(New York) – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Central Asia trip is a key opportunity to mark UN concern at the highest level about the alarming state of human rights throughout the region and press for concrete improvements, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a briefing memorandum submitted to Ban ahead of his trip, which begins on June 9, 2015, Human Rights Watch highlighted key areas of concern to raise with government officials in each country. Politically-motivated prosecutions and imprisonment of human rights and civic activists, restrictions on the operation of nongovernmental groups and the media, and impunity for torture top the list of concerns.

“With so much suffering from government repression in Central Asia, human rights deserve a prominent place in the secretary-general’s agenda,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Ban should press for concrete steps to end abuses, such as releasing people wrongfully behind bars, allowing rights groups and journalists to do their work, and ending impunity for torture.”

The secretary-general’s Central Asia trip will begin in Tajikistan, followed by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. He previously visited the region in 2010. His agenda includes appearances at international conferences and gatherings in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, and meetings with the leaders of each country.

Among the individual cases the secretary-general should take up are: the opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov in Kazakhstan, the human rights defender Azimjon Askarov in Kyrgyzstan, the independent lawyer Shukhrat Kudratov and the opposition leader Zayd Saidov in Tajikistan, the political dissident Gulgeldy Annaniyazov in Turkmenistan, and the human rights defender Azam Farmonov in Uzbekistan.

The problem of politically-motivated imprisonment is particularly acute in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where numerous other individuals remain behind bars on baseless charges. Among them is Muhammad Bekjanov, one of the world’s longest-imprisoned journalists, who has been languishing in an Uzbek prison since 1999. In Turkmenistan dozens of people, including former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov, have been forcibly disappeared, after their arrest and in most cases closed trials. The authorities have not allowed their families or anyone else any contact with them for more than a decade, nor have the authorities informed relatives of their loved ones’ whereabouts or fate.

Human Rights Watch outlined several areas in which there has been further backsliding in the years since the secretary-general’s 2010 visit. They include problematic new laws restricting fundamental freedoms and attempts to further limit the activities of nongovernmental groups and impose even heavier controls on freedom of the media, assembly, association, and religion.

Ban should also take up lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in Central Asia, where efforts to introduce blatantly discriminatory and abusive anti-gay “propaganda” legislation have exacerbated longstanding concerns about discrimination and violence against LGBT people and activists.

The secretary-general should also call Central Asian leaders, particularly in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, to task for their failure to cooperate with UN human rights bodies, Human Rights Watch said. Both governments have long denied access to UN human rights monitors, with no fewer than 13 awaiting invitations to visit Uzbekistan and 10 refused visits to Turkmenistan.

“The secretary-general’s trip is a key opportunity to impress upon Central Asia’s leaders that opening up to scrutiny and embarking on long-overdue reforms should be a top priority,” Szente Goldston said.