World view - Lindsey Hilsum wonders what it takes to get asylum

Claudia faces prison and possible torture if she returns home to a former Soviet state, and her two

You could be forgiven for not knowing that 9 January is the date for the run-off in the Turkmen parliamentary elections. The contest will get very little coverage, because foreign observers and journalists were not invited. And it lacks the element of surprise, because all the candidates support Saparmurat Niyazov, the president-for-life. A "melon revolution" (melons are one of Turkmenistan's main exports), on the lines of Ukraine's "orange revolution", is a distant dream.

US and European governments are happy when former Soviet states such as Ukraine or Georgia lean to the west, but they are wary of pressuring central Asian governments too hard, because they fear that the alternative to post-Soviet-style dictatorship would be Taliban-style fundamentalism. That would be doubly dangerous, because apart from having largely Muslim populations, states such as Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have significant oil and gas reserves. Better to put up with authoritarian rule.

Better, unless you happen to be one of its casualties. Just before Christmas I met Claudia Goryashina, a woman from Turkmenistan who should, by any reasonable criteria, have political asylum in Britain. Downstairs in Starbucks, surrounded by Christmas shoppers, this blonde woman in her mid-forties wept as she told me how she became a "betrayer of the motherland", liable to torture and life in prison on return to Ashgabat. Yet her claim for asylum has been rejected and, if her final appeal fails, she and her daughters could be extradited.

President Niyazov has constructed a personality cult as bizarre - and as repressive - as that of Kim Jong-il in North Korea. He calls himself Turkmenbashi, Leader of All Ethnic Turkmens, and has renamed April after his mother and May after his father. Temperatures in Turkmenistan reach 50 Celsius, but he has ordered a "palace of ice" to be built so that Turkmen children - many of whom lack basic healthcare - can ice-skate. He has banned gold teeth, beards, ballet and TV newsreaders who wear make-up. Statues abound of him sitting on his favourite stallion, Yanardag.

The education system is based on Ruhnama, a mishmash of morality, poetry and mythical history written by the president himself, who modestly explains that it's rather like the Bible or the Koran. In 1998, Claudia wrote to Niyazov and to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who was about to visit the country, criticising this system. As an ethnic Russian, she was already regarded with suspicion by the authorities, but now she got death threats. After that, she was sacked from her job - her manager "didn't want any trouble". Then they rang and threatened to rape her daughters. So she and the girls fled to Britain with fake exit visas, hoping her husband, Sergey, would soon follow.

But Sergey was arrested, badly beaten and sacked from his teaching job. It became too dangerous for Claudia to speak to him on the phone, and they lost contact. His last words to her were: "They're threatening to get rid of me - but it's all the same to me now. I can't live like this any more." Later, she heard he had been killed. The Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights has discovered that men from the Turkmen ministry of national security went to his home, beat him up and transferred him to hospital with trauma of the skull and brain and injuries to the

pelvis. He was later placed in a psychiatric ward. On 7 February 2002, he died. The death certificate said the cause was TB.

While awaiting the outcome of their asylum appeal, Claudia and her elder daughter got leave to work in Britain. By scrimping and saving, they are putting her younger daughter, who got four A grades at A-level, through university.

Despite the evidence of her husband's death and well-corroborated reports of human rights abuse in Turkmenistan, the adjudicator at Claudia's first appeal application for asylum said her case was "poor". If that is true, I don't know what a good case might be. It's not as if the Home Office doesn't know how bad things are in Turkmenistan - that is why it gave political asylum to Chary Babaev, who was the Turkmen ambassador in London until he, too, became scared of what might happen when he returned home.

The British government will doubtless be happy with the result of the rerun Ukrainian elections. But across the former Soviet Union, regimes just as repressive as the old one in Kiev feel little pressure to change their ways. The least we could do is acknowledge the horror to which the government of Turkmenistan subjects its citizens and save the very few who manage to escape.

Or maybe they are a necessary sacrifice, as we shore up our oil and gas interests and make compromises with brutal regimes in the interest of the war on terror.

Lindsey Hilsum is the Channel 4 News international editor

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