Overview of key human rights concerns in Central Asia

October 2015

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s human rights record has seen an unequivocal and marked deterioration in the last five years, 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 suspending and shutting down critical independent and opposition media outlets – a practice which continues to date. Just last week, authorities detained two activists on charges of “inciting national discord,” continuing the practice of misusing this vague offense to try and silence government critics.

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 the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of 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 new draft law that would impose restrictions on the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including government regulations on NGO funding is currently under consideration in parliament. UN bodies, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, have expressed their serious concern.

The government continues to use a restrictive religion law 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

Kyrgyzstan continues to stand out in Central Asia for its parliamentary democracy, and earlier this month carried out competitive parliamentary elections. However, longstanding human rights problems that remain unaddressed and new setbacks have marred Kyrgyzstan’s rights record in the five years since interethnic violence broke out in the southern part of the country in June 2010. In addition, the authorities have failed to adequately address abuses in the south following the violence, 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 deteriorated dramatically in the last two years, as authorities banned the country’s leading opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), arresting 78 of its members as well as their lawyer, Buzurgmehr Yorov. Authorities have also imprisoned and harassed numerous other opposition activists, journalists and lawyers, such as presidential candidate Zayd Saidov, serving a staggering 29-year prison term, and independent lawyer Shukhrat Kudratov, sentenced in January this year to 9 years in prison.

In March 2015, assailants shot and killed opposition figure Umarali Kuvvatov in Istanbul. Kuvvatov headed Group 24, an opposition group that called for democratic reforms and leveled corruption allegations at President Emomali Rahmon and the ruling elite. Three Tajik citizens are on trial in Turkey for Kuvvatov’s murder. The shooting’s circumstances, and previous efforts by Tajik authorities to detain him in various countries, led many observers to conclude Kuvvatov’s killers may have been acting on orders from Dushanbe.

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, and subject nongovernmental organizations to onerous checks. 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. Domestic violence against women also continues to be a serious problem.

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.

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 UN 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 November 7 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. In the past four years, the Turkmen government harassed, jailed, and subjected to forced psychiatric treatment at least five correspondents for Radio Liberty’s Turkmen language service. Most recently, in July 2015 they arrested and held in incommunicado detention Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, who had reported for Radio Liberty on such social issues as water shortages and medical care. He was sentenced to three years in prison on charges that are not known even to his family.

The severe repression of civil society activism makes it impossible for independent human rights defenders and journalists to work openly. Turkmen laws arbitrarily and disproportionately restrict 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. One recent example concerns Aizhamal Rejepova, daughter of Pirkuli Tanrykuliev, an exiled former member of parliament. When Rejepova and two of her children tried to travel to Turkey in July 2015, officials at the airport told them they were banned for life from traveling abroad. Turkmen officials in some cases also ban students from traveling abroad to continue their studies.

Several laws adopted in recent years, which the Turkmen government often invoke 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.

Male homosexuality in Turkmenistan is punishable by up to two years of imprisonment. Homosexuality is treated as a “disease” by the wider community, as well as by law enforcement, medical institutions and judicial officials. Fearing persecution and harassment, gay men are forced to hide their sexual identity.

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 by the repeated incidents of police harassment, threats and detention of prominent rights activists Elena Urlaeva, Malohat Eshonqulova, and Dmitry Tikhonov, while they were seeking to document conditions for forced laborers in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields.

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. One such example concerns 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.