Interview: Turkmen Activist's Trial Shows Authorities' True Colours

Interview: Turkmen Activist's Trial Shows Authorities' True Colours

Monday, 2 November, 2009
On October 29, environmentalist and human rights activist Andrei Zatoka was sentenced to five years in prison by a court in Dashoguz in northern Turkmenistan. His conviction on an assault charge has caused outrage among supporters, especially in view of the hasty way the trial was concluded.

The activist was arrested on October 20, following an incident that many believe was orchestrated by the authorities to create a pretext for discrediting and marginalising Zatoka. (For more on this, see Prominent Turkmen Activist Re-Arrested.

Inga Sikorskaya, IWPR editor for News Briefing Central Asia reports on Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, asked Tajigul Begmedova, who heads the Turkmen Helsinki Human Rights Foundation based in Bulgaria, to comment about the case.

NBCentralAsia: Zatoka’s friends and colleagues believe this prosecution was fabricated, and constitutes a breach of his rights. How well-founded are such comments?

Begmedova: It is obvious this case was fabricated given that the authorities ignored witnesses for the defence while rapidly identifying several for the prosecution and arranging an immediate medical examination of the victim [of the alleged assault]. Gathering evidence and finding objective eyewitnesses is no easy task, especially during a festival [Turkmenistan celebrated the anniversary of its independence on October 26-28].

The breach of human rights is plain to see.

NBCentralAsia: What kind of threat do activists like Andrei Zatoka pose to the Turkmen authorities? After all, he lived and worked in an isolated area and was not permitted to leave the country.

Begmedova: There’s no threat as such. It is simply part of the mentality of Turkmen officials who’ve lived in a repressive environment for decades that they regard any independent-minded person as an enemy. If the individual has come to their attention on more than one occasion and the [security] service has a file on him, this person is automatically a potentially dangerous member of society.

Judging from reports coming out of Dashoguz, the authorities issued instructions to find the source of information flowing out of the country. Local investigators evidently couldn’t come up with anything better than manufacturing a connection between the environmentalist Zatoka and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights

[Editor’s note: the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights is a Vienna-based group which publishes articles on human rights on its website. Its head is Farid Tukhbatulin, who used to live in Dashoguz and worked with Zatoka in the Environmental Club. The authorities clearly suspected Zatoka was in contact with the Turkmen Initiative group.]

NBCentralAsia:: What can the few remaining civil society activists in Turkmenistan expect following the Zatoka case?

Begmedova: Restrictions on accessing the internet will get a bit tougher and phone calls will be tapped.

NBCentralAsia: Human Rights Watch, the Russian human rights group Memorial and other organisations have urged the Turkmen authorities to release Andrei Zatoka, but their calls haven’t been heeded in Ashgabat. What effective international mechanisms are there that could make the Turkmen authorities start listening?

Begmedova: Let’s take a look at the current situation in Turkmenistan. The tiniest of changes are hailed by the West, yet they are no more than window-dressing designed for western countries. There has been no “de-Bashisation” [reference to Turkmenbashi, the title used by long-term president Saparmurat Niazov], and the Turkmenbashi cult is gradually being replaced with a personality cult around the new leader, [Gurbanguly] Berdymuhammedov.

It’s like the theatre – the same plot, just different scenery and a new leading actor. They continue to insist that the country’s future cannot be placed in the hands of the people, that everything depends on “God’s chosen one”, and that it is blasphemy to think otherwise.

There are many circumstances, including the reverential treatment that international organisations have given Turkmenistan for the last two years, as a down-payment [for future reforms], that indicate that economic leverage could be the most effective. Bearing in mind the specifics of the local situation, these steps could be backed up strengthened by restricting opportunities for top Turkmen officials to travel to developed countries. The strongest mechanism of all would be a veto on inviting top officials to these countries. However, such a mechanism would require a strong political will on the part of world powers.

Unfortunately, that willpower is currently drained by geopolitical interest.

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)

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