(Washington, DC) – United States Secretary of State John Kerry should publicly express concern over Central Asian governments’ distinctly poor human rights records during his Central Asia visits, beginning October 31, 2015, Human Rights Watch said today.

He should press for concrete improvements in meetings with each of the five Central Asian leaders. And he should make clear that a critical part of strengthening bilateral ties will be the release of people wrongfully imprisoned, allowing human rights groups and journalists to do their work unhindered, ending impunity for torture, and upholding other key human rights commitments.

Secretary Kerry arrives in Vienna, Austria as part of a trip taking him to Austria, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan from October 28 to November 3, 2015. 

“Secretary Kerry should take full advantage of the spotlight this week to make clear to each leader in Central Asia – and the region’s citizens – that the status quo on human rights abuses just won’t do,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This visit is an opportunity for Secretary Kerry to publicly convey a clear expectation that reforms are key to strengthening US ties to Central Asia.”

In a briefing memorandum ahead of Kerry’s trip, Human Rights Watch urged him to raise key areas of concern with government officials in each country. They include politically motivated prosecutions and imprisonment of human rights and civic activists; renewed efforts to clamp down on the activities of nongovernmental groups; on freedom of religion, the media, assembly, and association; and impunity for torture. To support President Obama’s Stand with Civil Society initiative, Secretary Kerry should also hold separate meetings with nongovernmental groups and human rights defenders in each country.

Secretary Kerry is slated to visit all five Central Asian countries between October 31 and November 3, beginning with Kyrgyzstan, followed by Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The visit is his first to the region and the first in which a US secretary of state is visiting all five Central Asian republics on a single tour.

Cooperation in the global coalition against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), ensuring stability in Afghanistan, and enhancing economic ties appear to be core parts of the agenda, as Secretary Kerry is set to meet foreign ministers at a regional security conference in Samarkand during the visit. It is expected that Secretary Kerry will meet with the leaders of each country. Each year, the human rights records of the Central Asian countries come in for serious criticism in the US State Department country reports on human rights practices, including for endemic torture, restrictions on freedom of speech and the media, and politically motivated imprisonment.

“This is a moment when the governments across Central Asia are facing serious socioeconomic, security, and other challenges, and are looking to the United States for assistance,” Williamson said. “Kerry has the leverage to impress upon Central Asia’s leaders that upholding human rights is in their interest, and a priority for Washington.

In Kazakhstan, Secretary Kerry should urge the government to:

  • Repeal the criminal offense of “inciting social, national, clan, racial, class, or religious discord” as it is vague, overbroad, and can be used to criminalize lawful behavior protected by human rights law; and release Ermek Narymbaev and Serikzhan Mambetalin, activists arrested on suspicion of “inciting national discord,” and the opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, pending an independent and impartial review of his case.
  • Withdraw a draft law on nongovernmental organizations that would impose serious restrictions on independent groups, including government control over sources of funding, and ensure that groups can carry out their activities without undue government interference.
  • Cease the ongoing crackdown on peaceful dissent by amending a highly restrictive public assembly law and ending punitive suspensions and shutdowns of independent media outlets critical of government for minor administrative offenses, most recently the closure of ADAM journal on October 22.

In Kyrgyzstan, Secretary Kerry should urge the government to:

  • Immediately release the wrongfully imprisoned human rights defender Azimjon Askarov, given the flawed and unfair trial that led to his lifetime imprisonment, and conduct an independent review of June 2010-related proceedings that were marred by torture-tainted confessions, hostility, and attacks in the courtrooms.
  • Firmly reject rights-violating draft laws, in particular a “foreign agents” bill, which would require organizations that receive foreign funding and engage in broadly defined political activities to register as “foreign agents,” and an anti-LGBT “propaganda” bill, which appears aimed at silencing anyone seeking to openly share information about same-sex relations in Kyrgyzstan, and make clear that such laws are incompatible with a rights-respecting democracy.
  • Do more to address the problem of domestic violence, in particular by providing adequate protection and access to justice, as well as shelter and other services for survivors of abuse. The authorities should also ensure that a new domestic violence law strengthens protections for women.

In Tajikistan, Secretary Kerry should urge the government to:

  • Stop the escalating crackdown on freedom of expression, association, and assembly, including allowing the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and all peaceful political opposition groups to operate unhindered; release or credibly charge 78 detained members of the party arrested in October; and release the political figure Zaid Saidov, the activist Maksud Ibragimov, the journalist Amindzhon Gulmurodzoda, the independent lawyers Shukhrat Kudratov, Nuriddin Makhamov, and Buzurgmehr Yorov, and everyone else imprisoned on politically motivated charges.
  • Amend the restrictive 2009 religion law, a 2011 law on “parental responsibility”, and other relevant legislation on religion to bring them into conformity with Tajikistan’s international commitments to protect freedom of religion, including eliminating legal and other restrictions on peaceful religious practice and worship for all denominations.
  • Ensure the implementation of a 2013 law on preventing domestic violence, in particular by providing adequate protection and access to justice, as well as shelter and other services for survivors of abuse.

In Turkmenistan, Secretary Kerry should urge the government to:

  • End the use of imprisonment as a tool for political retaliation and end the enforced disappearance of dozens of people in the country’s prisons; release those wrongly held, including the dissident Gulgeldy Annaniazov, the former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov, and the journalist Saparmamed Nepeskuliev.
  • Stop the arbitrary interference with foreign travel for perceived government opponents and their relatives.
  • Allow access to the country for the 10 UN human rights experts who have requested such access, as well as for other independent monitors, including nongovernmental groups.

In Uzbekistan, Secretary Kerry should urge the government to:

  • Release everyone imprisoned on politically motivated charges, including the journalists Muhammad Bekjanov, Solijon Abdurakhmanov, and Dilmurod Saidov; the political activists Samandar Kukanov and Rustam Usmanov; the religious figure Akram Yuldashev; the former UN worker Erkin Musaev; and the imprisoned rights defenders Azam Farmonov, Matluba Kamilova, Isroiljon Kholdarov, Nuraddin Jumaniyazov, and Akzam Turgunov, among others.
  • End the ongoing crackdown on activists and journalists, including those monitoring the current cotton harvest, by guaranteeing their rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly; end arbitrary detention, arrest, and denial of exit visas to perceived government critics.
  • Allow immediate access for all 13 UN human rights monitors who have requested access, allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to resume its work monitoring places of detention, and allow international media outlets and non-governmental organizations to operate in the country without government interference, including by issuing visas and accreditation to their staff.