By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Jennifer Lopez would not have performed a private concert in Turkmenistan at the weekend had she known about charges of human rights violations in the Central Asian nation, her publicist said on Monday.
Human rights campaigners, who accuse Turkmenistan's government of restricting free speech and jailing political opponents, criticized Lopez for performing at the concert attended by Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on Saturday.
The 43-year-old singer came under particular scrutiny after singing "Happy Birthday" to Berdymukhamedov at the event, which was put on for local executives of the China National Petroleum Corp in the resource-rich desert nation.
"The event was vetted by her representatives, had there been knowledge of human-right issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended," Lopez's publicist Mark Young said in a statement.
"This was not a government sponsored event or political in nature," the statement added.
Rachel Denber, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, commended Lopez for coming clean about the performance but said any sort of vetting on the country should have been easy.
"Just do a few Google clicks to look up their human-rights record," she said. "It's hard to know why they (pop stars) gravitate towards these unsavory leaders. It's worth noting that these leaders want public noticeability and prestige that these celebrities offer."
Young said the birthday song was not in Lopez's contract for the show but the company had made a "last-minute 'birthday greeting' request" which she obliged.
Berdymukhamedov became Turkmenistan's president in 2006 after the death of Saparmurat Niyazov, who took absolute control of the former Soviet republic following independence in 1991.
Berdymukhamedov's regime has been accused by Western states at the United Nations of systemic repression of its 5.5 million people, but the country, which has world's fourth-largest known natural gas reserves, enjoys support from fellow Islamic and Asian nations.
Young said there had not been any discussion of Lopez donating her performance fee to charity. Other pop stars, including Mariah Carey and Beyonce, did donate their fees after coming under fire for performing for the family of former Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and David Brunnstrom)