Farid Tukhbatullin and his mother, Khalida Izbastinova, in Kazan, Russia. 

© TIHR 2015

(Berlin) – Unidentified people in Dashaouz, Turkmenistan, attacked the family home of an exiled human rights activist, where his 76-year-old mother lives alone, Human Rights Watch said today. Turkmen authorities should publicly condemn the attack and ensure that it is effectively investigated and hold those responsible to account.

Early in the morning of October 29, 2017, people threw stones at the apartment of Khalida Izbastinova, the mother of Farid Tukhbatullin. Tukhbatullin is the head of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, a prominent human rights group working on Turkmenistan while in exile.

“This attack is almost certainly not random,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It falls at a time when the government has been keeping activists under especially tight surveillance. The authorities can’t get to Tukhbatullin, so it’s possible they’re looking for other ways to put him on notice.”

Izbastinova was not injured, but emergency medical workers called to the scene by neighbors found that she had elevated blood pressure.

Tukhbatullin told Human Rights Watch that Izbastinova was awakened between 2 and 3 a.m. by the sound of glass breaking. When she approached the balcony of her second-floor apartment, she saw broken glass and stones on the balcony. Izbastinova lives alone and was afraid to enter the balcony. Since her telephone landline had been cut off on October 28, neighbors called the police. They came quickly and found several cobblestones and bricks on the balcony.

When Izbastinova filed a police report, police offered to repair the damage, her son said. Izbastinova told them she could arrange for repairs herself and insisted that police find the attackers. On October 31, police questioned many of Izbastinova’s neighbors. The landline was restored on November 2. Police sent a repairman to fix the damage.

Tukhbatullin has lived in Austria since 2003, when he was released from prison, where he spent four months on politically motivated charges. After his release, he was pressured by the authorities to leave the country. Turkmen authorities have a long history of targeting Tukhbatullin and his relatives in retribution for his human rights work.

Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most repressive and closed countries, Human Rights Watch said. The government tolerates no dissent, allows no media or political freedom, and has driven into exile or imprisoned political opposition members, human rights defenders, and independent journalists. The government arrests, threatens, and harasses its critics – often through presumed proxies.

Harassment increased in the lead-up and aftermath of the Turkmenistan’s hosting of the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in September. In July, Soltan Achilova, a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), was the target of a series of threats, including death threats. Her reporting covers a range of social issues, such as drinking water shortages and problems in the national healthcare system. Since returning from a trip abroad in October, she has been under constant and obvious surveillance.

On the eve of the games, police warned Galina Kucherenko, an animal rights activist who is active on Russian-language social media, that she could face 25 years in prison as soon as the games ended. For several weeks in September and October, her internet was inexplicably cut off and she has been under constant surveillance by agents in civilian clothes.

In August, unidentified people verbally assaulted Natalia Shabunts, one of the few openly active human rights defenders inside Turkmenistan, shouting racial slurs and demanding that she go to Russia.

In October, police officers went to the home of Galina Vetryakova and accused her of spreading secret state information. In October 2016, Vetryakova was convicted on bogus extortion charges after she criticized government policies on Russian social media. She was freed during an amnesty in December 2016.

The authorities also have a record of persecuting the families of government critics.

In December 2016, authorities beat Khudayberdy Allashov, an RFE/RL Turkmen-language service correspondent, and his mother and arrested them on charges of possessing chewing tobacco. Allashov had reported on such topics as wage delays and food shortages. Both were released in February 2017 after a court convicted them and gave them a three-year suspended sentence.

In September 2016, Altymurad Annamuradov died four days after he was kidnapped from his home in Turkmenistan and beaten by unknown men. Annamuradov is the brother of Chary Annamuradov, a Turkmen former journalist who lives in Sweden, where he has asylum. The kidnapping and beating took place after international attention was focused on Chary Annamuradov’s month-long arrest ordeal in Belarus, as Turkmen authorities sought his extradition.

Turkmen authorities should ensure that the investigation into the attack on Izbastinova is capable of identifying those responsible and bringing them to account, and should protect her from threat of physical violence, Human Rights Watch said. Turkmenistan’s key international actors should press the Turkmen government to end these abusive acts of retaliation and uphold its international obligations to respect basic human rights.

“Instead of trying to intimidate Tukhbatullin and other critics, Turkmen authorities should address the widespread human rights violations they expose,” Denber said.