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Uzbek students take open-air entrance exams in Tashkent on September 2, 2020, amid the ongoing coronavirus disease pandemic. © 2020 Yuri KORSUNTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

(Berlin) – Government responses to the acute human rights challenges posed by Covid-19 across Central Asia negatively affected right to health, media freedoms, and access to justice, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.

Central Asian governments used the pandemic restrictions to target journalists, healthcare providers, and activists. The governments’ failure to take more robust action to curb the accompanying economic fallout increased the risk of poverty for hundreds of thousands of people across Central Asia.

“Given that the pandemic is far from over, it’s clear that Central Asian governments and leaders have a lot of work to do to meet the human rights challenges spilling into 2021,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Reaffirming their commitment to fundamental human rights is the best way to weather this extended crisis.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort. 

In Turkmenistan, government denial of Covid-19 left healthcare workers lacking essential personal protective equipment, and basic medications and equipment to treat patients. In Tajikistan, an already embattled media faced renewed pressure in the form of blocking websites, threats, and physical attacks against journalists reporting on Covid-19. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, law enforcement targeted people reporting on the pandemic with overbroad criminal charges of “disseminating false information.” In Uzbekistan, people who shared information on social media about Covid-19 also faced prosecution.

Reports of domestic violence increased across Central Asia and various lockdown measures imposed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in severe limitations on access to shelters or services for survivors.

In Uzbekistan, the government introduced new criminal charges for disseminating false information about the spread of Covid-19 and other infectious diseases, and significantly increased existing punishments for offenses such as violating medical quarantine or refusing to submit to medical examinations or treatment. Monitors of the cotton harvest found more child labor than in recent years, noting as the likely cause school closings because of the pandemic. Separately, a former diplomat, Kadyr Yusupov, who had been subjected to psychological torture while in detention, was in January sentenced to five years and six months in prison on treason charges.

The Turkmen government’s lack of a strategy to stave off the economic downturn accentuated by the pandemic greatly exacerbated the country’s food crisis. Severe shortages of affordable food and cash deepened social tensions, resulting in unprecedented spontaneous peaceful protests. The authorities coerced healthcare workers into silence about the spread of Covid-19 and did not provide them with protective equipment, endangering their lives and health.

The Tajik government did not acknowledge that the virus was in the country until the end of April and was late to introduce meaningful measures to slow its spread. Medical staff experienced shortages of protective equipment. In May, an Asia-Plus journalist, Abdullo Ghurbati, who had reported on Tajikistan’s Covid-19 outbreak, was beaten in two separate attacks. At Dushanbe Prison No.1 authorities did not introduce measures to limit the spread of the virus nor provide medical assistance to prisoners showing Covid-19 symptoms. The government in July denied that detention facilities had any cases of Covid-19, reporting pneumonia infections and deaths instead.

The death in custody of the wrongfully imprisoned human rights defender Azimjon Askarov in July, when Covid-19 cases in Kyrgyzstan were surging, is a deep stain on the country’s human rights record. The authorities misused Covid-19 lockdown measures to obstruct the work of journalists and lawyers. Following parliamentary elections in October, protests led to the annulment of the election results, the president’s resignation, and a prolonged political crisis that has put human rights at risk.

Kazakhstan authorities imposed arbitrary and disproportionate restrictions to stem Covid-19 and retaliated against journalists and others who criticized their response. The government’s limited financial and in-kind relief for people who had lost jobs during the pandemic, coupled with Kazakhstan’s weak social protection system, were ineffective in preventing poverty and economic hardship. A new law on peaceful assembly, touted by the authorities as a reform, still restricts the fundamental right to protest.

“The Covid-19 pandemic exposed deeply entrenched human rights problems across Central Asia and underscored the need for meaningful reforms and human rights improvements,” Williamson said. “As long as the pandemic remains a threat, and beyond, Central Asia authorities should ensure that human rights are protected.”

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