International human rights groups urged Turkmenistan on Wednesday to release a detained environmental activist who they say is at risk of torture.
Most civil society campaigners and journalists have been driven into exile or jailed in Turkmenistan, an ex-Soviet country run by President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov who tolerates no dissent and enjoys a personality cult.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said police had seized Andrei Zatoka, 50, on Sunday after he had boarded a domestic flight. It said police accused him of violating public order.
"A final SMS text message from him to his colleagues, sent at 10:00 a.m. local time, said that he was being removed from the airplane and was asking for help," HRW said in a statement.
His current whereabouts are unknown, it said.
"Turkmenistan has a long history of torturing and mistreating detainees in custody," HRW said.
"Zatoka should be released immediately, and before that happens the Turkmen authorities should reveal where he is and allow him access to an attorney."
Environmental sources in Turkmenistan confirmed Zatoka’s detention but could not give further details.
His detention comes three months after Ogulsapar Muradova, a local reporter of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, died in jail following her arrest on charges of illegal weapons possession.
Zatoka, who had been due to fly to Moscow to meet ecologists and his family, helped set up an environmental group in 1992 which was shut down by a Turkmen court in 2003. Zatoka has worked as an independent ecology expert since then, HRW said.
In a separate statement, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights urged the Turkmen authorities "to ensure that he is immediately released if his detention was politically motivated".
It added: "We also urge the authorities to ensure that he can, without hindrance, continue to engage in peaceful and legitimate civil society activities benefiting the citizens of Turkmenistan, including by interacting with colleagues from other countries."
Reuters December 20, 2006