Turkmen Activist’s Brother Nearly Dies in Suspected Arson Attack

The brother of a Turkmen political activist has suffered severe burns to his whole body in a suspicious fire at his home in eastern Turkmenistan. Rinat Zaynullin, whose brother, activist Alisher Zaynullin, now lives abroad, was dragged from the burning house by his neighbors.

Rinat Zaynullin

On February 13 at around 20:40 officers of the National Security Ministry arrived at the home of the Zaynullin brothers’ grandmother in the town of Dostluk in Lebap region’s Dovletli district. Several of the officers came from the regional department, while one was a local officer named Ahmet. The visitors asked where Rinat was. His grandmother, who turns 90 this year, said that he was at his summer cottage, just a couple of kilometers away in what’s known locally as the cottage suburb.

And at 22:00 a fire started in Rinat Zaynullin’s summer cottage, almost burning it to the ground. Neighbors managed to rescue the unconscious Rinat, who had suffered severe burns and was taken away by ambulance. He must have already been asleep when the fire started.

Alisher Zaynullin is sure that the fire in the house and the attack on his brother are the work of the National Security Ministry. It’s only by chance and thanks to the vigilance and prompt action of his neighbors that his brother survived. Putting pressure on activists’ relatives in Turkmenistan is one of the authorities’ preferred methods of silencing critical voices abroad.

Rinat Zaynullin already had experience of dealing with the Turkmen special services. They had asked him to persuade his brother to return to his home country, claiming that he would be given only a short prison sentence. The special services officers threatened that otherwise they would bring Alisher back themselves and he would get a 20 to 25-year sentence “as a traitor to the Motherland.” Rinat Zaynullin told his grandmother all this and she passed it on to Alisher. Rinat himself is not in touch with his brother. He has publicly disowned him – this too was a demand of the special services.

In September 2022 Rinat was arbitrarily held for 20 days at a police station. While there he was made to call Alisher and tell him “all our relatives are suffering” because “you’re involved with worthless types.” When he was released from arrest, Rinat found out he had been dismissed from his job in a state-owned energy supply company as a result of his 20-day absence from work. No one would listen to his explanation that he had been under arrest. After that Rinat Zaynullin became depressed and moved to the summer cottage.

Activist Alisher Zaynullin recently stopped criticizing Turkmenistan’s authorities on his YouTube and TikTok channels. But this resulted in the special services starting to put more pressure on his relatives. They did not like it when Alisher published videos, but now they seem to think his silence is suspicious. In the past month alone the activist’s relatives have been visited five times “for chats” as the authorities try to find out what he is doing. His former girlfriend too has also been interrogated regularly. 

Before leaving Turkmenistan, Alisher Zaynullin was a trader. The problems started when he refused to pay a “cut” to the special services. A criminal case was fabricated against him and he was held in various places, including Ovadan Depe prison. When he was released, Alisher left Turkmenistan to study in Turkey. The impossibility of legally receiving money from Turkmenistan for study abroad, the inaction of the authorities after the hurricane in Lebap region, and the cover-up of coronavirus and the numerous economic problems led Alisher Zaynullin to start openly criticizing the regime. 

At the end of September 2022 Alisher attended the OSCE Human Dimension Conference in Warsaw. Other Turkmen activists and bloggers were there too. One of them, Nurmuhammet Annaev, tried to talk to the Turkmen government delegation and ask them questions about human rights. They refused to speak to him and this was recorded on video.