On December 7, at noon, several men broke into the apartment of one of Turkmenistan’s most outspoken animal welfare activists Galina Kucherenko (52, on the right) and forcibly took her and her daughter Valeriya Kucherenko (26, left) away. The daughter was kept in the police and was released six hours later. Galina Kucherenko’s fate and location remained unknown until Tuesday, December 12. On that day her daughter received a phone call from a man who introduced himself as a police officer, and asked Valeriya Kucherenko to prepare a parcel with clothes for her mother and to come to a detention center in Arzuw village near Ashgabat. The same day she was allowed to see her mother, hand over medicines, warm clothes and food.
Among the people who knocked down the door of the apartment were 5-6 people in plain clothes, a man wearing police uniform and a woman who identified herself as a worker of the sanitary inspection service. They claimed that Kucherenko’s neighbors filed a complaint against her for the bad smell and dirt because of many cats at Kucherenko’s home. Kucherenko tried to resist the arrest, but she was ultimately pushed to the ground, handcuffed and dragged outside. Before disappearing, she shouted to her daughter that in the courtyard there was a utility service vehicle – the one used by municipal authorities to kill stray animals.
The police officers asked the daughter if the intercom’s camera had a recording device and then proceeded to slash internet cables and seize mobile phones and passports. The allegations that Kucherenko’s flat was dirty and smelled foul were false.
“Her one-room apartment is always clean despite a large number of cats living there,” Kucherenko’s friends told ATN, adding that all cats are trained to use the litter box, which she cleans several times every day. None of her neighbors had directly filed a personal complaint against her. Kucherenko’s friends believe that the allegations were fabricated against her as a pretext to arrest her and seize her pet animals.
Kucherenko’s dog, scared by the crowd that invaded the apartment amid shouting and violence, soiled the floor. The woman, who said she worked for the sanitary inspection service, immediately indicated the dog waste as proof of unsanitary conditions. Officials presented no other complaints or accusations.
The police later twisted the arms of Valeriya Kucherenko and took her away. She was driven from one police station to another with no reason being explained to her.
“Be happy that we are treating you as a young lady, otherwise you’d be sitting in a cage,” a police officer told her.
Valeriya Kucherenko was not allowed to see her mother in jail or in the courtroom. An official said he saw her mother on the same day, describing exactly the clothes she was wearing. However, he said he was unaware of her location or fate.
No official told the reason of Valeriya’s detention. She was not officially charged. She was told to wait as officers transferred her from one detention facility to another. In one facility, officers seized her house keys and forced her to write a statement that she resisted public officials and that she housed animals. She was then taken to the court of Berkararlyk district, where she was fined 50 manats (approximately $5.5) for resisting public officials.
More than six hours after her arrest, Valeriya Kucherenko returned to the apartment, which she found in complete disorder. Crucially, every animal had been removed. Nataliya Shabunts – prominent human rights defender living in Ashgabat, went to the apartment soon after the arrest of both women. She said she heard a dog barking from inside the house. Valeriya soon realized that she had been taken away from the apartment so that officers could search it and remove every animal. She found every room vandalized, there was cat fur and traces of blood everywhere.
Timur Misrihanov – head of “Independent lawyers’ association of Turkmenistan” based in the Netherlands, identified a number of law violations, including illegal entry into the home. The police should have shown Kucherenko the complaint against her and should have presented a warrant or permission from prosecutor to break into the home. After entering the home, they should have filed a protocol in which they should have noted the fact that the door was knocked down and on what grounds. This paper should have been shown to Valeriya Kucherenko for her to sign. None of these were done. Lastly, since they detained Valeriya as well, the police must have set people to guard the property against potential thieves. In the end, the house is considered to have been robbed because the family’s animals were gone. By the law, the animals living in someone’s place belong to that person.
FIVE DAYS OF SILENCE
For five days there was no information about the fate of Galina Kucherenko. Though the law provides that the police inform the family of the detained no later than 24 hours after arrest, Valeriya Kucherenko did not hear from anyone until December 12. In the meantime, international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, released several statements, expressing concern about Kucherenko’s whereabouts.
At a press conference in Vienna on December 8, the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was asked if he could inquire about Kucherenko’s fate. The minister said that he hadn’t heard of her case but would ask his staff to brief him. If necessary, we will tell our ambassador in Ashgabat to work on the case, he said. The same day Valeriya Kucherenko received a phone call from Russian diplomats, who wrote down the details of what had happened.
On December 12 Valeriya Kucherenko received a call from a man, who said that her mother was kept in Arzuw detention center (on photo) near Ashgabat. The man refused to identify himself but said he was with the police. He also said that Valeriya could visit her mother and hand over warm clothes.
She could see her mother. Her condition was satisfactory, though Valeriya could see that Galina Kucherenko had cried much. The first thing she asked was if her father was alive. Several days prior to arrest, Galina Kucherenko’s father was taken to the emergency room with high blood pressure. After hearing that he was OK, she asked about the pets…
The same day Valeriya was allowed to bring some food to Galina and hand her medicines.
Galina Kucherenko has long been under control of Turkmenistan’s secret police. She was the first person to protest the brutal killings of stray animals in Ashgabat. Kucherenko wrote articles about it for independent Turkmen media and rights groups that are based overseas, and supported her arguments with photos and videos. On social media, Galina Kucherenko continuously said that the killings of stray cats and dogs were endorsed by the authorities and President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov himself.
The last several months Galina Kucherenko struggled with the country’s sole internet provider. Though she paid her internet bills on time, in October the provider cut off her internet connection completely. Galina believed that this was made on the order of the secret police. Phone complaints to the provider yielded no results. Kucherenko also called the Ombudsman’s office, but they couldn’t help either. This forced Kucherenko to file a legal complaint against the internet provider.