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Open Letter To Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov

Dear President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov,

Today you are visiting Europe for the first time since your election as Turkmenistan's new president. You will be meeting European Union leaders, and undoubtedly the main point of discussion will be oil-and-gas cooperation. We hope the topics of discussion will also include Turkmenistan's human rights and freedom of speech issues.

Turkmenistan has secured its position as one of the world's crucial gas-and-oil producing countries. This offers you a special status in negotiations with different countries and with international companies. Along with this status comes great responsibility, both to your people and the world.

Your predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December 2006, left you a difficult heritage: one of the world's worst dictatorships, with one of the worst records on human rights and free speech. You have talked about reforms and democratization, but substantial changes have been scarce. The real problems, in free speech and human rights issues, have not been addressed. Also, political refugees have not been allowed to return, and political prisoners have not been released from jail.

The Ruhnama, the book by Saparmurat Niyazov, has been the symbol and key work of a distorted regime that has spoiled Turkmenistan's education system and affirmed a monolithic personality cult. It has also been a channel for international companies to gain business relations with Turkmenistan. Companies that praise the Ruhnama and arrange for its translation have received preferential business treatment from the government. You have continued to support this book written by your predecessor, and have carried on its questionable legacy, even though the negative impact is clear to everyone.

To address the misconduct encouraged by the Ruhnama, we have made a full-length documentary film, Shadow of the Holy Book, which deals with Turkmenistan's problems and the morality of international companies working in your land. This documentary will premiere in the main competition at the important and prestigious International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, November 22-December 2. Visitors and representatives of broadcast stations from all over the world will see the film, which will be covered by the international press gathered there. We have also launched a website—FreedomForSale.org—that deals with the same issues, to provide relevant information and perhaps awaken you to discussion.

The choices Turkmenistan makes in human rights issues have an impact not only for Turkmenistan, but for the development of human rights throughout Central Asia, and indeed throughout the world.

You have been in your position for only about a year. That is why it is understandable that you might not yet have had time to shift your policies towards a stronger commitment to democratic reforms. We encourage you to consider the benefits of more open policies, where the ghosts of the past are buried and where your land's political refugees and prisoners are guaranteed basic human rights. We hope that the Ruhnama book, and the distorted adoration and corrupt business activity surrounding it, will be abolished. This would act as a potent symbol for the whole Turkmenistan democratization process.

World history has seen leaders who faced and overcame the mistakes that their governments made in the past, and who thereby created exceptional breakthroughs for the personal dignity and freedom of their people. These breakthroughs are, for any leader, the truest sources of lasting glory.

Dear President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, we hope that, when you are considered in the light of history, you will be known as one of those leaders.

Respectfully yours,

Arto Halonen
Film director and producer

Kevin Frazier
Scriptwriter, lawyer