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(Brussels) – European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton should meet with human rights defenders and publicly call for the release of wrongfully imprisoned activists during her upcoming visit to Central Asia, Human Rights Watch said today.

From November 26 to 30, 2012, Ashton is scheduled to visit Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan for the first time as the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security. She is also expected to meet with senior officials from Turkmenistan.

“Ashton’s trip will test the EU’s pledge to make human rights a priority in Central Asia,” said Lotte Leicht, EU advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Promises are good, but what is needed is frank talk to her hosts about the need to free detained human rights defenders and to stop harassing activists if they want closer ties.”

Ashton should ensure that priorities related to trade, energy, and military do not eclipse human rights issues in the EU’s dealings in Central Asia, Human Rights Watch said.

In June, EU foreign ministers adopted a new Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy, which makes human rights, democracy, and the rule of law core elements in the EU’s foreign relations. The EU pledged to support advocates of liberty, democracy, and human rights throughout the world.

Ashton’s visit to Central Asia comes at a time of retrenchment on respect for human rights in all five countries in the region, Human Rights Watch said. Throughout Central Asia, numerous human rights defenders, civil society groups, and opposition activists languish in prison for their peaceful work and activism. Human rights organizations face burdensome government regulations, harassment, and closure.

Human Rights Watch wrote to Ashton ahead of her visit regarding its concerns in Central Asia and published a briefing paper outlining key human rights issues in the region and raising specific cases.

In Kazakhstan, the human rights situation has deteriorated markedly in the past two years, especially in respect for the rights to freedom of religion, association, assembly, and to a fair trial, and to be free from torture and other ill-treatment. Kyrgyzstan is still grappling with the aftermath of the June 2010 ethnic clashes in the south that left hundreds dead and thousands injured. Dozens of trials related to the 2010 violence were seriously flawed, with the justice process skewed disproportionately against ethnic Uzbeks.

Tajikistan suffers from systematic corruption, a poor record on torture, and growing levels of authoritarianism. The government recently forced an independent rights group that works on torture to shut down. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are two of the most repressive and closed countries in the world, clamping down on independent civil society and silencing critics through threats, harassment, and politically motivated imprisonment.

“Ashton should make meetings with human rights defenders a non-negotiable part of her itinerary, to listen to their concerns and recommendations, and to show the EU’s commitment to engaging with civil society,” Leicht said. “She should also articulate, publicly and in meetings with Central Asian governments, that deepened relationships with the EU will depend on concrete human rights reforms.”

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