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CENTRAL ASIA: Weekly news wrap


ANKARA, (IRIN) - This week in Central Asia, the passing of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov dominated the news following his death by cardiac arrest early on Thursday, ending what many viewed as one of the most authoritarian regimes ever.

Niyazov, 66, who had ruled Turkmenistan with an iron fist following the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991 had little tolerance for dissent and had long been criticised by human rights groups around the world.

Following an alleged attempt on his life in November 2002, that tolerance for dissent only worsened, with activists reporting incidents of widespread arrests, confiscation of property, forced eviction and exile, torture and long-term imprisonment of political opponents, dissidents and their family members.

On Thursday, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) and its affiliate the Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights reacted to the news of Niyazov's death by calling for the immediate release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in the reclusive Central Asian state.

"We can only hope that his successors will address the deficits in education, health care, and children's rights resulting from his policies, and honour the fundamental rights and freedoms the people have been cynically denied," IHF Executive Director Aaron Rhodes in Vienna said.

The IHF urges international institutions and Turkmenistan's bilateral partners to encourage fundamental changes based on respect for democracy, international law and human rights principles, consistent with Turkmenistan's obligations as a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a statement by the group read.

Known as "Turkmenbashi" or "the Father of All Turkmen", during his reign, Niyazov established a cult of personality around himself, renaming months and days in the calendar after himself and his family, as well as cities, an airport and an even a meteorite.

Analysts say the landlocked country, a mostly Muslim nation, faces an uncertain future after his death, with no clear successors being named.

Moreover, his death, after two decades of wielding enormous power, raised serious concerns over possible political instability in the largely desert nation. Despite the country's vast energy reserves, the majority of its 5 million inhabitants live in poverty. The Turkmen leader is expected to be buried on Sunday.

In other news, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev accepted the resignation of his cabinet, amid a continuing staff-off between him and that nation's parliament, the BBC reported on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Felix Kulov, who tendered the resignation, said it should allow parliamentary elections due in 2010 to be held sooner. The move follows continued wrangling between the government and legislature, despite a deal on a new constitution. Kulov's deputy says the two bodies are no longer able to work together.

Mountainous Kyrgyzstan witnessed major protests in November, which prompted Bakiyev to agree to a new constitution that saw him giving up some powers, the report added.

Staying in that country, Kyrgyzstan, could well be on the receiving end of assistance from the OSCE in rehabilitating its 42 uranium tailings dumps - a legacy of the Soviet era.

Rina Prizhivoyt, the Kyrgyz permanent envoy to the OSCE, said the OSCE chairmanship would be taken over by Spain in 2007, which intends to pay greater attention to the protection of the environment, the Kyrgyz AKIpress news agency quoted her as saying.

Meanwhile in Tajikistan, the government has joined an agreement on setting up a Central Asian regional information and coordination centre (CARICC) for combating trafficking in drugs, psychotropic substances and precursors, the Tajik Asia-Plus news agency quoted that country's foreign ministry as saying.

Reportedly signed off on by Tajik President Emomali Rahmonov, the CARICC's mission is to become a major regional centre for coordination of the fight against illicit drugs and exchange of operative and analytical information between law-enforcement agencies of Central Asian countries.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has reported that some 20 percent of Afghan drugs, the world leader in opium production, are trafficked via three ex-Soviet Central Asian republics - Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Tajikistan accounts for about 70 percent of drugs, mainly heroin, seized in Central Asia.

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