By Robert Evans
GENEVA (Reuters) - Western states on Monday ratcheted up accusations against Turkmenistan that it allows torture and crushes free speech but Asian and Islamic states came to the defense of the natural gas-rich republic in the main U.N. human rights forum.
Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov wields almost unlimited power in his Central Asian desert nation, a former Soviet republic which holds the world's fourth largest known reserves of natural gas.
At a special session of the 47-member United Nations Human Rights Council, a senior Turkmen official denied allegations of relentless, systemic repression and said the government was working for democratization and development.
Islamic and Asian states backed that argument, saying Turkmenistan had boosted economic growth and improved living, health and educational standards of its 5.5 million people.
The United States told the gathering that Turkmen officials "are not held accountable for torture or other human rights violations" while journalists, ethnic and religious minorities and critics of the government were detained or intimidated.
Australia said "fundamental freedoms remain heavily curtailed" in the reclusive Central Asian republic.
Norway and Chile said Turkmen women suffered widely from domestic violence while the government stood by, and the Netherlands and Poland called on the Ashgabat government to allow in U.N. investigators on torture and other abuses.
The special session was part of the rights council's Universal Periodic Review in which every U.N. member state has its record examined - for three hours - once every four years.
The procedure has been criticized by independent rights groupings which argue that it gives no time for a proper review and allows a country's allies to shield it from full examination by showering it with plaudits.
Among countries praising Turkmenistan were North Korea, Belarus, Sri Lanka and Iran as well as fellow ex-Soviet neighbors Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan - all frequently under Western fire for alleged human rights abuses.
Berdymukhamedov, who is widely referred to as "Arkadag" (The Patron) in Turkmenistan, has ruled since the death of his autocratic predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006.
Berdymukhamedov has eased controls on small-scale entrepreneurs and the Turkmen economy has grown rapidly on the back of high world energy prices.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)