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ALMATY (Reuters) -- Police in the Central Asian state of Turkmenistan have arrested a prominent environmental activist in what appeared to be a politically motivated action, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.

Andrei Zatoka was arrested in the city of Dashoguz this week after being attacked by a stranger at a market, HRW said in a statement on October 23. He was himself accused of causing bodily harm to a passerby.

"Zatoka's arrest appears to be a clear move by Turkmen authorities to stifle his activism," U.S.-based HRW said. "Authorities should let him go at once and drop any charges against him."

Zatoka, a biologist, has run an environmental protection group shut down by the government in 2003. The co-founder of the group, Farid Tukhbatullin, now lives in exile in Europe and monitors human rights abuses in Turkmenistan.

Rights groups say the government of the reclusive ex-Soviet republic tolerates no dissent and routinely locks up activists, a charge it denies.

In 2006, a Turkmen court handed down a suspended sentence to Zatoka for possessing and dealing in arms and dangerous substances, which HRW said were trumped-up charges. He has also been barred from leaving the country.

Human Rights Watch called on Western governments to put more pressure on Turkmenistan over human rights.

"International actors have placed high hopes on Turkmenistan's government as committed to reform. But Zatoka's arrest and other steps backward in recent months unfortunately prove them wrong and call for redoubled efforts to press for urgent improvements."
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