The weeks-long disappearance from public view of imperious Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov this summer spawned rumors of his death and calls for Ashgabat to prove he was still alive.
But following his August 12 reappearance to host a regional conference, rights groups are calling for Berdymukhammedov to prove that other "disappeared" people in Turkmenistan are still alive -- scores of prisoners jailed during the past two decades who have not been seen nor heard from since arrested or going on trial.
The international human rights campaign Prove They Are Alive! is leading the call for some answers.
The campaign's human rights researchers began in 2013 to track and document "widespread and systemic" disappearances in Turkmenistan's prison system that had begun in the early 2000s.
At first, the campaign documented dozens of cases. Researchers shorten the list when they confirm that a disappeared prisoner was allowed a visitor or when the body of a dead prisoner is returned to relatives.
But the list has continued to grow, reaching 121 documented cases by September 2018 when the last update was published.
"It is clear from the available data that the government of Turkmenistan continues to commit the crime of disappearing people in its prisons" under the rule of Berdymukhammedov, the report concluded.
"Disappeared prisoners are dying in custody and they are being replaced by new disappeared who bear unspeakable suffering and torture," it said. "Their families also suffer torture at not knowing the fates of their loved ones."
Yuri Dzhibladze, a coordinator of the campaign who also heads the Moscow-based Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, says the list is "inevitably incomplete."
"The very rough assessment is that we can easily talk about several hundred people who have disappeared inside Turkmenistan's prisons," Dzhibladze told RFE/RL. "The real...number is very difficult to document because Turkmenistan is one of the most closed countries in the world."
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