Turkmenistan opposition leader doubts president's invitation

9th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

Turkmenistan's exiled opposition leader on Saturday said he had no faith in a promise made by authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to hold fair elections in the country.

In a shock announcement Friday, the leader of the isolated former Soviet republic invited opposition figures, most of whom are in exile, to return home and contest in February elections.

He promised "equal conditions for all candidates", during a televised portion of a cabinet meeting.

"It would be naive to listen to the promises of the president and to return to the country. We would be thrown in prison," Nurmukhammed Khanamov, who heads the opposition Republican Party of Turkmenistan, told AFP by phone from Austria, where he lives.

No opposition groups are allowed to operate in the energy-rich desert nation. In 2010, the regime officially ended the single-party state era, but critics said the move was meaningless.

Khanamov noted that some opposition leaders had already been convicted of terrorism and high treason, while others fear further baseless charges if they return home to contest in polls.

"Once cleared, and our convictions lifted, we will return to the country. If the president is sincere, start with that," he said.

Khamanov and others founded an opposition movement in the early 2000s but were quickly convicted in absentia of conconcting a plot to assassinate then president Saparmurat Niyazov.

Opposition leaders estimate that some 600 of their supporters are currently in prison in Turkmenistan.

Although Khamanov does not think the president's overture was sincere, he said he still planned to meet with Turkmen officials based in Austria to discuss the invitation, which was made just a day after mystery blasts rocked the outskirts of the capital, Ashgabat.

The first and only official mention of the matter attributed the blasts to a blaze at a fireworks storage facility, but websites linked to opposition groups said the explosion near a military base killed nearly 200 people.

The Turkmen foreign ministry issued an angry statement demanding an apology from Russia for allowing its media to cite opposition claims of a heavy death toll.

Turkmenistan's regime rigidly controls all forms of information available to the country's 5.1 million citizens.

The country was until 2006 ruled by a bizarre personality cult developed around Niyazov, which included the placing of gold statues and busts of himself throughout the country and a statue of his mother holding the scales of justice outside the justice ministry.

His successor Berdymukhamedov had taken gradual steps to remove some of the more striking features of the despot's rule and has also indicated a readiness to mend ties with the United States.

The next presidential elections are scheduled for February and the invitation -- should it lead to actual attempts by the opposition to run -- is extremely unlikely to alter the republic's monolithic political landscape.

© 2011 AFP

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