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Central Asia: Renewed Engagement Offers Rights Opportunities

Western States Should Push for Concrete Reforms

More than 1000 people gathered in Almaty, Kazakhstan on International Women’s Day to protest against sexual abuse and domestic violence, March 8, 2023. © 2023 ANTON KARLINER/SIPA/Shutterstock

(Berlin, January 11, 2024) – Western governments are intensifying their relations with Central Asian countries against the backdrop of Russia’s war on Ukraine, offering an opportunity to achieve specific advances for human rights, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2024.

Central Asia’s authoritarian governments severely restrict freedoms of speech, assembly, and other fundamental freedoms, arbitrarily lock up government opponents and critics, and allow impunity for serious human rights violations, including torture and domestic violence. High-level diplomacy by the United States, the European Union, and EU member states should focus on ending such abuses in the region, especially since Central Asian leaders have shown interest in this rapprochement to diversify their foreign policy options.

“The West’s renewed interest in Central Asia coincides with human rights backtracking or stagnation across the region,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “As Western and Central Asian states bolster ties, it’s critically important for other countries to make human rights concerns a central part of the agenda and for Central Asian governments to follow through on promised reforms.”

In the 740-page World Report 2024, its 34th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in  more than  100 countries. In her introductory essay, Executive Director Tirana Hassan says that 2023 was a consequential year not only for human rights suppression and wartime atrocities but also for selective government outrage and transactional diplomacy that carried profound costs for the rights of those not in on the deal. But she says there were also signs of hope, showing the possibility of a different path, and calls on governments to consistently uphold their human rights obligations.   

In the two years since large-scale protests rocked the country, authorities in Kazakhstan have failed to ensure accountability for the disproportionate use of force against protesters or for the arbitrary arrests, imprisonment, ill-treatment, and torture of detainees in the aftermath.

Violent attacks on journalists increased in early 2023 and authorities have persisted in using overbroad criminal charges against government critics and activists. Among them are Marat Zhylanbaev, an outspoken government critic, sentenced to seven years in prison in late November and Zhanbolat Mamay, an activist, sentenced to a six year suspended sentence in April and banned from engaging in political activities.

New legislation strengthening protections for women fell short of criminalizing domestic violence as a stand-alone offense. Kazakhstan continues to impose heavy restrictions in law and practice on the right to peaceful assembly.

Human rights protection and civil liberties in Kyrgyzstan continued to decline in 2023, with systematic stifling of critical voices by the authorities. Civil society and media freedom came under severe threat, with criminal cases against leading media outlets and draft laws that would expand censorship and government control over nongovernmental organizations. A law was adopted banning “propaganda of non-traditional relations and same-sex partnerships.”

Scores of activists, journalists, human rights defenders, and politicians remain in pretrial detention on charges of fomenting “mass unrest” over disagreement with the transfer of a dam to Uzbekistan in a border agreement. An effective and independent investigation into the death in custody of the human rights defender Azimjon Askarov in 2020 is yet to be completed.

In Tajikistan’s repressive political and human rights climate, the government forced hundreds of nongovernmental organizations to close, detained scores of bloggers for their opinions on the government’s policies, and banned or limited the activities of religious organizations. Several political movements and parties seen as a threat to the government remain banned, including the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan and Group 24, with their members serving lengthy prison terms and some subjected to forced returns from abroad.

A crackdown on dissenting voices in the Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast following violent dispersal of peaceful protests by the Pamiri minority in 2022 was expanded into the prohibition of Pamiri languages and Ismaili religious practices. Tajik authorities also cooperated with the government of Turkey on the abduction and forced return of two Turkish citizens affiliated with the movement led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen.

Turkmenistan’s government remains closed and repressive, quashing religious and political expression that is not sanctioned by the authorities. The government tightly controls the media and access to information, prosecutes people who enable access to an uncensored internet, and allows no independent monitoring groups. The authorities also jail perceived opponents and government critics and harass activists abroad and their relatives in Turkmenistan. Dozens of people remain victims of enforced disappearance.

The government denies its citizens access to passport renewal services abroad, in contravention of international law, in an effort to force them to return to the country. Despite the ongoing economic crisis, Turkmenistan did not take any meaningful steps to address poverty in the country or to ensure food security for economically vulnerable groups. Consensual same-sex relations between men remain a criminal offense, and women’s rights are severely restricted.

Uzbekistan’s human rights record deteriorated in 2023, with a notable increase in harassment and prosecutions of bloggers and journalists, impunity for human rights abuses committed during protests in Karakalpakstan in 2022, and promised legislative reforms continuing to stall. The Karakalpak blogger and lawyer Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov was imprisoned for 16 years for allegedly instigating the unrest, while the authorities ignored his claims of torture.

The Justice Ministry continued to deny registration to independent human rights groups and authorities blocked several people, including a human rights monitor, from entering Uzbekistan. Consensual same-sex relations between men remain criminalized, and impunity for torture and ill-treatment persists. In April 2023, Uzbekistan adopted legislative amendments criminalizing domestic violence and increasing protections for women and girls, although domestic violence remains a pervasive and serious problem.


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