Turkmen leader pardons prisoners in mass amnesty

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ASHGABAT, Oct 8 (Reuters) Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov pardoned 9,000 prisoners today including a number of government officials jailed under his eccentric predecessor.

Former President Saparmurat Niyazov died in December 2006 after ruling the Central Asian state for 21 years. He jailed many of his opponents, including people accused of masterminding an assassination attempt in 2002.

State television showed hundreds of inmates dressed in black, vowing never to commit crimes again as they were released from prison cells.

''May the president live in good health,'' said one prisoner, identified as Guvanch Atabayev. ''I swear not to commit crimes in the future. I will wash away my guilt with honest labour.'' International rights groups say Turkmenistan has a large but unknown number of political prisoners. It was not clear whether this month's amnesty included political prisoners.

The new president, Berdymukhamedov, has been reversing some of Niyazov's harshest policies. In August, he freed 11 prisoners including the country's former chief mufti, who were jailed after the 2002 assassination attempt.

The annual pardon, a widely televised event known as the ''Night of All Forgiveness'', started under Niyazov in 1999. All 9,000 prisoners will be freed by tomorrow morning.

The lists of amnestied inmates, published in state newspapers, included a number of low-ranking government officials. Media also said more than 100 ''foreigners'' were freed without specifying their crimes or nationalities.

Turkmenistan's prison population is unclear. It stood at 18,000 at the time of last year's amnesty.

REUTERS PD BD1920

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