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Central Asia: Rights Records Remain Poor

EU, US Should Do More to Press for Improvements

(Berlin) – Ongoing serious rights abuses by the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan make it essential for the United States and the European Union to consistently and publicly raise human rights concerns and urge specific human rights improvements in 2014, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2014.

As the majority of NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, security will be an important focus in the region. Some government representatives of the more repressive Central Asian countries assert that the NATO troop withdrawal will open up Central Asia to a heightened threat of extremism, arguing they need greater military assistance from the West.

While key concerns, regional security and military cooperation should not be used to downplay human rights problems, Human Rights Watch said. The US, EU, and individual EU member states should consistently urge at the highest levels for concrete rights improvements in each of these countries, and seek to link engagement, including financial assistance, to measurable progress in human rights.

“Security concerns linked to Afghanistan are important, but continuing rights abuses in Central Asian states also present a threat of long-term instability in their own right,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Central Asian governments committed gross human rights violations throughout 2013. This is a crucial time for Central Asia’s partners to step up their focus on all aspects of the region’s development, including on urgent human rights concerns.”

In the 667-page report, its24th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. Syria’s widespread killings of civilians elicited horror but few steps by world leaders to stop it, Human Rights Watch said. A reinvigorated doctrine of “responsibility to protect” seems to have prevented some mass atrocities in Africa.  Majorities in power in Egypt and other countries have suppressed dissent and minority rights. And Edward Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance programs reverberated around the globe.

In 2013 the US, the EU, and EU member states’ engagement with Central Asian governments concentrated largely on economic ties, energy, and security interests linked to Afghanistan.

In Kyrgyzstan, ill-treatment and torture remain pervasive in places of detention in 2013. Shortcomings in law enforcement and the judiciary contribute to the persistence of grave abuses in connection to the ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010 and to harassment and abuse of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Human rights defender Azimjon Askarov remains wrongfully imprisoned.

In Kazakhstan, authorities continued to crack down on free speech and dissent through misuse of overly broad laws such as “inciting social discord” and through the closure and suspension of independent and opposition newspapers. Government critics such as opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov remain imprisoned following unfair trials. There were several cases of forced psychiatric observation or detention in violation of rights.

In Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmon, in power since 1992, was re-elected to a fourth term in office in November. The only independent candidate, Oinihol Bobonazarova, was forced to exit the race prematurely after her supporters were intimidated. In the lead-up to the election, authorities widened a crackdown on freedom of expression, imprisoned opposition leaders, shut down a leading nongovernmental organization, and stepped up efforts to extradite political opponents. Authorities exercise tight controls over religious freedoms. Torture remains common in places of detention.

Authorities in Turkmenistan released several political prisoners and adopted several laws that some international partners have hailed as “reform.” However, Turkmenistan remains one of the world’s most repressive countries. It is virtually closed to independent scrutiny. Media and religious freedoms are subject to draconian restrictions, human rights defenders and other activists face the constant threat of government reprisal, and the government continues to use imprisonment as a tool for political retaliation.

Uzbekistan’s human rights record remains abysmal. Dozens of civil society activists remain behind bars for no reason other than their human rights work, along with thousands of peaceful religious believers. Many of these individuals have been subjected to torture, which the United Nations Committee Against Torture found in November to be “systematic.” The Uzbek government forcibly mobilized nearly 2 million adults and children during the autumn cotton harvest to pick cotton in abusive conditions for little to no pay.

“The rights records of these Central Asian states, while varied, are all distinctly poor,” Williamson said. “Sustained pressure and conditioned engagement is vital to secure rights improvements for the roughly 60 million people of this oft-ignored region.”


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