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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 October, 2004, 21:58 GMT 22:58 UK
Turkmenistan amnesty for Ramadan
President Saparmurat Niyazov
Niyazov has made himself president for life
The president of the central Asian republic of Turkmenistan has granted amnesty to about 9,000 prisoners.

The prisoners will be set free on 9 November, in what has become an annual mass release to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Saparmurat Niyazov made the announcement in an address on the opening day of the annual session of the country's legislative body.

He also announced an increase in state wages and pensions.

He also unveiled plans for legislation aimed at conserving water and introducing long-term leases of land.

The 2,500-member People's Council, as it is called, traditionally passes all legislation proposed by Mr Niyazov, who has made himself President for Life.

Songs of praise

Turkmenistan is effectively a one-party state, and correspondents say the president has created a personality cult unrivalled in the former Soviet Union.

At the opening of the council in an enormous hall in Ashgabat, thousands of people chanted praise to the president and sang in honour, says the BBC's Monica Whitlock in the capital.

Nearly all were men dark suits and embroidered skull caps arranged in three huge galleries, one above the next.

The few women stood together as a choir in identical long red gowns with dark hair tied in plaits.

President Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashy or leader of Turkmens, sat before them below an enormous portrait of himself to read out his plans.

Then came a presentation of traditional gowns and sheepskin hats to elders, who climbed on the stage one by one.

With each outbreak of applause the crowd held aloft portraits of the leader and waived Turkmen flags.

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