* First visit by Red Cross delegates to Turkmen jail
* U.N., human rights bodies say torture rife in local prisons
* Only cosmetic changes expected under Berdymukhamedov
By Dmitry Solovyov
ALMATY, April 11 (Reuters) - Turkmenistan has allowed a Red Cross delegation to visit one of its prisons for the first time since the reclusive Central Asian nation’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Wednesday.
The Red Cross delegates, including a doctor, made a round of one of the penitentiaries of Turkmenistan’s interior ministry last week, the Geneva-based ICRC said in a Russian-language statement posted on its website.
It added that the delegation had also visited the construction site of a future prison. It did not identify the penitentiaries or provide other details.
“These visits are a stage in Turkmenistan’s many-sided cooperation with the ICRC,” the Red Cross said, adding its delegates had also met Turkmen interior and foreign ministry officials “to discuss terms of new steps in this direction”.
Turkmen officials could not reached for comment.
The United Nations Committee against Torture has expressed concern about allegations of widespread torture and ill-treatment and of enforced disappearances in custody in Turkmenistan.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its recent annual report that Turkmenistan remains one of the world’s most repressive countries.
“The country remains closed to independent scrutiny, media and religious freedoms are subject to draconian restrictions, and human rights defenders face constant threat of government reprisal,” it said.
Official data on the number of prisoners in the nation of 5.5 million are not available. Each year thousands of prison inmates are amnestied on big national holidays.
President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, known as Arkadag, or The Patron, enjoys sweeping powers and a rising personality cult in his desert nation, which according to data from BP sits on the world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas.
He came to power in December 2006 after his autocratic predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov suddenly died of a heart attack.
Berdymukhamedov put in place some of the economic reforms stalled under Niyazov and, keen to export the nation’s gas riches via alternative routes, has moved to warm ties with the West.
“Turkmenistan continued to expand relations with foreign governments and international organizations, but with no meaningful outcomes for human rights,” HRW said.
After winning 97 percent of the vote in a February presidential election in which he had no real rivals, Berdymukhamedov said he would allow the launch of two new political parties in his one-party state.
Analysts say the new parties are unlikely to pose any challenge to his absolute rule.