A delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross has visited prisons in Turkmenistan in a landmark development for the isolated Central Asian nation.
The ICRC said in a statement Monday that a visiting delegation held talks with government officials on further cooperation in the future.
Turkmenistan's authoritarian government has long been criticized for refusing international access to inmates in detention and prison.
While the ICRC provided no details on its findings from last week's visit at an Interior Ministry-run jail and another penitentiary currently under construction, the prison tour appears to represent a breakthrough following a series of meetings.
Foreign-based Turkmen rights activists say the country's jails are overcrowded and that disease is rife. Authorities are believed to routinely imprison dissidents.
A 2010 report by foreign-based Turkmenistan's Independent Lawyers Association and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights estimated that there were around 8,100 inmates in the countries at the time. The exact number fluctuates considerably, however, due to periodic widespread amnesties and no official figures are made available
After coming to power in 2006, President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov promised democratic reforms. Critics say those promises have not been kept.
In March, the U.N. Human Rights Committee decried what it said was an increase in reports of torture and ill-treatment in places of detention. It also expressed concern at the lack of independent investigations into abuse by police and the denial to non-governmental observers of regular access to prisons.
In an apparent bid to dampen criticism, Berdymukhamedov has implemented largely token measures to reduce the overcrowding.
In 2010, he ordered the country's maximum prison sentence cut from 25 to 15 years, while fines replaced prison time for minor offenses.
But with virtually no public scrutiny of government policy permitted, it is unclear to what extent those measures have been adopted.
Associated Press writer Peter Leonard contributed to this report from Almaty, Kazakhstan.