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Human Rights Activists are Stunned by the Arrest of Activist in Turkmenistan

Aisha Berdieva
October 23, 2009

On October 20 in the city of Dashovuz in the north of Turkmenistan, well-known environmentalist and civil society activist Andrey Zatoka was detained by the police. They have charged him with intent to commit violence of moderate severity against an unknown person. Zatoka denies the charges vehemently.

According to a representative of the human rights center, Memorial, this is not the first incident in which the Turkmen authorities have charged the scholar with a criminal offense.

According to a statement from Memorial, “this new incident with Zatoka is the result, since last year, of increasing severity of the internal politics of President Berdymukhammedov due to the softening of criticism of the regime by the west, which is interested in access to Turkmen energy resources.”

According to human rights defenders, Zatoka was detained by the police for his participation in a fight at the local bazaar, when he found himself, unprovoked, attacked by a person who was behaving in an unstable manner.

It was reported that in an effort to avoid escalation of the conflict, Zatoka hurried from the place of the incident and appealed to the police who were watching the bazaar.

Andrey Zatoka was arrested in 2006 and convicted in 2007 for “illegal possession of poisonous substances.” At that time he was given a three year suspended sentence, and then was pardoned during that year’s amnesty.

Furthermore, Zatoka was forbidden to leave Turkmenistan, limited in his ability to move freely inside the country, and he was under continual observation by the police.

The Zatoka Affair

“The Zatoka Affair” of 2006-2007 was perceived by international observers to be an attack by the Turkmen authorities against civil society.

As a result, Zatoka—after a massive international campaign in his defense—was given a suspended sentence.

Furthermore, the environmentalist consistently talked about the fact that he felt pressure—that he had been forced to completely stop his civil society activities, and his movement around the country was limited. Regardless of the fact that he also has Russian citizenship, he was forbidden to travel to Russia, even to meet with his family.

Zatoka appealed numerous times with complaints—including to the General Prosecutor of Turkmenistan—about the behavior of the local authorities (MNB and MBV) in the instances described above.
Friends of Andrey say that at points the pressure was so intense that he did not leave his home, fearing a set-up from the special services.

Other civil society activists, including those from other cities in Turkmenistan, confirm that at the same time they experienced unprecedented pressure—their telephones were tapped, all movement and meetings were watched, especially when foreign delegations were visiting, and they were categorically forbidden from meeting with representatives of foreign embassies and the OSCE.

According to friends of Andrey, he was planning to travel from Dashovuz to Ashagabat in the near future to appeal to the Embassy of the Russian Federation for assistance in his petition to travel to Russia.

But, after the incident at the Bazaar, he was detained by the police, placed in a cell, and incriminated with “physical harm of moderate severity.” The so-called victim of the attack has been convicted three times for selling narcotics.

Translated by Crude Accountability