(New York) -- Members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization missed a key opportunity to implement the organization’s human rights principles when they met on August 16 at the SCO summit in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, Human Rights Watch said today.
Moreover, the Kyrgyz government adopted security measures that restricted human rights as it prepared to host the annual summit.
“The SCO Charter includes a clause upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms, but this provision has been a dead letter,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “SCO members should affirm that human rights and regional security are linked, not opposed.”
Since its founding as Shanghai Five in 1996, the SCO (which currently includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) has focused on security, counterterrorism and extremism in the region. This year’s summit took place amid debate about the SCO’s expansion and its potential as a regional counterweight to NATO.
Summit Preparations by the Kyrgyz Government
In the lead-up to the summit, the Kyrgyz government announced a ban on protests and limited access to Bishkek. Throughout the summer, the authorities issued numerous warnings and advisories about security measures for the summit. Police warned opposition supporters, political parties, and public organizations not to hold demonstrations during the summit. At least one demonstration was banned.
“As the host of the summit, the Kyrgyz government squandered the opportunity to set an example of best practices,” said Cartner. “While the Kyzgyz authorities needed to ensure security for the summit, they reneged on their human rights obligations in the approach they took.”
On July 30 police detained the leader of a Uighur rights organization and his son, who had planned a small picket outside the US Embassy to call on Western governments to promote democracy and human rights. The leader of the organization, Tursun Islam, was released the same day, and his son, Alisher, was released after serving several days in detention on misdemeanor charges.
The Minister of Interior had also issued a vaguely worded advisory about limiting access to Bishkek for people from other regions of Kyrgyzstan and other countries in the region.
“The annual SCO summit is an important opportunity for people in Kyrgyzstan and the region to voice their concerns,” said Cartner. “The summit’s host government should have found ways to accommodate this, rather than banning people from peacefully expressing their views.”
In preparation for the summit, Kyrgyz law enforcement conducted large-scale document checks in Bishkek, which resulted in clearing the capital of irregular migrants, homeless people, and street children. The Kyrgyz Ministry of Interior reported that in early August it had completed a five-day operation, unprecedented in its scope, that resulted in the deportation of 17 foreigners and the detention of 356 people for “irregularities” in their documents.
Police also stepped up security sweeps of practicing Muslims in the southern Kyrgyz province of Jalalabat. In four cases documented by the NGO Air (Bazarkurgan), police on August 1-2 raided the homes of Muslim families, at times using excessive force and beating individuals suspected of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic organization that espouses restoration of the caliphate in traditionally Muslim lands.
These incidents signal increased pressure on Muslim groups not sanctioned by the government, and reflect the SCO’s focus on fighting “extremism,” They are also part of a growing practice by Kyrgyz law enforcement of pressing criminal charges of “fostering religious hatred” for simple possession of a Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets.
On August 8 the Jalalabat City Department of Interior issued an order indefinitely banning access to family members for detainees in main Jalalabat detention facility, noting that the measure was related to the SCO summit.
“Cutting independent access to detention facilities sends a message that the government doesn’t want scrutiny of its anti-extremism measures,” said Cartner.
The SCO and the Fight Against Terrorism, Extremism and Separatism
The Bishkek summit continued the SCO’s traditional focus on security and stressed the links between security and development, neglecting any discussion of rights-related concerns. Meanwhile, many SCO member states commit serious human rights violations in their campaigns against terrorism and “extremism.”
“SCO member states have a long record of returning people wanted on terrorism or extremism charges to other SCO countries where they face torture, incommunicado detention and unfair trials,” said Cartner.
Most recently, Kyrgyzstan on June 1 secretly returned Otabek Muminov, a suspected member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, to Uzbekistan, despite the high risk of torture there. Russia has extradited, deported or otherwise returned numerous people to Uzbekistan; in one egregious case, in October 2006 authorities in Moscow deported Rustam Muminov to Uzbekistan after the European Court of Human Rights issued an injunction to stop the deportation.
Since the late 1990s, the government of Uzbekistan has used the fight against terrorism to justify the imprisonment of thousands of Muslims whose non-violent religious practices, affiliations and beliefs fall outside official institutions and guidelines. In doing so, the government has failed to distinguish between those who advocate violence and those who peacefully express their religious beliefs. Many of those arrested and charged made credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment in custody. In the past year, hundreds of people were convicted or awaiting trial on charges of religious fundamentalism. The Uzbek government also uses terrorism accusations to secure extraditions and deportations of people to countries where they face torture.
In Russia, Human Rights Watch has documented how Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen authorities routinely torture people accused of terrorism. Human Rights Watch also documented how Russian police tortured, ill-treated and harassed individuals returned to Russia from Guantanamo Bay, even though the Russian government issued diplomatic assurances to the U.S. government that they would not be harmed.
Last month SCO representatives compiled a list of religious organizations deemed “extremist” and that are banned in the SCO. The SCO did not make the full list public, nor did it specify the criteria by which organizations were categorized as “extremist.”
“The SCO should state publicly which organizations are on the “extremist” list and why,” said Cartner. “Governments in the region have used overbroad definitions of ‘extremist’ to silence peaceful dissent.”
Russia’s anti-extremism law, for example, has drawn criticism for its broad definition of “extremist activities” and for the government’s use of the law to prosecute lawful speech by non-violent non-governmental organizations, human rights activists, and political opponents of the Putin administration.