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Human Rights Groups Demand Release of Turkmenistan Activist - 2003-03-07

A coalition of human rights organizations has appealed to the United Nations for help in pressing for the release of an environmental activist imprisoned in Turkmenistan.

The U.N. deputy high commissioner for human rights, Bertrand Ramcharan, is expected to travel to Turkmenistan on Monday to discuss a variety of issues.

Human rights groups want him to include the case of Farid Tukhbatullin, an environmental activist sentenced this week to three years in prison in Turkmenistan.

Mr. Tukhbatullin was convicted on charges of illegal re-entry to Turkmenistan. The authorities refused to stamp his passport, when he returned from a trip abroad.

The human rights groups say Mr. Tukhbatullin is innocent, and was not given a fair trial. International monitors were denied access to the trial.

The prison sentence came a day after the head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe had received a personal assurance from Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov that the man would be allowed to go free.

The OSCE has drawn up a draft report on alleged violations of human rights in Turkmenistan, including mass arrests and torture. The organization says the situation has deteriorated dramatically, since an assassination attempt on the president last November.

Mr. Tukhbatullin went to Moscow in November to attend a conference sponsored by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. At the conference, he spoke on subjects including ecology, freedom of expression and human rights for children.

The head of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Aaron Rhodes, believes that Mr. Tukhbatullin is being imprisoned to intimidate other activists and dissidents. "This conviction is a warning from the regime of [Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, known as] 'Turkmenbashi' to the people of Turkmenistan that human rights activity will be punished ruthlessly, and without any kind of deference to either national or international law," he said.

Mr. Rhodes has appealed to the United Nations to support the campaign for Mr. Tukhbatullin's release.

Diplomats say the report of the deputy high commissioner for Human Rights on his coming visit to Turkmenistan could form the basis for a tough resolution, which could be passed at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights meeting that starts March 17 in Geneva.

The Turkmen authorities reject charges of human rights violations, and say that their actions are lawful to protect the security of the republic.