Turkmenistan’s authorities must ensure the safety of abducted animal rights defender and release her

Galina Kucherenko

Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) and International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) are alarmed at yesterday’s abduction of animal rights defender Galina Kucherenko in Ashgabat, following months of growing pressure on the activist. They call on the Turkmenistani authorities to ensure her safety, disclose where she is held and immediately and unconditionally release her. Those responsible for her abduction and incommunicado detention should be brought to justice.

“Given the lack of information, we are extremely worried about the safety and well-being of Galina Kucherenko. These developments illustrate the extreme risks faced by civil society activists in Turkmenistan and show that persecution of critical voices is further escalating in the country,” said Farid Tuhbatullin, TIHR director.

On 7 December 2017, a group of unidentified individuals who said they were law enforcement officials forced their way into the apartment where Galina Kucherenko and her daughter Valeria live on Shevchenko Street in Ashgabat. They broke through the metal door and forcibly took first mother and then daughter with them, claiming that they were acting in response to a complaint from neighbours about the nuisance of the cats and dogs living in the apartment. When fellow civil society activist Natalia Shabunts, whom Kucherenko managed to call before she was taken away, arrived to the apartment she found it locked up, with apparent signs that the metal door had been pried open and with a number of cats and dogs left inside.

Toward the evening, Valeria Kucherenko was released after being held by police for several hours. She did not see her mother during this time and was not given any clear information about her. Before Valeria Kucherenko was released, she was pressured to sign a police protocol and taken to a local court where she was fined 50 manat (about 12 EUR) for allegedly resisting police. When she returned to her and her mother’s apartment, she found that it had been turned upside down and that all cats and dogs were gone. According to her, there were bloodstains in the apartment, suggesting that the animals had been violently removed.

As of the morning of 8 December, the fate and whereabouts of Galina Kucherenko remained unknown.

Previously Galina Kucherenko, who for several years has worked to protect stray animals in Ashgabat and used social media to criticize local authorities for the brutal killing of such animals, has been repeatedly threatened, subjected to ongoing surveillance and had her internet access blocked. On 15 November 2017, a police officer called her, requesting that she report to police because of an alleged complaint filed against her. Kucherenko refused to do so. The same day several unknown people also buzzed her door and demanded that she sign a police summons. When the activist did not open the door and said that she would not sign anything, they threatened her that she may be imprisoned. After this, Kucherenko feared even more for her safety than before.

Galina Kucherenko’s case is part of a widening pattern of intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and dissidents, as well as their family members in Turkmenistan. Women activists, journalists and family members, including civil society activist Natalia Shabunts, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Soltan Achilova, social media activist Galina Vertyakova and TIHR’s exiled head Farid Tuhbatullin’s mother Khalida Izbastinova have in particular been singled out for retaliation.

“We urge Turkmenistan’s international partners to use all available avenues to prominently raise concerns about the case of Galina Kucherenko and to insist that the authorities of the country stop targeting her and other individuals for their peaceful and legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and other fundamental rights,” said Brigitte Dufour, IPHR director.