(Berlin) – Central Asian governments ramped up pressure on nongovernmental groups and activists in 2015, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016. The governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan arrested and imprisoned government critics, closed down independent groups and opposition parties, and adopted legislation restricting the rights of nongovernmental organizations.

“Central Asian governments are becoming increasingly intolerant of dissent, criticism, and human rights scrutiny – an alarming trend,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities across Central Asia should end their relentless crackdown on critics, release wrongfully imprisoned activists, and engage – not isolate – human rights and other independent groups.”

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

The heavy-handed rule of President Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan was extended for another five years with his re-election in April. The government allows little public dissent and clamped down on free speech during 2015 by suspending and shuttering critical media outlets and fining and jailing peaceful protesters for violating a restrictive public assembly law. The authorities brought vague and overbroad “inciting discord” charges against a range of outspoken critics and activists. A new law imposes undue government control on funding for nongovernmental groups, and a national-level union was unable to re-register under a restrictive trade union law. A jailed opposition leader, Vladimir Kozlov, was denied parole.

Despite its human rights pledges, including winning a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, Kyrgyzstan expelled a freelance journalist, raided the offices and homes of human rights lawyers, and banned an international human rights monitor from the country. Authorities are not doing enough to tackle long-standing problems of domestic violence or torture, while a “foreign agents” bill, an anti-gay “propaganda” bill, and a bill that would curb the independence of the National Center for the Prevention of Torture – all of which would be a step backward for human rights – are before parliament. Human rights defender Azimjon Askarov remains wrongfully imprisoned.

Tajikistan’s human rights situation deteriorated precipitously, with a full-blown assault on the country’s fledgling opposition, including the forced closure in August of Central Asia’s only legally registered Islamic party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, and the detention of more than 100 party activists and at least three human rights lawyers on politically motivated charges. Tajikistan also imprisoned a human rights lawyer, Shukhrat Kudratov; an independent journalist, Amindzhon Gulmurodzoda; and Zaid Saidov and Maksud Ibragimov, both opposition figures. Authorities blocked websites frequently and further restricted the free exercise of religion and independent media. A proposed “foreign agents”-style bill was introduced that would require groups to declare all foreign funding.

For the first time in 12 years, the government of Turkmenistan, one of the most closed and repressive in the world, sent a delegation to the annual human rights conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Yet local activists reported the fiercest government pressure against them in recent years, including warning local activists to stay home or face retribution when the United States Secretary of State visited. Authorities imprisoned a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporter and forced three others to stop working. They forced residents to dismantle privately owned television satellite dishes. Although one banned family was allowed to leave the country, numerous other opponents and activists were barred from traveling outside the country.

Uzbekistan maintained its appalling rights record in 2015. In March, the authoritarian president, Islam Karimov, extended his 26-year rule by another five years, in elections international observers found lacked any meaningful choice and violated Uzbekistan’s constitution. Thousands of peaceful religious believers, political opposition figures, and others remain imprisoned on politically motivated charges. They include Muhammad Bekjanov, one of the world’s longest imprisoned journalists, and Azam Farmonov, a human rights defender whose nine-year term was arbitrarily extended by another three years. In November, authorities arrested yet another human rights defender, Uktam Pardaev, on trumped up charges, before he was released on a suspended sentence of three-year probation in January 2016. Political prisoners and others are tortured in Uzbekistan’s police stations and prison system.