(New York) - Turkmenistan should immediately release a well known environmental and civil society activist who was sentenced to five years in prison today on bogus charges, Human Rights Watch said. The trial of the activist, Andrei Zatoka, violated international fair trial standards, Human Rights Watch said.
Zatoka was at a market buying food on October 20, 2009, when a stranger attacked him, according to persons to whom he described the incident. When Zatoka went to the police for help, they arrested him. Zatoka had never met the man before and had no reason to engage in an altercation with him, the people who described the episode said.
"These charges seem unfounded and the trial was patently unfair." said Rachel Denber, Europe and Central Asia division deputy director at Human Rights Watch. "Zatoka should be released immediately, and there should be an independent investigation into the incident."
The hearing today in Dashoguz Municipal Court was fewer than the three working days after his indictment required under Turkmen criminal procedure. The trial judge rejected a defense motion to postpone the hearing until November 4.
A forensic medical exam performed on the alleged victim found that he had sustained a broken wrist. However, the defense contended that the X-ray of the alleged victim's broken wrist was taken in May. The judge rejected without explanation a defense motion requesting a new forensic medical examination.
According to persons close to the case, the judge also rejected without explanation a defense motion to summon defense witnesses.
Zatoka plans to appeal the verdict, according to persons close to the case.
"It's quite clear that Zatoka's trial was one-sided, failed to allow him to mount a defense, and was designed from the outset to produce only the outcome the authorities sought," Denber said.
Zatoka has been persecuted by Turkmen authorities for years. In June 2008, Zatoka wrote an open letter that he said he hoped would be published in the event of his disappearance or arrest. The letter details a travel ban that prevents him from leaving the country, pressure on his colleagues, and an arrest on December 17, 2006. He was charged with illegal acquisition, sale, storage, transportation, delivery, or possession of weapons, ammunition, explosive substances, or devices, and with illegal transactions with strong or poisonous substances. He was held until January 31, 2007, then given a suspended sentence and released.
Zatoka, who lives in Dashoguz, traveled to Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabad, frequently, most recently in September, to try to get the travel ban lifted. He had also recently sent a written complaint to the authorities about the pressure he had been facing from local police and security services.
"Zatoka has been under pressure for years and knew that an effort to have him silenced was coming," said Denber. "The pressure on him and the government's overall intolerance of independent activism strongly indicate that the charges against Zatoka are politically motivated."
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.
"Turkmenistan's international partners applaud minimal changes while the Turkmen government gets away with an abhorrent human rights record," said Denber. "They need to speak out urgently against this further backsliding on human rights in Turkmenistan."
Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive and authoritarian countries in the world. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov came to power in 2006 after the death of the self-declared president-for-life Saparmurat Nizaov. Berdymukhamedov took some measures to dismantle some of the most excessive and ruinous social policies of his predecessor, but these steps did not result in any genuine improvements in human rights. Hundreds of people, possibly more, languish in Turkmen prisons following unfair trials on what appear to be political charges. There is almost no freedom of expression, association, assembly, movement, or religion.
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.