Turkmenistan environmental activists arrested in ongoing case of harassment, say human rights groups

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Andrei Zatoka was arrested in the city of Dashoguz this week after being attacked by a stranger at a market, Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Friday, citing acquaintances of Zatoka from the rights group Memorial.

Little is known of the case aside from statements and interviews with a handful of human rights groups, but the arrest of Zatoka points to an apparent dashing of hopes that there would be some relaxation in the government’s position against activists and journalists with its recent change of regime.

When Zatoka tried to get away from the man and turned to two police officers nearby to report the incident, the policemen proceeded to arrest Zatoka. He had apparently never met the man who struck him and had absolutely no reason to engage in an altercation with him, Memorial activists reported to Human Rights Watch.

Zatoka was himself accused of causing bodily harm to a passer-by, and was charged on October 23rd with premeditated assault after three days of being held as "a person under suspicion." He remains in jail. 

“Andrei was trying to keep his distance from the man, and once he realised it was a set-up, he ran off and called the police,” said Vitaly Ponomaryov, who heads the Moscow-based Human Rights Monitoring Programme in Central Asia. “But the two policemen on duty nearby detained Zatoka instead.”

Zatoka told his acquaintances by phone that the city police department had at first indicated it would let him go, but then informed him that he was under suspicion for causing injuries of "medium severity" to a passer-by and faces criminal charges that could land him in prison.

According to Chrono-tm, a Turkmen website on human rights which is run from abroad, Zatoka was placed in pre-trial detention and was told he would spend 15 days under arrest for disorderly conduct, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting said.

"Zatoka’s arrest appears to be a clear move by Turkmen authorities to stifle his activism," Rachel Denber of Human Rihts Watch said. "Authorities should let him go at once and drop any charges against him."

Turkmentistan, one of the most cloistered and hermetic of the former Soviet Republics, makes it nearly impossible for independent nongovernmental organisations and independent media to operate publicly.

The Zatoka case somewhat resembles the arrest earlir this month of Andei Ozharovksy, a nuclear physicist with the Russia Ecodefence enviromentmenal group, and frequent Bellona Web contributor.

Ozharovksy was plucked out of a public environmental hearing by police and representatives of the group that is building the Belarus Nuclear Power Plant for distribution a report he and other Russian and Belarus physicists had authored, entitled “Critical Notes on the State Environmental Impact Study for the Belarus Nuclear Power Plant.”

Ozharovsky was arrested in the Ostrovets, Belarus, and sentenced to seven days in jail for disturbing the peace. He was release on October 15th.

On Turkmenistan, Human Rights Watch said in its statement that it is aware of numerous instances in which independent activists and journalists have been subjected to threats and harassment by security services in the Republic.

The group said that Zatoka had apparently been allowed to speak to a lawyer, but that an examination of the alleged victim revealed a broken wrist and a concussion.

Zatoka, a biologist, has run an environment protection group called the Dashoguz Environmental Club, which was shut down by the government in 2003. The co-founder of the group, Farid Tukhbatullin, now lives in exile in Europe and monitors human rights abuses in Turkmenistan.

Rights groups say the government of the reclusive ex-Soviet republic tolerates no dissent and routinely arrests activists, a charge the Republic denies.

In 2006, a Turkmen court handed down a suspended to Zatoka for possessing and dealing in arms and dangerous substances, which Rights Watch said were trumped-up charges. These charges were similarly a “politically motivated prosecution in retaliation for (Zatoka’s) civil activism,” said Human Rights Watch.

Then, in February 2008, Zatoka was informed he was non longer allowed to leave the country, Human Rights’ Watch said.

Human Rights Watch called on Western governments to put more pressure on Turkmenistan over human rights.

"International actors have placed high hopes on Turkmenistan’s government as committed to reform. But Zatoka’s arrest and other steps backward in recent months unfortunately prove them wrong and call for redoubled efforts to press for urgent improvements." Observers and human rights activists believe the assault on Zatoka bears all the hallmarks of a ploy by the security services.

“It’s hard to believe that this arrest is coincidental,” said Tajigul Begmedova, who heads the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation based in Bulgaria. “It’s a very sad situation.”

A media-watcher in Ashgabat thinks the arrest of Zatoka was an orchestrated move which the authorities undertook based on a suspicion that he was contacting and working with human rights activists abroad.

“Although Andrei was not allowed to travel abroad and was effectively under house arrest, the authorities believed that he was cooperating with the Turkmen Human Rights Initiative [in Vienna] because a friend of his from the same area works there,” said the observer, who asked not to be identified, in a reference to Tukhbatullin of the Dashoguz Environmental Club.

The hopes of liberalisation that appeared when current president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov succeeded the late Saparmurat Niazov in 2007 have now faded, and the government continues to pressure independent journalists, human rights defenders and other civil society activists. Berdymukhamedov, is expected to travel to France on a state visit next month.

In 2007, the authorities arrested Sazak Durdymuradov, a journalist with RFE/RFL; Gulgeldy Annaniazov, a dissident who had returned to Turkmenistan because he was inspired by the new administration’s pledges of change; and Valery Pal, a civil society activist in the western port of Turkmenbashi, said the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

In its 2009 report, the Washington-based watchdog Freedom House once again listed Turkmenistan among countries with the world’s worst regimes and poorest human rights records.

Charles Digges