Renowned Environmentalist Still Imprisoned in Turkmenistan

Andrey Zatoka, an internationally renowned environmental activist from Turkmenistan, has been imprisoned without access to legal counsel or his family since he was detained in his hometown of Tashauz on December 17, 2006.

At the end of December, officers of the Tashauz branch of the Ministry of National Security reportedly searched his apartment and removed his computer and other technical equipment.

On January 5, Crude Accountability learned that Andrey Zatoka has been charged with unlawful acquisition or possession of weapons or explosives (Article 287, part 1 of the Criminal Code of Turkmenistan) and unlawful circulation of potent or poisonous substances (Article 302, part 1). The first charge is punishable by imprisonment for up to five years and the latter by imprisonment for up to three years.

“We are extremely concerned about Andrey Zatoka’s health and safety. The Turkmen government has a long history of attacking civil society activists with unfounded accusations. We urge the authorities to immediately release Mr. Zatoka to his family,” stated Kate Watters of Crude Accountability.

International environmental and human rights organizations have written appeals to the Turkmen government, gathering over 300 signatures in Mr. Zatoka’s defense, requesting his immediate release and return to his family.

Following the recent death of President Sapurmarat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s political leadership has been in flux. International environmentalists are concerned that Mr. Zatoka’s case will be “lost in the shuffle” as jockeying for political positions precedes the coming elections, scheduled for February 11, 2007.

Mr. Zatoka is an internationally respected environmental expert and civil society activist, and a highly accomplished biologist, who was instrumental in the creation of several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Turkmenistan. He is the founder of the first children’s environmental education NGO in Turkmenistan, the Tashauz Ecology Club and a founding member of the International Socio-Ecological Union and member of its Governing Council. He earned a biology degree from Ural State University and worked for years in Turkmenistan’s Nature Reserve system. Mr. Zatoka was taken into custody as he boarded a flight to Ashgabat. He intended to travel on to Moscow, Russia, where he was to attend a meeting of the International Socio-Ecological Union and to visit family.

The Turkmen authorities have a long history of imprisoning civil society and environmental activists. Earlier this year, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporter Ogulsapar Muradova was imprisoned and later died in prison. Although Turkmen authorities claimed she suffered from heart problems, when her family recovered her body, they stated she was covered with bruises, had suffered trauma to the head, and appeared to have been strangled.