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Human Rights Group Alarmed by New Turkmen Treason Laws - 2003-02-16

The Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights says it is alarmed by new laws against high treason that have been passed in Turkmenistan. The federation sees a return to the Stalinist methods of the 1930s in the central Asian state.

Aaron Rhodes, head of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, is worried that new legislation in Turkmenistan will punish people just for having what its calls thought crimes. He describes the situation as frightening. Laws now defining high treason are so vague it is easy to imprison any critics of the totalitarian regime, he says.

The Helsinki federation describes the human rights situation in Turkmenistan as catastrophic. Mr. Rhodes says it is a state that has obliterated any space for civil society.

After an abortive assassination attempt on President Saparmurat Niyazov last November, repression and terror are reported to have increased, including religious, racial and political persecution. Mr. Rhodes told VOA that many people suspected of involvement in the alleged plot and their families have been jailed or tortured.

The federation says the government has illegally confiscated property of the alleged enemies of the state. Some have been sent to deserts in the country and their families deprived of jobs and schooling. Mr. Rhodes says high-level officials in Turkmenistan are involved in drug-trafficking, especially heroin, from Afghanistan to markets in Europe and the United States. Also, he says, the nation's economy is heavily reliant on child labor. Among other charges is a claim that President Niyazov and his ruling clique buy themselves each year brand- new German Mercedes automobiles while the population lives in poverty.

Human rights activists say the state has banned the opera and culture, and that education consists of learning the book of the thoughts of President Niyazov.

The Turkmen authorities describe such reports as misleading and insulting.

On February 19 the human rights organization Amnesty International is organizing a day of action to draw international attention to what it sees as the deteriorating situation in Turkmenistan.