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Turkmenistan Has First Open Trial Since Niyazov Cult Time

Turkmenistan’s Supreme Court has sentenced three central bank officials for bribery at the end of a Niyazov-style open trial, unprecedented under current president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. State television showed the open trial last Friday.

Berdymukhammedov predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who enjoyed a bizarre personality cult during his 21-year rule until he died suddenly of a heart attack in December 2006, had routinely held show trials of top officials to demonstrate his attempts to root out corruption.

Foreign press repeatedly noticed that Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov also enjoys unrestricted authority in this Central Asian country.

Authorities may also be seeking to reassure foreign investors as a group of Turkish companies prepares to seek legal action against Turkmenistan in a bid to recover what they say is more than US$1 billion in unpaid bills for construction work in the former Soviet state, the Associated Press speculates.

“I held a responsible job, in which I embarked on a track of illegal enrichment. I extorted money from businessmen — worth a total of US$3.6 million,” television showed Byashim Begjanov, a former head of international operations at Turkmenistan’s central bank, telling the court.

“I repent for the grave crime I committed,” he said.

Begjanov and two other senior central bank officials were each sentenced to 15 years in jail, which is the maximum penalty in Turkmenistan for economic crimes.

The government has recently reduced maximum prison sentences for economic crimes down from 25 years as part of reforms aimed at liberalizing the justice system.

The gas-rich nation has made waffling efforts to diversify the country’s mostly energy-dependent economy, but many foreign companies remain wary of investing in what remains an opaquely regulated and corruption-riddled market.

Turkmenistan, which holds the world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas, is a small nation of approximately 5 million people. It is located in Central Asia and is bordered by the Caspian Sea to the west, Iran and Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan to the east, and Kazakhstan to the north.

Turkmenistan’s economy is based largely on natural resource extraction. Although the hydrocarbon sector performs well, according to the U.S. Fund for Peace, 58 percent of the population lives below the poverty level.

During the Soviet period, Turkmenistan was one of the poorest republics, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has continued to fall behind its Central Asian neighbors in most areas of development. Infant and maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the other Central Asian states, while GDP is lower and economic development is slow in comparison to its neighbors.

Crude Accountability NGO, which focused on environmental justice for petroleum communities in the Caspian Sea region, has named Turkmenistan in its report as the “one of the world’s most closed and repressive countries.”

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