Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called on the Austrian authorities to protect a Vienna-based Turkmenistani activist who is believed to be at serious risk of harm after he criticized Turkmenistan's human rights record during a television interview.
Farid Tukhbatullin, director of the NGO Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), is said to be the target of a plot against his life by agents of the Ministry of National Security (MNS) of Turkmenistan.
According to a credible account from a trusted source who has requested anonymity, officials at the Ministry discussed "get[ting] rid of [Farid Tukhbatullin] quietly," in a way that is hard to trace, "something like an accident or something that [could] cause heart failure."
"The Austrian authorities should take these threats against Farid Tukhbatullin very seriously and take all appropriate measures to ensure his safety," said John Dalhuisen, Deputy Director of Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia Programme.
Farid Tukhbatullin has said he believes that his interview, which was broadcast on the satellite TV channel K+ on 28 and 29 September, may have angered the authorities and prompted the threat.
On 30 September, Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov called on security ministry officials to fight those who "defame our democratic law-based secular state and try to destroy the unity and solidarity of our society."
The TIHR website was subsequently disabled by an attack from unknown hackers. The group has since moved the website from a Moscow host to another one abroad, and access to the site has been restored.
Some of Farid Tukhbatullin's colleagues have been forced to leave Turkmenistan fearing reprisals. Others have ended their cooperation with him following threats by MNS officials.
Farid Tukhbatullin has worked on environmental and human rights issues in Turkmenistan since 1993. In December 2002 he was arrested and imprisoned for his peaceful activities as a civil society activist and human rights defender.
Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience.
Due to international pressure, he was released in April 2003. To be free to continue his human rights work he left Turkmenistan in June 2003 and received refugee status in Austria that November.
In April 2008, a Turkmenistani diplomat "recommended" that Farid Tukhbatullin either "stop his activities altogether" or "tone down" criticism of the authorities on the TIHR website.
Earlier this year MNS officers interviewed friends, former teachers and classmates of his sons, apparently to identify TIHR correspondents and to put pressure on him and his sons, who live with him in exile.
"The Turkmenistani authorities must investigate allegations that MNS agents are planning to harm Farid Tukhbatullin and guarantee that no actions will be taken against him or the TIHR," said John Dalhuisen.
"The international community must also to raise Farid Tukhbatullin’s case with the Turkmenistani authorities and obtain assurances that the activist and his group will be able to carry out their human rights work freely."
The TIHR was started in Vienna in November 2004. It has published information on issues such as prison conditions, treatment of ethnic minorities, freedom of association, child labour and the education system and has submitted reports about human rights to intergovernmental organizations, international media and international human rights organizations.
The Turkmenistani authorities have tried many times to silence the group.
Human rights defenders and other independent civil society activists are not allowed to operate openly in Turkmenistan. Opposition parties do not exist and many civil society and opposition activists live in exile. Virtually all media are state-controlled.For many years the authorities have closely monitored communication channels such as telephone lines and the internet.
In recent years Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have received credible reports of harassment, arbitrary detention and imprisonment after unfair trials in cases involving human rights defenders and other civil society activists, independent journalists and other individuals critical of the authorities.