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Freedom is the Cost of Citizenship

A Prison Sentence is Replaced by a Fine for One Turkmen Environmentalist

By Yuliia Ryzhenkova
No. 42 (11/11/2009)

Environmental scientist Andrey Zatoka, unjustly convicted in Turkmenistan, was released on November 6th. His five-year sentence to a general prison colony was changed to a monetary fine. This occurred thanks to the assistance of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the active intervention of the public. On the very next day, Zatoka, under pressure from local authorities, was forced to fly to Russia and to renounce his Turkmen citizenship.

In the last issue of “Solidarity” (No. 41, 2009), we reported on the fabricated charges against environmentalist Andrey Zatoka, who was living in Turkmenistan. On October 20, at the Dashovuz market, a physical fight was started with the scientist, for which he was charged, despite the fact that he did not strike a single blow. He was charged with causing moderate physical injuries, and on October 29th, a Turkmen court sentenced the environmentalist to five years in a prison colony. How is it that the Turkmen authorities came to be displeased with the scientist?

Experts cite the probable cause as the open conflict between the environmentalist and the Turkmen nature protection department, which had allowed the open hunting of leopards. Zatoka successfully brought this hunting to an end, but the department remembered him and placed him under surveillance.

All of Andrey Zatoka’s acquaintances and colleagues speak very favorably about him. Here, in particular, is what his wife has to say about him:

“Andrey does not drink and he does not smoke. He has done sports and studied eastern philosophy for many years and for him to hit an unknown person is not possible, just as it is impossible for him to speak an untruth. If Andrey says that he did not strike first—that is the truth. Yes, he has medals in eastern martial arts, but believing in eastern philosophy, he would never be the first to strike.”

Nevertheless, until Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs intervened (Zatoka, like many people from the Soviet Union living in the former Soviet republics, had dual citizenship), the court did not believe the environmentalist’s words until the Embassy sent a note to the Turkmen Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Afterwards, in the course of reviewing the appeal, the court issued a new sentence, replacing the prison colony with a fine equivalent to 350 dollars.

Zatoka was released on November 6th, and on the next day the Turkmen authorities demanded that he immediately leave the country and renounce his Turkmen citizenship. The environmentalist complied with both of these demands and flew to Moscow with his wife. While in transit in the Ashgabat airport, where they changed planes, they were mocked and accused of poaching…

A “Solidarity” correspondent spoke with Andrey Lvovich after his arrival in Moscow.

-What type of conditions did you experience while under arrest?
-In comparison to the conditions faced by many others in custody, I was comfortable enough. The first two days were difficult in the isolation ward (where I was placed immediately following the presentation of the charge against me). There was an awful quantity of bugs, to the extent that emergency help was called for one prisoner who was particularly sensitive and whose entire face and hands were swollen from the bug bites. On the second night, we treated the floor with a Chinese insecticide powder, and the bugs began to die. In spite of my environmental convictions, I wholly supported this and personally squashed 160 bugs.

I spent the following two days in a solitary cell (at my request), and there were almost no bugs there. So, I caught up on my sleep and began to restore my health, which was sapped from sitting at the computer for nights.

-To what do you attribute your release?
-I attribute my release solely to the powerful international pressure in my defense. When they put me in prison, certain “bodies” were trying to take stock of their previous “mistakes” made in connection with my first imprisonment in 2006-2007. This time they conducted the entire operation in record time, hoping that there would not be enough time for a campaign in my defense to be developed. For this reason, from the very beginning, all contact with my authorized representative and translator, Umida Dzhumabaeva, was cut off. The first time, she had helped me survive the first imprisonment and protected my apartment and my plants and animals. My lawyer was also pressured not to convey any information to or from me. But my wife arrived, immediately destroying all of their hopes for my isolation. And the environmental and human rights community worked extremely efficiently and strongly, because this time an effective mechanism for coordinating and distributing information had already been developed.

The pressure exerted on the Turkmen authorities by the Russian authorities and Moscow circles (The Council on Human Rights and the Office of the President), and the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Turkmenistan, were also very serious factors. In contrast to the last incident, this time embassy officials showed their human side and did all that was necessary for a great power to do when one of its citizens is subject to illegal prosecution.

Finally, it is necessary to give the Turkmen authorities their due: when they understood that operation “silent planting” had failed, they did not persist and quickly commuted the sentence to release (though with a previous conviction) and exile from the country. For Turkmenistan’s reputation it would have been better to acknowledge my innocence and compensate me for moral and material damages. But these, of course, are naïve and currently unattainable dreams…

-What do you plan to do in Russia in the near future?
– In the near future, I wish to see all of my family of whom I have been deprived since 2006. My daughter’s wedding and my grandson’s birth have taken place without me…I have not seen my mother in more than three years. Then I need to find a job, and I would like to find a position that would be a continuation of my environmental activities. And, of course, I will not stop working for the development of a “green” civil movement.

Translation by Crude Accountability