(Moscow) - Turkmen authorities should immediately release an activist arrested on what appears to be politically motivated grounds, Human Rights Watch said today. Andrei Zatoka, a well known environmental activist, was detained on October 20, 2009, in Dashoguz, Turkmenistan.

Zatoka's acquaintances told the Russian human rights group Memorial Human Rights Center that Zatoka was attacked by a man without warning while shopping for food at about 11 a.m. at a market in Dashoguz. When Zatoka tried to get away from the man and turned to two police officers nearby to report the incident, the policemen proceeded to arrest Zatoka. He had apparently never met the man who struck him and had absolutely no reason to engage in an altercation with him.

"Zatoka's arrest appears to be a clear move by Turkmen authorities to stifle his activism," said Rachel Denber, Europe and Central Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch. "Authorities should let him go at once and drop any charges against him."

Zatoka is being held as "a person under suspicion" in the attack, which appears to have been staged. He told his acquaintances by phone that the city police department had at first indicated it would let him go, but then informed him that he was under suspicion for causing injuries of "medium severity" to a passer-by and faces criminal charges that could land him in prison.

A forensic medical exam performed on the alleged victim reportedly confirmed that his wrist had been broken and that he had a concussion. Zatoka has apparently been able to speak with his lawyer.

The October 20 arrest was not the first time Zatoka has been targeted by Turkmen authorities. On December 17, 2006, he was seized by police on a flight to Ashgabad and charged with two violations of Turkmenistan's criminal code (Article 287 - illegal acquisition, sale, storage, transportation, delivery or possession of weapons, ammunition, explosive substances or devices, and Article 302 - illegal transactions with strong or poisonous substances) in what also appeared to be a politically motivated prosecution in retaliation for his civic activism. He was given a suspended sentence and released on January 31, 2007.

In February 2008, Turkmen authorities told Zatoka that they had barred him from traveling outside the country, but he was given no reason for the restriction. That spring, the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, a Turkmen human rights organization in-exile, reported that Turkmen special services had intensified pressure against Zatoka in an effort to make him stop his activism.

Zatoka had traveled to Ashgabad on a number of occasions in an effort to get the travel ban against him lifted, most recently in September. He had also recently written a complaint to the authorities about the pressure he had been facing from local police and security services.

Independent nongovernmental organizations and news media cannot operate openly, if at all, in Turkmenistan, and authorities frequently target activists. Human Rights Watch is aware of numerous instances in which independent activists and journalists have been subjected to threats and harassment by security services.

Zatoka, a biologist, co-founded the Dashoguz Ecological Club in 1992. A Turkmen court closed the organization in 2003 in connection with the politically motivated imprisonment of its other co-founder, Farid Tukhbatullin. Tukhbatullin was released in April 2003 following an international campaign on his behalf and has since lived in exile in Austria where he heads the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights. Zatoka has continued environmental activism in Turkmenistan, mostly by serving as an expert on the environment for Counterpart Consortium, a USAID-funded organization.

Human Rights Watch called on Turkmenistan's international partners, in particular the United States and European Union governments, to urge Turkmenistan to free Zatoka immediately and to undertake urgently needed human rights reforms.

"International actors have placed high hopes on Turkmenistan's government as committed to reform," said Denber. "But Zatoka's arrest and other steps backward in recent months unfortunately prove them wrong and call for redoubled efforts to press for urgent improvements.

The European Union recently upgraded relations with Turkmenistan through the conclusion of an Interim Trade Agreement and is looking to enhance them further with the conclusion of a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in the near future. Both agreements contain a so-called human rights clause, committing the parties to "respect for democracy and fundamental and human rights" and providing for possible suspension should either party violate this principle.

The partnership agreement has yet to be ratified by the parliaments of the United Kingdom and France. Turkmenistan's president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, is expected to travel to France on a state visit next month.

Turkmenistan remains one of the most repressive and authoritarian countries in the world. Berdymukhamedov came to power in December 2006 after the death of the self-declared president-for-life, Saparmurat Niazov. In the first year of his presidency, Berdymukhamedov took some measures to dismantle some of the most excessive and ruinous social policies of his predecessor, but these did not result in any genuine reforms affecting human rights. Hundreds of people, perhaps more, languish in Turkmen prisons following unfair trials on what appeared to be politically motivated charges. Draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, association, assembly, movement, and religion remain in place.