On September 29, 2009, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan released 1,670 prisoners, including 21 foreigners. This followed the release of nine-thousand prisoners in October 2008 and 2,000 earlier this year.

Those released include political prisoners detained during the autocratic rule of former President Saparmurat Niyazov, which lasted over two decades. Since his election in February 2007, Berdymukhamedov has sought to encourage foreign investment by softening the country’s image. The recent freeing of political and other undisclosed prisoners signals a change in policy and increased openness in Turkmenistan since Niyazov’s death in 2006.

Thus far, Berdymukhamedov’s new strategy has succeeded in generating interest in investment in the country, with an increase in visits by foreign diplomats. Multinational companies interested in Hydrocarbon fuel sources have frequently visited as well, and both the United States and European nations have shown interest in Turkmenistan’s rich natural-gas reserves.

Both countries and companies have strengthened ties with the Turkmen government through trade and diplomacy, which has created an opportunity to influence reforms. In July 2009, the European Union approved a trade agreement with Turkmenistan. Although initially delayed in the European Parliament because of human rights concerns, the agreement was finally passed with the hope of pushing Turkmenistan to change its policies. Despite such efforts, Berdymukhamedov has failed to democratize Turkmenistan, continuing to deny freedom of expression, intimidate journalists, and commit other abuses similar to those of his predecessor’s administration.

Fifteen NGOs issued “A Call for Access to Turkmenistan” on September 29, 2009. This call requested that the strengthening of diplomatic and business relationships be accompanied by a push for human rights. The statement encouraged businesses, countries, and international organizations to use their newly-founded contacts with Turkmenistan to push for access to the country and access to information therein.

Although Berdymukhamedov has moved to get rid of some of Niyazov’s most appalling policies, a multitude of human rights issues remain. Remnants of Niyazov’s autocracy are still visible in Turkmenistan: state-controlled media; policies forcing foreign journalists to work in secret; and restrictions on fundamental freedoms. Despite the number of prisoners that have been released, many are still detained. Reliable estimates of the numbers of political prisoners are unavailable because of a lack of access. The reports available from Turkmen prisons allege torture, sentencing without fair trial, and appalling conditions. Denial of access is a major concern. Human rights organizations have continually failed to gain access to Turkmenistan to examine possible human rights violations since Berdymukhamedov took power. Peace Corps volunteers, present in the country since 2003, were denied entry in September 2009. The volunteers were told shortly before their flight that they would not be allowed to enter Turkmenistan.

Another recent abuse was the denial of the freedom of movement to students wanting to study abroad. Turkmenistan uses black-lists to stop particular Turkmen citizens from leaving the country. In early October 2009, the Turkmen government denied students permission to leave the country to study at the American University in Bulgaria. Previously, these same students were also stopped from studying at the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan, and only found out they were “black-listed” when a border guard informed them. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of students have been prevented from studying abroad since July 2009.

Turkmenistan has acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, guaranteeing freedom of movement. Turkmenistan is also a state’s party without reservation to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, guaranteeing the right to education and access to higher education. The building blocks of reform are in place; and the opening of Turkmenistan to diplomacy and trade presents an opportunity to push for reform. States and businesses that are given access are afforded an uncommon position of leverage with the president, who is courting their business. It remains to be seen whether the opportunity will be wasted in the race for Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves, or whether the release of these prisoners will signal the beginning of human rights reform.