(HRW) – Police in Turkmenistan arbitrarily detained a prominent animal rights activist, Galina Kucherenko, on December 7, 2017, and are holding her at an undisclosed location, Human Rights Watch said today. Police also detained Kucherenko’s adult daughter, Valeria, but later released her. Turkmenistan’s international partners should urgently and publicly call on the Turkmen government to disclose Kucherenko’s whereabouts and release her immediately.
On December 7 at about 11:30 a.m., police broke into Kucherenko’s apartment in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, taking the apartment’s metal door off its hinges, and detained Kucherenko and her daughter. At one point the police dragged Kucherenko across the floor. The officers said they were responding to a complaint allegedly filed by neighbors about their pets.
Valeria Kucherenko has asked the police about her mother’s whereabouts, but they gave varying answers. Kucherenko remains forcibly disappeared as long as authorities fail to disclose her whereabouts.
“The detention of Kucherenko and her daughter is a stark reminder of the threat that people in Turkmenistan face if they criticize the government,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Turkmen government tolerates no criticism, not even on the treatment of stray animals.”
Kucherenko, 52, is an animal rights activist who has openly criticized the round-up of stray animals and animal cruelty in Turkmenistan, including on the Russian-language social media site Odnaklassniki.ru.
Kucherenko’s daughter told Human Rights Watch that police took her to several police stations and promised her that they would allow her to see her mother. However, when police released her at about 5:15 p.m., they refused to provide any information on her mother’s whereabouts. Before they released her, police required her to sign an explanatory statement and pay a 50 manat (about US$14) fine for resisting police.
An officer at the Ashgabat police station where Valeria Kucherenko had been detained told a Human Rights Watch researcher by phone that Galina Kucherenko had been taken to court but did not provide details on when she would appear before the court, what charges she would face, and where she would be taken after her court appearance. When she spoke with Human Rights Watch, Valeria Kucherenko had not been able to get to the court to try to determine whether the officer gave her accurate information.
She said that when she returned to the apartment after she was released, all of their pets – 27 cats and one dog – were gone. The apartment appeared to have been ransacked – pillows and pots were scattered and food had been spilled onto the floor. Police had put the door to the apartment back on its hinges, but the lock was broken and she was unable to properly secure the apartment.
The Kucherenkos’ detention took place two days after a December 5 meeting in Ashgabat of the Joint Committee within the framework of the European Union-Turkmenistan Interim Trade Agreement, a high-level meeting between EU and Turkmen Foreign Affairs Ministry officials. The annual meeting covers political and economic developments and key aspects of EU development cooperation programs.
The Kucherenkos’ detention also comes amid a spate of threats and attacks on the handful of activists and journalists who remain in Turkmenistan, including Kucherenko and Soltan Achilova, an independent journalist. Turkmen authorities have repeatedly harassed and intimidated Kucherenko in recent months. On November 15, unidentified men knocked on Kucherenko’s door demanding that she sign a police summons and remained there for about 25 minutes. Just 15 minutes earlier, a police official called her and told her that she must report to the police station in relation to a complaint allegedly filed against her by another activist.
In November, after repeated unexplained internet outages at her home, Kucherenko learned that her Internet Protocol address had been blocked, meaning she could not access the internet. Representatives of the Ashgabat City Telephone Network told her that her internet access would not be restored.
Prior to the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, which Turkmenistan hosted in September, police warned Kucherenko that she could face 25 years in prison, without specifying for what. Kucherenko told Human Rights Watch that security agents in civilian clothes persistently conduct surveillance on her.
“Turkmenistan’s international partners, including the EU, should act swiftly and publicly call on the Turkmen authorities to immediately release Kucherenko,” Denber said. “The Turkmen government needs to immediately cease arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances of its citizens and unconditionally restore freedom of expression.”