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With repressive governments ruling over Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and their neighbors, the European Union should make respect for human rights an integral part of its new Central Asia strategy, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today. EU foreign ministers are scheduled to review a first-ever Central Asia strategy at the General Affairs and External Relations Council meeting in Brussels on April 23-24.

The strategy, an initiative of the German EU Presidency, replaces years of an uncoordinated approach by the European Union to the five Central Asian countries, which were once part of the Soviet Union. Human Rights Watch urged the EU to incorporate benchmarks for progress in priority human rights areas into the strategy.

“The EU should link closer engagement with Central Asian countries with real progress in improving human rights,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU has a chance to push for real rights in Central Asia, and it should be applying pressure in that area instead of just paying lip service to its principles.”

The European Union’s approach to human rights in the region, as articulated in draft strategy papers, has focused on structured dialogues, education and training, which are important tools but alone are not enough to encourage meaningful change, Human Rights Watch said. The EU has too often welcomed “positive signals” by the Central Asian governments, without insisting on concrete improvements and results, even while the situation in many of the countries deteriorated. The human rights communities in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have been particularly hard-hit by government repression, yet some EU officials are now calling for the easing of its limited sanctions on Uzbekistan, and last year the EU sought to introduce a trade agreement with Turkmenistan.

Today, Human Rights Watch also published a face-book of human rights defenders in Uzbekistan, one of the most repressive countries in the entire Eurasia region, cataloging their courageous work and the multiple methods the Uzbek government employs to silence and punish them.

“The plight of Uzbekistan’s human rights defenders, especially those behind bars, illustrates why the EU needs to move beyond dialogue and training,” said Cartner. “These prisoners of conscience are paying the price of the EU’s feeble human rights policy.”

One of these jailed defenders, Umida Niazova, is to go on trial on April 19 in Tashkent on politically motivated charges of smuggling, distributing seditious materials, and illegal border crossing. Niazova is also the translator for Human Rights Watch’s Tashkent office.

The governments of Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – overall have poor human rights records. Turkmenistan stands as one of the most repressive countries in the world. Kazakhstan, still ruled by Soviet-era leader Nursultan Nazarbaev, aspires to hold the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), but has not held a single national election in full compliance with OSCE election norms. Kyrgyzstan’s current government came to power two years ago on the promise of reform, but has failed to prioritize human rights.

EU discussion papers say that the European Union’s goal is to see “the establishment of stable, independent and prosperous countries adhering to democratic values” in Central Asia. But the weakness of the EU’s approach to human rights in these documents contrasts with its more robust approach to energy, security and trade.

“The EU doesn’t have to trade human rights for energy resources,” Cartner said. “In fact, insisting that the Central Asians act to uphold human rights will actually improve long-term stability.”

The Human Rights Watch briefing paper acknowledges the differences in the human rights records of the five Central Asian countries and suggests a set of actions that an EU strategy should require of each, and benchmarks the EU could use to measure progress. For example, on Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch says the EU should require that the Uzbek government creates space for civil society by releasing imprisoned human rights defenders.

The European Union is scheduled next month to decide whether to extend or remove sanctions it imposed on Uzbekistan for the government’s failure to allow an independent, international inquiry into the May 2005 massacre in Andijan. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged the EU not to remove the sanctions until Uzbekistan has met all the EU’s assessment criteria, which include easing the current crackdown on civil society.

The Human Rights Watch face-book released today shows that Uzbekistan has stepped up, rather than eased, this crackdown in the past two years. The Uzbek government uses methods against critics that range from intimidation, threats and harassment to physical attacks, imprisonment and torture. Numerous civil society activists – including human rights defenders, independent journalists, and members of the political opposition – have been beaten by unknown assailants, threatened by local authorities, set upon by mobs, and placed under house arrest.

In the past year alone, at least a dozen human rights defenders have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms on politically motivated charges. Some have seen their relatives detained, in apparent retaliation of their human rights work. Others have had to stop their human rights work or flee the country altogether following threats to their lives and those of their loved ones. Yet many human rights defenders in Uzbekistan continue important research and advocacy work to press for improved human rights conditions in their country.

On Turkmenistan, Human Rights Watch said that EU should use benchmarks set out last October by the European Parliament as conditions for establishing an interim trade agreement with that country. These benchmarks include releasing political prisoners and allowing independent human rights monitoring.

On Kazakhstan, Human Rights Watch said the EU should use its influence to get Kazakhstan to clearly commit to OSCE standards before it could assume the OSCE chairmanship in 2009.

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