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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rights Activists Rally Behind Detained Turkmen

As two leading Central Asian dissidents spent their seventh day in a Moscow jail awaiting extradition to their homeland of Turkmenistan, human rights activists Friday rallied for their freedom.

"We call on the Turkmen government to respect human rights, and we call on the Russian government to respect its own constitution and not extradite people who are being charged based on political motivations," said Erika Dailey, Moscow representative of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, a rights group with several offices around the world.

But it remained unclear whether Murad Esenov and Khalmurad Suyunov would be extradited, as their detention at the Petrovka jail continued well past the 48-hour deadline allowed by Russian legislation.

Several human rights activists and lawyers said Friday that the two men were being accused of plotting an attack on the life of Turkmen President Saparmurad Niyazov. But no official source revealed what the charges were.

"The Russian side received all the necessary documents to arrest these men in accordance with the Minsk convention," said Natalya Vishnevskaya, spokesperson for the public prosecutor's office, citing a 1993 document on cooperation among ex-Soviet law enforcement agencies.

She added that the prosecutor's office was now studying the charges against Esenov and Suyunov to decide whether extradition would be justified. According to Vishnevskaya, the Minsk convention does not specify the maximum term of detention in Russia for people facing charges in other ex-Soviet states.

Esenov and Suyunov, frequent contributors to Radio Liberty's Turkmen-language service, have been critical of Niyazov in their broadcasts. Turkmen-Ili, an opposition magazine published by Esenov, is banned in his home country.

"If they are extradited, capital punishment awaits them in Turkmenistan," said Avdy Kuliyev, head of the Turkmenistan Foundation, an ?migr? opposition group that fights the Niyazov regime from Russia.

Niyazov, whose official title is Chief of Turkmen and whose face adorns the local currency, is known to be intolerant of dissent. He censored the media in his mineral-rich but undeveloped country.

According to Kuliyev, both men were grabbed on the street by agents of the Federal Counterintelligence Service, and they could not be found by friends from the Turkmen dissident movement for three days, while police "enjoyed their weekend." The FSK confirmed making the arrest.

Calls to the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, revealed that the case was being run by local security police, not by civilian investigators, which seemed to confirm the political nature of the case. However no description of the actual charges was available.

According to the Russian constitution, foreign citizens persecuted for their politics cannot be extradited by Russia.

In a report published Friday, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki named nine Turkmen dissidents who had recently been harassed by Niyazov's security agents and Russian counterspies acting on their behalf. Two Russian citizens of Turkmen origin are currently held in Ashgabat on charges of plotting along with Esenov and Suyunov to assassinate Niyazov, according to the report.

"What we are witnessing is Russian special services supporting a repressive regime in Central Asia," said Sergei Grigoryants, who spent years in Soviet jails as a dissident.

Russian human rights authorities have so far been deaf to calls from activists to review the case.