(Brussels) – The European Union should press for transparency and accountability following multiple violent suppressions of protests in Central Asia during 2022 in the upcoming meeting with foreign ministers from the region, Human Rights Watch said today. The EU high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell is set to meet their counterparts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan on November 17 and 18, 2022 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
In separate episodes of violence during 2022, scores of largely peaceful protesters died as the result of excessive force by security forces in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Dozens of civilians also died during armed clashes in September at the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. There have been no genuine, independent investigations into human rights violations committed during these events.
“The EU rightly called for independent inquiries when civilians were killed, tortured, or detained by authorities in Central Asian countries, clamping down on dissent, but it should not silently stand-by when those calls are ignored,” said Philippe Dam, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “If the EU wants stable partners in Central Asia, it should demand that governments refrain from using excessive violence and that they ensure accountability for grave violations.”
In Kazakhstan, between January 4 and 6, hundreds of people died as the security forces responded to a wave of demonstrations. According to official figures, 238 people, including 19 security personnel, were killed during violent clashes. Human Rights Watch research showed that on at least four occasions, security forces used lethal force in Almaty against protesters who posed no immediate threat to the lives of others, causing the death of at least 10 people. During and following the protests, authorities arrested hundreds of people, torturing and ill-treating many of them, leading to at least six deaths in detention.
Despite separate criminal investigations opened by the General Prosecutor’s Office and prison monitoring by the Human Rights Ombudsperson, investigations opened into allegations of torture and ill-treatment have stalled and have fallen far short of international standards. There has been no independent and comprehensive investigation into patterns of and excessive use of force that led to civilian deaths.
In Tajikistan, authorities responded to protests in the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region in May with a violent crackdown and a special “anti-terrorism operation” that killed at least 40 people, including prominent local figures, and resulted in the arrest of at least 200 others throughout the summer months, including Pamiri diaspora activists. Those detained faced closed, unfair trials on serious charges, in many cases without access to lawyers, in violation of their due process rights. Several members of Commission 44, an independent group established in late 2021 to investigate the death of a local activists, were sentenced to extremely long sentences. Tajik authorities have rejected calls for investigations into violations in Gorno- Badakhshan.
In Uzbekistan, security forces used lethal and other excessive force, such as the inappropriate use of small arms and various types of grenades, to disperse mainly peaceful demonstrators in early July in the Karakalpakstan autonomous region. At least 21 people, including 4 security officers, died in the violence. On July 15, the Uzbek parliament created a 14-member commission to investigate the Karakalpakstan events. But there is no indication it is investigating the causes and circumstances of deaths and serious injuries or the security forces’ actions.
The resumption of clashes at the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in September should also raise EU concerns. At least 37 civilians, including 4 children, died during heavy clashes that began after Kyrgyz and Tajik border guards exchanged fire along a disputed border segment. Hundreds of homes, numerous markets and at least three schools were burned, damaged, and pillaged, and thousands of people were displaced. Weapons used to attack populated areas included Grad rockets and Bayraktar armed drones. Neither Kyrgyzstan nor Tajikistan have investigated their own responsibility for civilian casualties.
Throughout Central Asia, governments continue to prosecute, arrest, or harass political critics, media professionals and civil society activists.
In Kyrgyzstan, authorities increased control and censorship of mass media amid a recent crackdown on free speech and civil society. In October, the government blocked Azattyk Media, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz service, for two months using its “false information” law. The authorities arrested at least 22 activists and human rights defenders on charges of preparing a mass unrest after protests over the impending transfer of an important dam to Uzbekistan. In early November, the authorities proposed a new draft law on nongovernmental organizations that would increase government control over civil society through a cumbersome reregistration process and direct supervision of nongovernmental group activities.
In Uzbekistan, the detention of bloggers, including Miraziz Bazarov, Otobek Sattoriy, and Fazilhoja Arifhojaev, highlights the decline of freedom of expression, as journalists face harassment, prosecution, and assault and as defamation and insult, including insulting the president, remain criminal offenses.
In Kazakhstan, longstanding violations persist, including the authorities’ crackdown on government critics using overbroad “extremism” charges. Authorities restrict peaceful protests, the right to create independent trade unions, free speech, and freedom of religion. In Tajikistan, leaders and supporters of arbitrarily banned opposition groups remain behind bars for lengthy prison terms. A human rights lawyer, Buzurgmehr Yorov, remains in prison, serving a 10-year sentence, in retaliation for defending high-profile opposition leaders in court.
Turkmenistan continues to be one of the world’s most oppressive and closed countries. Dozens of people who were forcibly disappeared presumably remain in detention, some for as long as 20 years. The authorities refuse to engage constructively with United Nations experts on the fate and whereabouts of those who have disappeared in the country’s penitentiary system.
On October 27, EU Council President Charles Michel participated in the first regional high-level meeting of Central Asian Heads of State in Astana. In a final statement, the six leaders stressed the importance of dialogue on the rule of law, human rights, but fell short of committing to ending grave violations in the region.
“The multiplication of violent crackdowns in Central Asian countries and the refusals by governments to genuinely investigate grave violations and hold those responsible accountable should be a warning sign for the EU,” Dam said. “The EU can only contribute to greater stability in the region if it truly promotes adherence to rights and combats impunity for abuses.”