AM: Prisoner amnesty in Turkmenistan on first day of legislative

Agence France Presse — English
October 23, 2004 Saturday

Prisoner amnesty in Turkmenistan on first day of legislative session


Turkmenistan’s autocratic leader Saparmurat Niyazov Saturday opened
the annual three-day session of the nation’s main legislative body by
announcing what has become a traditional mass prisoner release during
the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The annual assembly offers a glimpse into this isolated one-time land
of khans that matters on the world stage because of its gas and oil
reserves but where opposition is not tolerated, media tightly
controlled and official statistics distrusted.

Some 9,000 prisonners will be released this year a few days before
the end of Ramadan in the mostly Muslim country, Niyazov told the
2,507 delegates of the People’s Council, or Halk Maslahaty.

“Let our fellow citizens who have stumbled rejoin society,” Niyazov
told the deputies, who are expected, in following with tradition, to
pass laws introduced by Niyazov by the close of the session on

The release is the fourth consecutive one in this former Soviet
republic and will include 150 foreign nationals, including those of
Armenia, Moldova, as well as neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Russia,
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, he said.

Seven thousand prisoners were released during the pardon last year.

Niyazov also announced a hike in pensions and salaries, said he would
introduce a water law, slash the number of taxes and decree new
quotas for grain and cotton production.

Beginning on January 1, 2005, salaries and pensions will be hiked by
50 percent, so that the average monthly salary will stand at 2,250
million manats (433 US dollars at the official exchange rate, 94
dollars at the black market rate), he said.

The number of possible taxes levied would be slashed from 17 to four,
and the government will introduce long-term land leasing.

“Land will always belong to the government, but any citzen will be
able to rent up to 10 hectares for 10 years,” he said.

Niyazov also said he would introduce a water law in the nation, which
is roughly the size of California and lies mostly in the desert sands
of Central Asia.

He said that farming consumed most of the water in the country every
year, 23 billion cubic meters or 88 percent, and that nearly half of
this, 10 billion cubic meters, was wasted.

“We cannot allow this any longer, this is our national riches, so we
need a law on water,” he said, promising to provide specifics later
in the session.

The Communist-era apparatchik, who has held power in Turkmenistan
since it became independent in 1991, also increased quotas for grain
and cotton production by 2010.

He said oil and gas production in for 2004 would stand at 10 million
tons and 61 billion cubic meters, respectively, and trade turnover at
seven billion US dollars.

Although it is not Turkmenistan’s sole legislative body, the asembly
passes the nation’s major laws.

Turkmenistan is a country of nearly five million people whose gas
reserves are believed to be among the world’s top five. It was also
once the world’s tenth-largest producer of cotton.

Niyazov was had himself anointed president for life in 1999 and
prefers to be addressed as Turkmenbashi (father-of-all-Turkmen) the

Huge statues of him can be found in most of the nation’s cities and
on Friday a vast mosque capable of holding 10,000 worshippers opened
in his home village, in part as a tribute to its famous native.

Rights groups have denounced his regime for stifling opposition and
human rights violations.