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Renowned Scholar Leaves Turkmenistan, Fearing Prosecution

The enforced departure from Turkmenistan of Timur Berkeliev, a renowned scholar, geologist and environmental monitor has shattered any hope local activists might have had that they might be able to express their opinions freely.

NBCentralAsia sources say Berkeliev left for Russia in late December. He holds dual nationality.

“He took this decision because he feared for his family and his own safety after he was detained,” said the source in Ashgabat. “He’s unable to work here.”

Berkeliev is currently unavailable for comment.

The prominent environmentalist was detained by officers from the National Security Ministry in November after returning from a field trip. The officers took away his laptop and geological equipment.

He was interrogated and was released several days later.

Human rights activists in Turkmenistan described the case as logical continuation of that of Andrei Zatoka, a well-known environmentalist who was arrested and later deported to Russia by the Turkmen authorities. (For more, see Prominent Turkmen Activist Re-Arrested and Turkmen Activist’s Trial Shows Authorities’ True Colours.

“Timur gave Andrei a good character reference and stood up for his rights in the courtroom,” said a close acquaintance. “This unwavering position attracted negative attention from the authorities.”

Other commentators believe the security services had a different reason for targeting Berkeliev – his scientific opinion on a much-vaunted project to create a giant artificial lake in northern Turkmenistan. He said openly that the “sea” would exacerbate environmental and other problems in the region. (For more, see Turkmen “Golden Lake” Put on Hold.)

“He dared offer his own assessment of a project launched by the country’s president, something that’s unusual for citizens of Turkmenistan, who have been schooled in collective action and thought,” said an observer in Ashgabat. “That made him next on the hit-list for the security services, who for many years have been driving out the best of the country’s people, turning them into dissidents and defectors.”

“Timur Berkeliev’s departure is yet another alarm-bell indicating that the Turkmen authorities are working against the interests of society,” said a local activist. “I understand his decision, and I regret it. He had no other choice.”

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