The arrest of well-known environmentalist Andrei Zatoka suggests that the policy of silencing independent voices continues unabated in Turkmenistan.
Zatoka, an ecologist and civil society activist, was arrested while out shopping at a market in Dashoguz in northern Turkmenistan on October 20. He was trying to free himself from an assailant, who police later said had three criminal convictions and was a known drug user.
“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.”
According to Chrono-tm, a Turkmen website on human rights which is run from abroad, Zatoka was placed in pretrial detention and was told he would spend 15 days under arrest for disorderly conduct. Subsequently, criminal proceedings were launched against him for infliction of actual bodily harm.
A medical report was produced to show that his assailant suffered concussion and a fractured arm, and three witnesses were found to corroborate this story.
Zatoka had not yet been formally charged when this story was published.
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.”
Some years ago, Zatoka was head of an environmental club in Dashoguz which worked on green projects and involved local leaders in volunteer work.
In 2003, the club was stripped of the registration that allowed it to operate, and had to close down.
In 2006, Zatoka was charged with disorderly conduct and received a four-year jail term. As in the current case, observers said the case was invented by the authorities as a way of getting him out of the way.
Zatoka was released in January 2007, following the death of President Saparmurat Niazov. However, his movements were still subject to restrictions – he was barred from changing his place of residence and leaving the country without police permission.
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. “The authorities get cross if anyone has contact with regime opponents, so they try to ‘close them down’.”
The friend referred to here is Farid Tukhbatulin, who leads the Turkmen Human Rights Initiative and headed the Dashoguz Environmental Club before leaving Turkmenistan.
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.
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.
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.
News that Zatoka, a prominent figure. is back in detention has shocked activists in neighbouring Uzbekistan as well as Turkmenistan; they see clear parallels between the way dissidents are treated in both countries.
“In totalitarian societies, an out-of-the-ordinary person with an individual, civic stance is an irritant,” said Sergei Naumov, a journalist in Uzbekistan. “For that reason, I don’t believe this arrest is a coincidence. When they arrest someone, it’s so as to break him, make him submissive and get him to talk.”
Naumov compared this case to that of Makset Kosbergenov, a biologist in northern Uzbekistan who was arrested in April 2009. He sees “the same pattern” in both.