those who had been arrested on political grounds and cruelly tortured following an alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov's life in November 2002 - HRW's Shields called on the international community to ensure the well being of these people. "It is essential that independent international observers be given access to all prisoners in Turkmenistan and particularly to those jailed in relation to the attempt on Niyazov," the activist said. "These issues, rather than the distraction provided by a government amnesty decree, should be at the forefront of the international community's agenda in Turkmenistan and the focus of those concerned about prison conditions and reform in the country."
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