Area: 488,100
Population: 4,830,000.
Language: Turkmen.
Head of state: Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

The regime's grip on the country and the independent media tightened further in 2006, with several journalists arrested, one killed in prison and their families hounded by the authorities. The death of President Separmurad Nyazov on 21 December revived hopes of liberalisation in Central Asia's most repressive country.

Three journalists and human rights activists – Annakurban Amanklychev, Sapardurdy Khajiev and Ogulsapar Muradova – who helped French TV station France 2 make a travel programme about Turkmenistan were arrested on 16 and 18 June. There were accused of plotting against ‘The Turkmenbashi" (Father of All Turkmens, as Nyazov called himself) and their detention announced by the president's Ashkabat TV station. The eventual charges against them were "illegal possession of arms and ammunition" and before their secret trial on 25 August, their families were not allowed to visit them. One witness who saw Amanklychev at the state security ministry said she was almost unrecognisable and was being brutally interrogated round the clock.

After a hasty trail during which the defence was not allowed to speak, Amanklychev and Khajiev were sentenced to seven years in prison and Muradova to 6 years. They said they would appeal and then no more was heard of them until the death of the 58-year-old Muradova was reported on 14 September. She had been the local correspondent for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, had three children and probably died under torture in prison since her body had many bruises, traces of internal bleeding and a large open head wound. No official investigation of her death was made. All three prisoners had reportedly been sent to Odovan Depe prison, where about 4,000 political prisoners are held.

The three journalists, who were also activists for the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, had helped make a French TV documentary called "Turkmenistan: Welcome to Nyazovland" that was broadcast in France on 28 September. Since their conviction, their friends and family have been persecuted, lost their jobs and been constantly watched.

Amanklychev and Khajiev were not among more than 10,000 prisoners amnestied on 16 October by Nyazov on the 15th anniversary of independence including eight of the 50 people jailed for "treason" after a November 2002 bid to assassinate the president. Three journalists among the 50 – Serdar Rakhimov, Batyr Berdyev and Ovezmurad Yazmuradov, who were sentenced to 25 years each – remained in prison and are being held in an unknown place.

Nyazov ironically inaugurated a "House of Free Creativity" in Ashgabat on 17 October 2006. The 10-storey, $17 million building shaped like an open book and shining at night is for regime journalists and, like many other public works in the country, was built by the French firm Bouygues.


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