Khursanai Ismatullaeva, a pediatrician in Turkmenistan, has been fighting a legal battle for nearly four years against her dismissal from a perinatal clinic near Ashgabat.
Now -- after the European Parliament heard details of her case against Turkmen authorities during a meeting on rights abuses in Central Asia -- she has gone missing in the custody of the police.
Late at night on July 16, just a day after the European Parliament was told by rights activists about her legal battle, a group of about 10 men arrested Ismatullaeva at her home in the town of Gokdepe.
Some involved in the raid wore police uniforms while others were dressed in civilian clothes.
The independent news website Turkmen.news reports that the men confiscated telephones and computers from Ismatullaeva’s home before hauling her off to an unknown location.
“Days later, there is no official information on her whereabouts or the reason for her arrest,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on July 20.
In a statement about Ismatullaeva’s disappearance, HRW said the timing of her “extremely alarming” detention and Turkmenistan’s “abusive record” leaves little doubt that authorities “are retaliating against her for allowing her case to be heard in an international forum.”
“Any failure by the authorities to acknowledge Ismatullaeva’s detention or efforts to conceal her whereabouts would qualify her detention as an enforced disappearance, a very serious crime under international law,” HRW said.
“Every minute that Ismatullaeva spends in custody increases her risk of torture or other ill-treatment, or coercion to get her to confess to bogus charges,” it warned.
“Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive countries in the world,” HRW says. “The government tolerates no criticism and has a horrific record of imprisoning people who expose, or even hint at, its rampant corruption, injustices, and incompetence.”
Ismatullaeva had worked as a pediatrician in Gokdepe, a town near the capital Ashgabat, since 1999.
Initially, she was employed at Gokdepe’s maternity hospital. She moved to the Ene Mahri Perinatal Center in Gokdepe after it opened in 2010.
Her troubles began in July 2017 when she took a two-week vacation in order to travel to St. Petersburg, Russia, to receive medical treatment.
Upon her return to Gokdepe, she discovered that she had been fired the day she left on grounds that she would be absent for the two weeks she was in St. Petersburg.
Documents show that the decision to sack her was made on the “personal initiative” of the acting chief doctor of the perinatal center, Annamurat Hanov.
According to Turkmen law, only a trade union committee can decide to dismiss union members like Ismatullaeva for absenteeism.
Ismatullaeva took the matter to local authorities when she discovered that a document from a purported trade union committee meeting on her case contained forged signatures.
At first, the Association of Trade Unions for Akhal Province, where Gokdepe is located, sided with Ismatullaeva.
It ordered Hanov to reinstate Ismatullaeva and pay her salary for what it declared was a lawful paid vacation.
But the situation changed suddenly as Turkmenistan’s court system sided with Hanov.
Ismatullaeva appealed that court ruling without any success to the Prosecutor-General’s Office, Turkmenistan’s ombudsman, and the Ministry of National Security.
Some members of the European Parliament suggest Ismatullaeva was fired because she had worked as an honest doctor within a corrupt health-care system.
A July 22 statement by five deputies from the European Parliament noted that Ismatullaeva had refused orders by managers of the perinatal center to “prescribe unnecessary procedures at the patient’s expense.”
Turkmen.news found two former patients of Ismatullaeva who vouched for her integrity and professionalism.
One said that doctors at the perinatal center had told her she needed an operation.
But she said Ismatullaeva had provided a second opinion after an examination -- advising her not to get the operation because her condition was not serious.
Then, when the patient sent photos from her ultrasound examination to a friend in the United States, doctors at three different U.S. clinics all agreed with Ismatullaeva that there was no reason for an operation.
The second former patient of Ismatullaeva told a similar story.
The statement from European Parliament deputies said Ismatullaeva’s actions were “in the best interest of patients’ health,” but “led to dissatisfaction among senior management and resulted in her illegal dismissal.”
The deputies and HRW are calling for Ismatullaeva’s immediate release.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, has also been reporting about Ismatullaeva’s case.
It has noted similarities between her disappearance in custody and the cases of others who have complained about mistreatment or failures of state authorities.
Businessman Bazargekdi Berdyyev and his wife Aijemal have not been seen since 1998 when they were taken away by a group of unknown men following their attempts to defend their property rights.
Three other cases reported by RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service involve citizens who were forcibly taken from their homes and temporarily put in psychiatric hospitals after they’d made complaints in public.
Pensioner Kakabai Tejenov had complained in 2006 about water shortages in the country.
Amangelen Shapudakov made similar complaints in 2011.
History teacher Sazak Durdymyradov disappeared after he announced in 2011 that he intended to form an opposition political party.
HRW notes that dozens of people have disappeared without a trace within Turkmenistan’s prison system -- “some for more than 15 years, while their families have no information about them, even whether they are dead or alive.”
A rights campaign called Prove They Are Alive has documented 121 cases of enforced disappearances in Turkmenistan.