Overview of key human rights concerns in Central Asia

June 2015

This briefing memorandum highlights Human Rights Watch’s principal areas of concern in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, with a view to informing preparations for the Secretary-General’s upcoming trip to the region. We hope our information will help to identify key issues to raise with government officials in each country, and about which to mark UN concern at the highest level, both in private exchanges and in public outreach.

The human rights landscape remains grim throughout the region. The governments of Central Asia all have distinctly poor human rights records and to varying degrees resist meaningful reform, as detailed below. They have introduced new legislation restricting fundamental freedoms and put forward draft laws that would seriously limit the activities of nongovernmental organizations. Authorities are holding people in prison on politically motivated charges and have imposed heavy restrictions on freedom of the media, assembly, association, and religion. Across the region impunity for torture remains the norm.

A key area of concern that is often overlooked in discussions of human rights in Central Asia is lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. Homosexual conduct is still criminalized in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and discrimination and violence against LGBT people and activists are serious problems throughout the region. Violations range from police abuse – including extortion, and physical and sexual violence – to violence in the family and the broader community, including forced marriage, domestic violence against young LGBT people, and sexual violence against LGBT people to “cure” them of homosexuality. LGBT activists are often the target of threats and intimidation, including by police. Efforts to introduce blatantly discriminatory and abusive anti-gay “propaganda” legislation are another pressing concern.

The Secretary-General’s visit is a critical opportunity to engage with the Central Asian leaders, in clear and concrete terms, on the necessity to implement human rights reforms and the specific steps required to remedy abuses, including by drawing on the many authoritative assessments made by various UN bodies, and advancing full implementation of the recommendations they have formulated for each country.

In meetings with the leaders of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, a crucial point to stress in this regard, as the Secretary-General also did during his 2010 visit, is access for the growing number of UN special procedures – ten in the case of Turkmenistan and thirteen in the case of Uzbekistan – whose requests for such access both governments continue to deny.

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s human rights record has seen an unequivocal and marked deterioration in the five years since the Secretary-General’s 2010 visit to Central Asia, with the authorities launching an overt crackdown on fundamental freedoms following extended, unresolved labor strikes in the oil sector which ended in violent clashes in December 2011, when police killed 12 people. Authorities blamed outspoken oil workers for the unrest, jailed a political opposition leader, Vladimir Kozlov on vague and overboard criminal charges for seven and a half years, and clamped down on free speech by shutting down critical independent and opposition media outlets – a practice which continues to date.

The space for dissent is highly controlled, with authorities regularly fining and jailing peaceful protesters for violating a restrictive public assembly law. In January the Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association, Maina Kiai, noted the “very limited space for the expression of dissenting views” in Kazakhstan and pointed out that the “Government’s approach to regulating assemblies deprives the right of its meaning,” urging the authorities to review freedom of association and assembly laws.

A restrictive religion law also remains in force, which the government uses to clamp down on minority religious groups, fining and detaining worshipers for peacefully practicing religions that are outside of state control.

Last year a major legislative overhaul by the government ignored serious misgivings expressed by leading Kazakh human rights groups, resulting in the adoption of new criminal and administrative codes, and a new law on trade unions, that further restrict fundamental freedoms in breach of international standards.

During its recent UPR, the Kazakh authorities deflected criticism and concerns raised in the above areas by claiming that the issues in question had already been resolved. The November 2014 review of Kazakhstan by the Committee against Torture highlighted serious torture-related concerns, including the gap between law and practice, and persisting impunity for torture.

Kyrgyzstan

While Kyrgyzstan continues to stand out in Central Asia for its parliamentary democracy, its rights record in the five years since interethnic violence broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010 has been marred by the authorities’ failure to adequately address abuses in the south, in particular against ethnic Uzbeks, who endured the majority of casualties and destroyed homes, and who have been disproportionately subjected to arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture, and extortion schemes without redress.

Human rights defender Azimjon Askarov, whose health is deteriorating, remains wrongfully imprisoned, serving a life sentence following a prosecution and trial marred by serious violations of fair trial standards and allegations of torture. His complaint filed with the UN Human Rights Committee in November 2012 remains pending.

Two deeply problematic bills pending before the parliament –an anti-gay ‘propaganda’ bill which appears aimed at silencing anyone seeking to openly share information about same-sex relations in Kyrgyzstan, including with proposed criminal sanctions, and a ‘foreign agents’ bill, which would require organizations that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents” – would seriously curb freedom of association and expression and blatantly flout Kyrgyzstan’s obligation to ensure nondiscrimination. Their introduction has rightly raised alarm and prompted strong statements of concern by the international community, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The government has not done enough to address the longstanding problems of gender-based and domestic violence, and violence and discrimination against LGBT people. Domestic violence is widespread, as are abductions for forced marriage, despite legislative amendments increasing the penalties for this practice. The government is not providing adequate protection, support, and access to justice for survivors. Gay and bisexual men are at serious risk of extortion schemes and physical and sexual violence at the hands of the police, with abuses going largely unpunished.

Impunity for torture remains the norm, despite governmental acknowledgment of the problem and the establishment of a national torture prevention mechanism. Criminal cases into allegations of ill-treatment or torture are rare, and investigations and trials are delayed or ineffective.

Tajikistan

Tajikistan’s human rights record has seen a steady decline amid an ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression and on the political opposition. The government subjects human rights groups to harassment and the past year has seen several cases of detention or intimidation of journalists, NGO representatives, and academics. In the last two years, authorities have imprisoned opposition figures such as presidential candidate Zayd Saidov sentenced in February 2014 on politically-motivated charges to a staggering 26-year prison term, and independent lawyer Shukhrat Kudratov, sentenced in January this year to 9 years in prison. They have pressured a leading independent news outlet “Asia Plus” with libel charges, and systematically targeted for harassment members of the opposition Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). OSCE/ODIHR monitors cited serious shortcomings during the country’s March 2015 parliamentary elections, in which no candidates from the IRPT were re-elected--the first time in Tajikistan’s modern history.

Authorities also restrict media freedoms and access to critical information, including by blocking access to independent websites. A bill introduced by the Ministry of Justice in November 2014 would require NGOs to register grants from foreign donors in a state registry prior to being able to access them.

Authorities maintain tight restrictions on religious freedoms, including on religious education and worship. The highly controversial Parental Responsibility law, passed in 2011, stipulating that parents must prevent their children from participating in religious activity, except for state-sanctioned religious education, until they turn 18, remains in place despite widespread criticism and concerns expressed by international bodies. Under the pretext of combating extremism, Tajikistan also continues to ban several peaceful minority Muslim groups.

Torture to coerce confessions remains a serious concern and police and investigators routinely deny detainees access to counsel in pretrial custody. After a follow-up visit in February 2014 to assess implementation of his 2012 recommendations, the Special Rapporteur on Torture stressed the need to increase the punishment for torture in accordance with the severity of the crime, and that amnesty for torture should be prohibited. The Special Rapporteur also expressed concern that there had been only four prosecutions involving cases of torture since 2012, despite persistent allegations that it takes place in prison and other places of detention.

Serious concerns persist around the government’s resettlement of approximately 1,500 families in conjunction with preparations for the construction of the proposed Rogun hydroelectric dam, both with respect to the process by which families have been resettled and the conditions of their resettlement, as documented in detail in our June 2014 report Despite government commitments to comply with international standards on resettlement that protect the rights of those displaced, it has not provided the necessary compensation to displaced families to replace their homes or restore their livelihoods. Many families have suffered serious disruptions in access to housing, food, water, and education. Should the dam project go forward as planned, it will displace a total of approximately 42,000 people living in areas that will be inundated with water, raising the stakes even higher for ensuring the shortcomings documented are adequately addressed.

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive and closed countries in the world. It remains utterly cut off from any independent human rights scrutiny, with UN special procedures and NGOs alike denied access to the country. The president, his relatives, and their associates maintain unlimited control over all aspects of public life.

Of particular concern is the authorities’ practice to use imprisonment as a tool for political retaliation. It is impossible to determine the actual number of those held on political grounds because the justice system lacks transparency and there is no independent monitoring of these cases. One well-known case is that of Gulgeldy Annaniazov, a political dissident arrested in 2008, who is serving an 11-year sentence on charges not known even to his family. Dozens of other individuals, most of whom were arrested in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and many of them on politically motivated charges, have simply disappeared in the Turkmen prison system. For more than 12 years now, the government has refused to allow them any contact with their families, who have no information whatsoever about their loved ones, even whether they are dead or alive.

An October 2014 decision by the Human Rights Committee recognized former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov as a victim of enforced disappearance and of a number of other human rights violations, and found that Turkmenistan is under obligation to provide him and his family with an effective remedy. Turkmenistan has until June 5th to provide a substantive reply. Shikhmuradov was arrested, tried in a closed hearing, and handed a life sentence within a five-day period in 2002 for allegedly leading a coup attempt. His family has had no contact with him or information about him since his arrest and trial.

Freedom of expression and association are subject to draconian restrictions, which the 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. Legislative amendments adopted in 2014 have left unchanged arbitrary and disproportionate restrictions on NGO registration, activity, and funding.

Turkmenistan’s government continues to restrict the right of its citizens to travel freely outside the country by means of an informal and arbitrary system of travel bans commonly imposed on civil society activists and relatives of exiled dissidents.

Several laws adopted since the Secretary-General’s 2010 visit, which the Turkmen government often invokes as progress, either have not been implemented (such as the Criminal Code of 2010, or the Criminal Procedural Code of 2011) or establish highly restrictive provisions inconsistent with international standards (for example, amendments to the Law on Public Organisations of 2014, the Law on Internet of 2015, and the Law on Assemblies, Meetings and Demonstrations of 2015). Following a 2012 law which envisaged for the first time the registration of parties other than the ruling party, a close associate of President Berdymukhamedov founded a new party. In 2013, a member of this party became the first parliamentary deputy who is not a member of the ruling party. However there is no indication that this party in any way presents a meaningful political alternative.

The government is currently on a campaign to force people to dismantle their privately-owned satellite dishes and subscribe to government-controlled cable television packages, thereby cutting them off entirely from alternative sources of information.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan’s human rights record remains atrocious. The government severely limits freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion, and continues to wage an unrelenting crackdown on human rights work, independent journalism, peaceful opposition, and civic activity. Those who attempt to assert rights, or act in ways deemed contrary to state interests, face arbitrary detention, lack of due process, and torture, as illustrated just days ago by the shocking incident of police detention and mistreatment of prominent rights activist Elena Urlaeva on May 31, as she was photographing and interviewing forced laborers in a cotton field.

More than a dozen rights defenders, independent journalists, and political opposition figures remain behind bars for no other reason than their legitimate civic activism. Thousands of others have been convicted on overly broad charges of “religious extremism” in closed trials, which are often based on confessions procured through the use of torture and without the presence of independent counsel. In a particularly pernicious practice, authorities frequently extend the sentences of religious and political prisoners for alleged violations of prison regulations shortly before their terms are up, adding years to a prisoner’s sentence in what appears a deliberate policy of keeping politically-sensitive prisoners incarcerated indefinitely. A recent example is rights defender Azam Farmonov, whose wrongful nine-year sentence on politically motivated charges was arbitrarily extended by another five years shortly before his scheduled release in April 2015.

Torture remains endemic in the criminal justice system, as highlighted by the Committee against Torture on the occasion of its November 2013 review of Uzbekistan. Detainees’ rights are violated at each stage of investigations and trials, despite habeas corpus amendments passed in 2008. The government has failed to meaningfully implement recommendations to combat torture made by the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, the Committee against Torture, and the Human Rights Committee. Its approach overall to international expressions of concerns remains one marked by denial and obfuscation. For over a decade now, the government has ignored all requests for access by UN special procedures (currently numbering 13), and has rejected virtually all of the recommendations for human rights improvements that UN monitoring bodies and the Universal Periodic Review have made.

State-organized forced labor in the cotton sector remains widespread. The Uzbek authorities systematically force millions to harvest cotton in abusive conditions for up to two months each autumn and to plant and weed in the spring and summer, disrupting the provision of essential health, education, and other services and violating international labor laws.