Some Inmates At Feared Turkmen Prison Allowed Visits From Relatives, Says Rights Group

In a change from past practice in isolated Turkmenistan, relatives have recently been allowed to visit inmates at the Central Asian country's "most notorious prison," the Moscow-based human rights group Memorial says.

In a statement on July 9, Memorial quoted "reliable sources" as saying that more than 30 relatives of inmates convicted on religion-related charges were allowed to visit their loved ones at Ovadan Depe prison in late June.

Prisoners and their relatives were able to communicate through glass windows for about 40 minutes, Memorial said, adding that international human rights groups' pressure on the Turkmen government made the visits possible.

But it said that the problems linked to Ovadan Depe were "far from being solved," with "large groups of political prisoners" remaining behind bars.

Late autocratic President Saparmurat Niyazov ordered the Ovadan Depe built in 2002 -- in the Kara-Kum desert 50 kilometers northwest of the capital, Ashgabat -- to hold convicted political activists, opposition figures, and alleged Islamic extremists.

Dozens of officials who were fired and arrested after what Turkmen authorities said was an assassination attempt against Niyazov in November 2002 are known to have been held at Ovadan Depe.

The alleged ringleader, then-Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, was sentenced to life in prison and was widely believed to have been held there as well, but there have been reports saying that he was tortured to death.

Turkmen officials have never revealed Shikhmuradov’s location, and have neither confirmed nor denied reports of his death.

Memorial's Central Asian program director, Vitaly Ponomaryov, said in the July 9 statement that the move to allow some visits by relatives was the result of an international campaign called Prove They Are Alive!

The campaign, initiated by several rights groups including Memorial, urged Ashgabat to open up the secret prison.

But the statement said that people convicted over the "November 2002" events, as well as Muslims and former officials, are among those who remain "fully isolated from the outside world" at the prison.