Mr. Ban Ki-moon

Secretary-General

United Nations

Re: Your Upcoming Trip to Central Asia

Dear Secretary-General,

Your trip to Central Asia comes at a time of retrenchment on respect for human rights throughout the region. It also comes at a time when international actors are seeking to ensure the Northern Distribution Route to Afghanistan and to maximize hydrocarbon energy supply to Europe. Human rights communities in Central Asia and the public they engage with are anxious that security interests are eclipsing human rights concerns, and that their concerns are not being heard.

There has never been a more important time for you to embody the role you envisioned as the "voice for the voiceless" by engaging governments in the region on human rights concerns and signaling to the public that the United Nations will work to promote human rights.

We hope that this briefing memorandum, summarizing key areas of concern in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, can help to identify issues to raise with these governments and about which to flag United Nations concern at the highest level in public outreach.

Kazakhstan

In anticipation of its chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), to which it attaches great prestige, the government of Kazakhstan adopted several reforms in early 2009. The reforms-in media and election law-were welcome, although they did not address fundamental problems in both areas. In addition to failing to implement more meaningful reforms it had promised, since that time the government has also dealt a series of blows to human rights that undermine its important role as OSCE chair. It submitted restrictive amendments to media and internet laws, which the parliament subsequently adopted, did not allow peaceful demonstrations and protests, and used national security interests to justify incommunicado detention and denial of access to legal counsel. UN member states raised most of these issues during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process which Kazakhstan underwent in February 2010.

  • We hope you will raise concern about the chilling environment for media outlets and journalists. You can do this by encouraging the government of Kazakhstan to accept and implement recommendations regarding media freedoms made during Kazakhstan's UPR review and that the government of Kazakhstan has taken under consideration. These recommendations involve:
    • placing a moratorium on criminal libel, taking all necessary steps to abolish the relevant articles in the Criminal Code relating to criminal libel; and establishing a cap on defamation awards in civil suits;
    • stopping  any attempt to filter internet content or block access to websites; and
    • refraining from adding further unwarranted restrictions to the law "On mass media."
  • We also hope you will urge the authorities to release on parole Ramazan Yesergepov, editor of the newspaper Alma-Ata Info. He was arrested on January 6, 2009 and sentenced to three years in prison on August 8, 2009 for disclosing state secrets, after the newspaper published an article making corruption allegations against local authorities based on classified documents. Article 70 of the Criminal Code provides for release on parole after one third of the sentence has been served. Your intervention in this case can make a real difference.
  • We would equally urge you to raise the case of Kazakhstan's leading human rights defender, Evgeniy Zhovtis, with the Kazakh authorities, inquiring about his well-being and his treatment in prison. In September 2009 Zhovtis was found guilty of manslaughter following a motor vehicle accident in which a young man was killed and was sentenced to four years' imprisonment in a colony settlement. Notably, while it was within the discretion of the director of this minimum security facility to allow Zhovtis to work and reside outside the settlement, he chose not to do so. The investigation and trial leading to Zhovtis's conviction were marred by serious procedural flaws that denied him the right to present a defense and gave rise to concern that the authorities may have exploited this human tragedy in order to diminish Zhovtis's credibility and weaken the human rights organization he leads.
  • The UN has a strong record on promoting fair trial standards throughout the region.  In this respect, you should raise concern about the case against Mukhtar Dzhakishev, former head of the state-owned nuclear company KazAtomProm, and his staff. Dzhakishev and his bodyguard Talgat Kyztaubaev were sentenced this week to 14 and 5 years, respectively, following a closed trial without the presence of a lawyer of their own choice. Dzakhishev was convicted on charges of receiving bribes and embezzlement, and Kyztaubaev, of embezzlement. Both men have made allegations of torture and ill-treatment that the court did not examine. Another seven men who are witnesses in the case, including Dmitry Parfenov, vice president of KazAtomProm, have been held by Kazakhstan's Committee for National Security (KNB) in safe houses in Astana - allegedly within the framework of Kazakhstan's witness protection program. But the restrictive measures applied to protect them -including severely restricted freedom of movement and restricted communication with the outside world-- resemble a custodial rather than a protection regime.

Kyrgyzstan

During the past year authoritarian rule became further entrenched in Kyrgyzstan and respect for human rights deteriorated. Government restrictions on fundamental rights, including freedom of assembly and expression, are on the rise, and civil society activists and journalists were a particular target of pressure. Furthermore, the government has failed to effectively address long-standing problems of torture and ill-treatment of detainees, as well as gender-based violence.

  • We hope you will raise concern about the physical attacks and murders of journalists, including the December 2009 murder of the Kyrgyz editor Gennady Pavlyuk in neighboring Kazakhstan (which was roundly condemned by UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova) and the 2007 murder of Alisher Saipov, as well as the 2009 attacks on Syrgak Abdyldaev, and call for all the incidents to be thoroughly investigated.
  • We hope you will urge the authorities to reopen proceedings related to the "Nookat events" to investigate torture allegations, hold perpetrators accountable, and remove from evidence any testimony found to have been coerced under torture. At their trial in November 2008, the 32 defendants testified that they had been tortured and ill-treated, but the judge neither urged the prosecutor's office to investigate the allegations nor dismissed the evidence allegedly obtained under torture. In May 2009, Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court reviewed the case and upheld the verdicts. It did not investigate the defendants' torture allegations.
  • And finally, it would be important for you to call on the government to issue a clear statement at the highest political level that prevention of domestic violence - including bride abduction - is a priority policy issue and to develop a more effective state response to domestic violence and bride kidnapping. In November 2008, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women raised serious concern about widespread domestic violence in Kyrgyzstan. It requested that the government submit information within one year on measures taken to eliminate violence against women and bride abduction. To our knowledge, the government has not submitted such information, and has taken no new steps to prevent such violence or to punish perpetrators.

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan's government has taken some steps to alleviate the tyranny with which the government ruled under Saparmurat Niazov, who died in 2006. It released some political prisoners, allowed a handful of people previously banned from leaving the country to travel abroad, and reinstated pensions and the ninth year of compulsory education. These are all welcome steps. But there is no evidence to indicate a commitment on the part the government to remove the draconian restrictions on numerous civil and political rights that still persist. Moreover, the government threatens, harasses, and arrests those who question its policies, however modestly. Independent civil society activists and journalists cannot work freely in the country.

Of particular concern is the Turkmen government's persistent denial of access to the country for independent human rights monitors, including (with one exception) UN special procedures, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and nongovernmental organizations. No fewer than nine UN special procedures remain unable to carry out country visits despite longstanding requests for access due to the government's refusal to issue the required invitations.

Human Rights Watch has been denied access to the country for more than ten years and other groups such as Amnesty International and the International Federation for Human Rights likewise remain unable to conduct in situ research there. In mid-December 2009, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) announced that following repeated rejections on the part of Turkmen authorities of their project proposals, they were forced to close. MSF was the last remaining international nongovernmental organization in Turkmenistan, where it had operated since 1999.

Unknown numbers of individuals continue to languish in Turkmen prisons on what appear to be politically motivated charges. The lack of transparency in the justice system, including closed trials and the absence of independent human rights monitoring, make it impossible to arrive at a reliable number. Well-known political prisoners include Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, who worked with human rights organizations, and political dissident Gulgeldy Annaniazov. Torture and ill-treatment remain major concerns, compounded by the complete lack of access to detention facilities by independent monitors, and the overall vacuum of human rights monitoring in the country.

Turkmen authorities use an informal system of travel bans to arbitrarily interfere with the right to travel abroad. In summer 2009, the authorities introduced new, burdensome requirements for studying abroad that prevented hundreds of students from traveling to private universities outside Turkmenistan. A group of 60 were allowed to travel to Bulgaria in January, but many more remain stranded. They have told human rights activists that your visit is "their last hope" for influence on the government to relent.

Two UN mechanisms have recently reviewed Turkmenistan's human rights record, identifying serious violations and issuing detailed recommendations for steps the government needs to take to address them. The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion, following her 2008 visit to the country, concluded that "although the situation has much improved since 2007, individuals and religious communities, both registered and unregistered, remain under close scrutiny and still face a number of difficulties when manifesting their freedom of religion or belief." The special rapporteur raised concerns "about the imposition of legal or policy restrictions by the authorities of Turkmenistan on registration, places of worship, religious material, religious education and proselytism." Her recommendations to the Turkmen government included "removing from legislation the prohibition on unregistered religious activities and undue restrictions on religious material, education and attire as well as ceasing obstruction with regard to the building, opening, renting or use of places of worship by religious communities."  The Turkmen government has not taken any steps to implement these recommendations.

The UPR, which Turkmenistan underwent in December 2008, also resulted in detailed recommendations for steps the Turkmen government should take to address human rights concerns. The government accepted a number of the UPR recommendations - including that it act against any form of harassment and intimidation of journalists, ensure effective freedom of worship for all religious communities, and take effective measures to allow NGOs to register and work freely. But it merely undertook to "consider" many others, including  that it allow access to the country for UN special procedures, ICRC and other independent monitors, protect human rights defenders from persecution, liberalize media, and end torture in places of detention. The Turkmen government furthermore regrettably outright rejected a number of recommendations made during the UPR, considered by human rights experts, both local and international, as being among those most pressing to address, such as the release of political prisoners, conducting a transparent review of the political cases of past years, holding an independent inquiry into the 2006 death in prison of journalist Ogulsapar Muradova, and lifting arbitrary travel bans on activists and relatives of opposition members.

The government of Turkmenistan takes great pride in its stature in the United Nations and in particular as the host of the UN Centre for Conflict Prevention. For this reason, we believe you are in an excellent position to help ensure adequate follow up on all recommendations flowing from the UPR as well as those made by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion, by raising them in your meetings with the Turkmen leadership. Specific steps the Turkmen government should be urged to take include the following:

  • Allow activists, civic groups and journalists to operate freely and without fear of persecution;
  • Release all political prisoners, including human rights activists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev and the dissident Gulgeldy Annaniazov;
  • Undertake a nationwide, transparent review of all cases of political imprisonment of the past years in order to establish the real number of political prisoners and ensure that victims of abuse are provided with justice;
  • Ensure unfettered access to the country, including to places of detention, for independent human rights monitors (including UN special rapporteurs, NGOs and other independent experts who have requested access);
  • Lift travel bans imposed on students, activists and relatives of opposition members, and dismantle the system that allows for government interference with residents' ability to leave and return to Turkmenistan; and
  • Remove excessive restrictions on the right to freedom of religion, as recommended by the UN Special Rapporteir on freedom of religion.

Uzbekistan

The Uzbek government's human rights record remains atrocious. Of urgent concern is the plight of civil society, which remains the target of constant government intimidation and harassment, and the more than a dozen human rights defenders, journalists, and other independent civic and political activists whom the Uzbek government continues to harass and imprison on politically motivated grounds. 

Authorities in Uzbekistan continue to clamp down on media freedoms and suppress religious worship by unlawfully arresting and imprisoning Muslims who practice their faith outside state controls or who belong to banned religious organizations. There is a deeply entrenched culture of impunity for serious human rights violations, including for torture and ill-treatment, which remain rampant. The judiciary lacks independence, and the weak parliament dominated by pro-government parties does not effectively check executive power. Government-sponsored forced child labor in the cotton sector continues, despite government claims that it is tackling this issue. Almost five years later, the government continues to deny accountability for the massacre of hundreds of mostly unarmed protesters fleeing a demonstration in the city of Andijan in May 2005.

The Uzbek government's record of cooperation with UN mechanisms, and international institutions more broadly, remains poor. It continues to refuse access to the country to no fewer than eight UN special procedures despite their longstanding and repeated requests for invitations to visit Uzbekistan. The government has also failed to implement UN expert bodies' recommendations, in particular pertaining to torture.

During the UPR of Uzbekistan in December 2008, the government flatly denied the existence of a number of well-documented human rights problems and rejected as "unacceptable because factually wrong" numerous recommendations, including that it should release imprisoned human rights defenders and end harassment and intimidation of civil society activists. 

Most recently, the UN Human Rights Committee has just concluded its review of Uzbekistan's compliance with International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and is expected to issue a highly critical assessment of the Uzbek government's human rights record on March 24, just prior to your visit.

Human Rights Watch considers your upcoming visit to Uzbekistan to be a crucial opportunity to underscore the urgent need for human rights reform in Uzbekistan. We hope you will use your meetings with the Uzbek leadership to raise the issue of access for the eight Special Rapporteurs who await an invitation from the Uzbek government to visit the country, and stress the importance of the Uzbek government's implementation of recommendations made by various UN mechanisms, including the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, the Committee Against Torture and the Human Rights Committee, and to reconsider its rejection of the many valid recommendations flowing from the UPR.

The following are specific steps we hope you will urge the Uzbek government to take to address the many serious concerns that mar its human rights record:

  • Immediately and unconditionally release all wrongfully imprisoned human rights defenders, journalists, members of the political opposition, and other activists held on politically motivated charges;
  • End the crackdown on civil society and allow domestic and international human rights groups to operate without government interference, including by re-registering those that have been liquidated or otherwise forced to stop working in Uzbekistan, and issuing visas and accreditation for staff of international nongovernmental organizations;
  • Take meaningful measures to end torture and ill-treatment and the accompanying culture of impunity, including by implementing in full the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and the Committee Against Torture;
  • Ensure accountability for the Andijan massacre and cease harassment and other abuses of returned refugees and families of refugees who remain abroad;
  • Cease harassment of journalists, decriminalize libel and slander, and allow domestic and international media outlets, including those that have been forced to stop operating in Uzbekistan, to register and grant accreditation to international journalists;
  • End religious persecution, including by de-criminalizing peaceful religious activity and ending the imprisonment of thousands of people for their nonviolent religious expression;
  • End forced child labor in the cotton sector; allow independent monitoring and involve independent nongovernmental organizations in assessments of child welfare, particularly as they relate to the cotton sector.

We thank you for your attention to these concerns and stand ready to provide further information and respond to any questions. We wish you a productive trip.

Sincerely,                                                          

Holly Cartner

Director, Europe and Central Asia division