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(Geneva) – Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan’s highly repressive policies are coming up for rare international scrutiny on April 22 and 24, 2013, Human Rights Watch said today. United Nations member countries gathering at the Human Rights Council in Geneva under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) procedure should seize the opportunity to expose and denounce the ongoing repression in both countries and press for concrete steps to end abuses.

The governments of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan stand out as among the most repressive in the world, Human Rights Watch said. Both also stand out for their failure to heed recommendations made during their previous Human Rights Council reviews, in December 2008.

“The extraordinarily high levels of repression in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, coupled with their governments’ refusal to acknowledge problems, let alone to address them, underscores the need for a strong, unified message,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Ashgabat and Tashkent need to hear, loud and clear, just how unacceptable their abusive records are, and what specific changes they need to make.”

In submissions on Turkmenistan and on Uzbekistan, drawn up in advance of the reviews, Human Rights Watch highlighted key concerns with respect to both countries, and the steps needed to address them.

One immediate step both governments should be urged to take is to end their longstanding denial of access for the UN’s own rights monitors. Ten UN rapporteurs have requested such access to Turkmenistan, while the number of UN rapporteurs barred from Uzbekistan has reached 11, Human Rights Watch said.

Cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is another pressing issue. On April 12, the ICRC took the unusual step of announcing publicly its decision to end prison visits to detainees in Uzbekistan. It cited its inability to follow the organization’s standard working procedures for such visits, including being able to access all detainees of ICRC concern and to speak to detainees in private. Turkmenistan’s prisons, too, remain closed to outside scrutiny.

“Both governments’ exceptionally poor record of cooperation with the UN and beyond should be a key feature of their Universal Periodic Reviews,” Szente Goldston said.

Other key concerns in Turkmenistan include:

  • The government’s longstanding use of imprisonment as a tool for political retaliation. As a result of more than two decades of this practice, unknown numbers of people languish in the country’s notoriously abusive prisons on what appear to be politically motivated charges. Recently the government freed four such prisoners, two of whom had served out their six-and-a-half-year sentences in full. But their release only underscored the question of how many more remain behind bars.
  • Draconian restrictions on freedom of expression and association, which authorities enforce by threatening, harassing, or imprisoning those who dare to question its policies, however modestly. The severe repression of civil society activism makes it impossible for independent human rights defenders and journalists to work openly.
  • Interference with and control of residents’ right to leave and return to Turkmenistan through an informal and arbitrary system of travel bans commonly imposed on activists, their families, and relatives of exiled dissidents.

Key concerns in Uzbekistan include:

  • The government’s unrelenting crackdown on independent civil society activism and freedom of expression, including through criminal prosecution of human rights defenders and independent journalists on trumped-up charges. As a result, more than a dozen human rights defenders and numerous independent journalists and opposition activists are in prison on wrongful charges.
  • Torture and ill-treatment, which are endemic throughout the criminal justice system, and the persisting impunity for such abuses. A much anticipated habeas corpus reform, which went into effect in January 2009, has proven ineffective in protecting detainees from torture, with judges routinely approving prosecutors’ requests to arrest defendants and ignoring torture allegations.
  • The government’s systematic use of forced labor, including child labor, for the annual cotton harvest, and its refusal to allow monitors from the International Labor Organization (ILO) into the country.

“The upcoming UPRs of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan will serve as a stark reminder of just how little has changed in both countries in the nearly four-and-a-half years since their initial reviews under this procedure,” Szente Goldston said. “What these governments’ partners need to ask themselves is: what more can be done to bring about better compliance? The answer is clearly more, not less, pressure.”

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