(Brussels) – The European Union should make respect for human rights and an end to decades of repression a core component of its engagement with Central Asian countries, Human Rights Watch said today. In the past year, Central Asia has seen some positive developments, after Uzbekistan’s new president took power in September 2016 and, in Kyrgyzstan, the region’s first peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another in October 2017.
On November 10, 2017, the European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, and the head of its cooperation and development agency, Neven Mimica, will join a regional meeting in Samarkand with the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. On November 9, Mogherini and Mimica are paying a one-day visit to Kyrgyzstan, following the presidential election there on October 15.
“The glimmers of hope in the region should not be taken for granted, nor their fragility underestimated,” said Philippe Dam, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Recent developments showed that change is possible, but tangible progress on rights will require greater political will from Central Asian leaders.”
Central Asian countries have distinct human rights records – but none can be portrayed as championing respect for international human rights standards, and all have used politically motivated detention against critics.
In Uzbekistan, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has taken some positive steps to improve the human rights situation during his first year in office, with the release of at least 16 critics detained on politically motivated grounds. Other measures include the moderate easing of certain restrictions on freedom of expression, the removal of a large number of names from the security services’ “black list,” pledges to increase the accountability of government institutions to citizens, and a ban on forced mobilization of teachers, doctors, and college students in the country’s cotton fields.
The European Union should see these actions as steps in the right direction, but also insist that the Uzbek government should make lasting changes to protect human rights. Thousands are still behind bars on politically motivated grounds, including human rights defenders, journalists, religious figures, and other perceived government critics.
On September 27, Bobomurod Abdullaevon, an independent journalist, was detained on what appeared to be a politically motivated charge. On the same day, police also detained Nurullo Muhummad Raufkhon, an author, at Tashkent airport on his arrival home after two years of exile and charged him with extremism for a book in which he criticizes the former longtime repressive leader, Islam Karimov, who died in September 2016. The author was released on October 1, but still faces charges. Authorities also use a penal code provision to arbitrarily extend prison sentences. There has been nearly total impunity for the torture of people in government custody, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has not been able to carry out independent monitoring in Uzbekistan since 2013.
In Kyrgyzstan, the European Union should seize the opportunity of the recent presidential election to urge President-elect Sooronbai Jeenbekov to put human rights front and center when he takes office. Human Rights Watch is concerned about increased pressure on nongovernmental groups and the media in the period before the election, including through multi-million Kyrgystani Soms defamation lawsuits on behalf of the outgoing president by Kyrgyzstan’s prosecutor general.
The EU decision, announced just days before the election, to negotiate an enhanced partnership agreement, means it should urge Jeenbekov to ensure that journalists and human rights defenders in Kyrgyzstan can work without fear of reprisal or harassment. The EU should also unequivocally call on the Kyrgyzstan authorities to release the human rights defender Azimjon Askarov, who was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison for his alleged role in the June 2010 conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan. The government has yet to carry out the UN Human Rights Committee’s ruling to free Askarov and quash his conviction.
In Kazakhstan, the authorities have continued to silence critics and to bring charges against them since the previous EU-Central Asia gathering in October 2016. In November 2016, two activists, Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan, were each sentenced to five years in prison after peacefully protesting land reform proposals.
The government has also carried out a large-scale crackdown to suppress independent trade union activity. In January, a court closed the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK) for failing to register in accordance with the restrictive trade union law. Amin Yeleusinov and Nurbek Kushakbaev, both trade union activists, were jailed in politically motivated trials after their involvement in peaceful protests in western Kazakhstan in January that the government declared illegal.
Since 2011, Kazakhstan authorities have repeatedly misused the overbroad and vague criminal charge of “inciting social, national, clan, racial, class, or religious discord” to prosecute numerous activists, human rights defenders, and journalists, and have closed down critical media outlets. As the European Commission is seeking the ratification of an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Kazakhstan, it should signal that it also expects the release of the detained land-rights and labor activists and meaningful legal reforms.
Human rights conditions in Tajikistan have rapidly deteriorated since 2015 as authorities deepened a widespread crackdown on freedom of expression and association, peaceful political opposition activity, the independent legal profession, and religious freedom. Well over 150 political activists, including lawyers and journalists, remain unjustly jailed. The authorities have demonstrated an increasingly aggressive stance toward international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The relatives of dissidents abroad who peacefully criticize the government are subjected to violent retaliation orchestrated by Tajik authorities.
Finally, Turkmenistan remains one of the most repressive and closed countries in the world, cut off from any independent human rights scrutiny. The rare foreign media representatives allowed into the country are under government surveillance. Activists and correspondents who provide information to foreign outlets face government retribution, and journalists face arrest or harassment.
More than 100 people, including dozens arrested in the early 2000s, have been forcibly disappeared in the prison system, cut off from all contact with family, lawyers, and loved ones, in some cases for nearly 15 years. Families have no official information about whether their loved ones are dead or alive. The EU should press Turkmenistan to end all enforced disappearances, including of political opponents, and inform the families of people being held about their whereabouts.
During their ministerial meeting in October 2016, EU and Central Asia ministers agreed to stress the importance of the protection of human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law. In June 2017, Foreign Affairs Conclusions on Central Asia adopted by EU Member States recognized the “serious challenges to human rights” in the region.
“The EU-Central Asia meeting in Samarkand is a test for Brussels’ ability to press for genuine and sustained human rights improvements,” Dam said. “To ensure there is no turning back, the EU should secure commitments to meaningful reforms from leaders in the region, starting with freeing anyone held on political grounds and ending harassment and pressure on independent activists and the media.”