EU Foreign Policy Chief Holds Talks With Turkmen Officials Amid Rights Concerns

ASHGABAT -- The European Union's foreign policy chief held talks with top Turkmen officials, as human rights activists called for her to push the repressive Central Asian government on its rights record.

Federica Mogherini's trip to Ashgabat on July 6 came as part of the EU's opening of an upgraded representative office in the Turkmen capital, the last of the five ex-Soviet Central Asian nations without a full EU office.

In Ashgabat, Mogherini held meetings with Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov, parliament speaker Gulshat Mamedova, and other officials.

"I am very grateful, Mr. Minister, for the valuable welcome, for the agreement we have just signed that will allow our presence in Ashgabat to be fully fledged from a diplomatic point of view, I hope as of September," she said at a signing ceremony.

"We, of course, talked about the increasing cooperation between our country and the European Union in the spheres of education, culture, [and] science," Meredov said during the event.

The new EU office will have a full-fledged delegation status, an upgrade from the liaison office that the bloc has had in Turkmenistan for several years.

Ahead of her trip, rights activists urged Mogherini to focus on promoting human rights in a country whose government is considered one of the most repressive in the world.

Rachel Denber, a top official with the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, called on Mogherini to tell the Turkmen government that the new EU office will spare no efforts to press for real human rights changes in the country.

Denber also called on Mogherini to press for the release of Gulgeldy Annaniyazov, who was first arrested in 1995 for helping to organize a peaceful demonstration in Ashgabat, demanding democratic elections, and protesting economic hardship.

Annaniyazov was subsequently released and left the country, but he was detained again after his return in 2008. His prison sentence finished earlier this year, but he has yet to be released.

Mogherini later traveled on to Kyrgyzstan, where she was scheduled to meet her five regional counterparts and give a speech at the EU-Central Asia Forum on July 7.

Philppe Dam, an advocacy director with Human Rights Watch, said Mogherini should use the meetings with Tajik officials to highlight what he said were the arbitrary arrests of more than 150 activists, journalists, lawyers, and opposition figures in recent years.

And he also called on Mogherini to urge Kyrgyz authorities to free Azimjan Askarov, a rights activist who was sentenced to life in prison in 2010 after a trial that was marred by irregularities.

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