(Berlin) – Changes in the names and faces of political leaders in Central Asia have brought promises for reforms, but core human rights concerns, such as detention of critics and limits to free speech, remain urgent in all five countries, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2020. The region’s new leaders should turn commitments to care about their citizens’ rights into reality.
The resignation in March of Nursultan Nazarbayev and the appointment of Kassym-Jomart Tokaev as Kazakhstan’s president, was the third top leadership change in the region in three years.
“Despite a rhetoric of change, Kazakhstan’s political transition looks like a human rights stagnation,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Central Asian leaders’ resolve to embrace human rights should be measured by their delivery of an end to political detention and allowing free speech.”
In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future.
In Kazakhstan, President Tokaev’s promises to allow peaceful protests and to strengthen the defense of human rights, remain largely unheeded. Thousands of protesters have been arrested since Tokaev’s election and prominent critics – including land rights activist Max Bokaev and Erlan Baltabay, a trade unionist – remain unjustly behind bars.
In Uzbekistan, where president Shavkat Mirziyoyev took power in 2016, the closure of the infamous Jaslyk prison and the lifting of the access ban on several websites were important moves. Yet thousands of people remain in prison on politically motivated charges, and parliamentary elections held in December showed a lack of genuine pluralism.
In Kyrgyzstan, where Sooronbay Jeenbekov has been president since 2017, a court once again ignored a United Nations Human Rights Committee call for the release of Azimjon Askarov, a human rights defender unfairly sentenced to life in prison in 2010.
The situation in the other two countries in the region worsened in 2019. In Tajikistan, hundreds of opposition politicians, lawyers, and journalists remain imprisoned on lengthy prison terms. Among them, Buzurgmher Yorov, a lawyer detained since September 2015 in retaliation for his efforts to defend opposition figures, is serving a 28-year sentence. In Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most repressive countries, over 100 people remain forcibly disappeared and the authorities responded to the dire economic crisis with stronger government control over people.
In May, the European Union presented a new Central Asia strategy that seeks a greater focus on rights. It says that countries in the region should uphold international standards, allow rights defenders, journalists, and independent trade unionists to operate freely and safely, and eradicate torture. The new strategy sets itself apart from an earlier version adopted in 2007. The EU should use its full leverage to press for the release of activists such as Askarov in Kyrgyzstan and Bokaev in Kazakhstan, and stress that it will not be business as usual if there is no end to the worst abuses in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
“In a region where repressive leaders were in power for decades, transitions in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are opportunities for improvements,” Williamson said. “The countries’ international partners should make it clear that failing to use these opportunities to end rights abuses will lead to serious political consequences.”