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EU trade agreements ignore media repression

As a gas-rich country, Turkmenistan has used this leverage to secure preferential trade agreements with the European Union. As it charms the international community with the promise of new pipelines, it maintains a culture of fear with absolutely no criticism of the government in the media, report Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The regime also refuses to let journalists go abroad, says RSF.

On 27 July, EU ministers passed a trade agreement that promises broader relations with Turkmenistan, completely ignoring media repression and the appalling state of human rights in the country, says Human Rights Watch.

According to RSF, Turkmenistan is attempting to diversify and improve its international image. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has reached out to his neighbours, renewing ties with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev on 13 September and meeting with Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko. President Berdymukhamedov appealed to potential partners in a speech on 12 September, highlighting several gas pipeline projects.

"The Turkmenbashi's successor has been preparing this diplomatic offensive for some time but one should not pin any hopes on his government's change in tone," RSF said. "The Turkmen regime is hoping to woo the international community with a new approach." RSF ranks the country 171 out of 173 countries in its press freedom index.

Ogulsapar Muradova, the Turkmenistan correspondent of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was beaten to death by prison guards three years ago, on 12 September 2006, reports RSF. Two other journalists convicted at the same time as Muradova are still being detained: Sapardurdy Khadjiyev and Annakurban Amanklychev. They were sentenced to six and seven years in prison respectively in August 2006 on a concocted charge of "possession of illegal munitions" after helping prepare a report on Turkmenistan for the French TV station "France 2". The case ensures that local journalists decline any invitation to work for foreign news media.

Internet cafés are allowed but access to opposition websites is blocked, email is monitored and visiting alternative websites can be very dangerous, says RSF.

"Energy security and human rights are not mutually exclusive goals," says Human Rights Watch. "The EU should use the upgraded relationship with Turkmenistan as an opportunity to push for positive change."

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