PRAGUE, 19 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In its annual survey of human rights records around the world, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) this year highlights Uzbekistan for what it called a "disastrous" human rights record.
The report, published on 18 January, ranks Uzbekistan as one of the greatest abusers of human rights in 2005 due mainly to its bloody crackdown on 13 May on demonstrators in the city of Andijon.
HRW says many countries -- Uzbekistan included -- used the "war on terror" to attack their political opponents, branding them as "Islamic terrorists."
HRW also has critical words for three of the other four Central Asian states. Turkmenistan is cited as a country where "severe repression continued" in 2005, while Tajikistan and Kazakhstan are judged to have flouted human rights. Other former Soviet republics listed alongside Tajikistan and Kazakhstan include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine. A Bright Spot
Kyrgyzstan, though, is praised as a bright spot, thanks to the new, democratic government's willingness to withstand intense pressure from Uzbekistan to return refugees who fled across the border after the violence in Andijon. Kyrgyzstan rescued -- in HRW's words -- all but four of the 443 refugees from the Andijon violence. They were subsequently given temporary refuge by Romania.
The European Union, which imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan in the aftermath of the Andijon violence, is given a mixed assessment.
Kenneth Roth, HRW's executive director, welcomes Europe's decision to suspend its partnership and cooperation agreement with Uzbekistan after the slaughter in Andijon as "a very important step," but added that this was "also the first time this had ever been done on human rights grounds, which is an exception that, in a sense, proves the rule of general EU inaction when it comes to using these kinds of agreements and their traditional human rights clause as a way of promoting human rights."
HRW is critical of the United States for failing to take a firm stance on the deaths in Andijon. "In the case of Uzbekistan, where there was a horrendous massacre in May, hundreds of people slaughtered in Andijon, the United States sent mixed messages," Roth said. "The State Department did protest the massacre. It did help several hundred refugees who had escaped to Kyrgyzstan move on to freedom in Europe. But even the State Department would not list Uzbekistan as a country of particular concern under the Religious Freedom Act."
HRW also criticized Washington for insisting on continuing its military cooperation with the Uzbek government even after the events in Andijon and for maintaining an airbase in the south of the country until, eventually, it was forced out by Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
"The [U.S.] Defense Department undercut these [Andijon] protests, even the protests issued by the State Department, by refusing to withdraw from the Karshi-Khanabad military base until President Karimov kicked the United States out," says Roth. "And even after that, the Defense Department insisted on paying $23 million in back rent, as if the sanctity of a lease or the sanctity of a contract was more important than the sanctity of life."
No Central Asian government has yet reacted to the report.
The region's independent human rights activists have supported the assessments contained in the HRW report.
Yevgeny Zhovtis, head of Kazakhstan's International Bureau for Human Rights, endorses HRW's praise for Kyrgyzstan's democratic progress since the ouster of President Askar Akaev last March. But, Zhovtis says, the country remains vulnerable. "Kyrgyzstan's democratic achievements may be lost quickly if no order is established, if the authorities fail to fight with criminal groups and to solve very complex socio-economic problems," Zhovtis warns. Uzbekistan En Route For A Turkmen-Style Dictatorship?
In countries other than Kyrgyzstan, the situation with human rights and civil liberties is "worrisome," Zhovtis says. "Recent trends in Uzbekistan, including the Andijon events in 2005, reflect a deeper process that started in the early 1990s, such as a cruel crackdown on dissent, on the political opposition and free media. External factors, such as Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan, undoubtedly also played a role."
Zhovtis believes "Uzbekistan is rapidly moving toward a Turkmen-type of dictatorship, not necessarily in terms of a personality cult, but in terms of control and of the violation of political and civil rights."
Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, echoes HRW's assessment of Turkmenistan as being "among the world's most repressive and dictatorial regimes. During 2005, in terms of human rights, constitutional rights of citizens continued to be violated as in previous years," she says. "Freedom of speech and movement was also violated, as too was, as in the past, the right to education."
Nurmuhammet Hanamov, the exiled leader of the Turkmen opposition Respublika party, agrees. "It's true that Turkmenistan is one of the world's most closed and most repressive countries," he says. "Why? Because someone willing to travel faces a lot of obstacles. Passports are required to travel abroad, and most people cannot get them. But even movement within the country is difficult. To travel from one town to another, one has to go through cordons of soldiers."
Observers say international rights groups like HRW have been cautious in taking a firm, critical stance on Tajikistan since the country is still going through a process of reconciliation following a long civil war, which lasted from 1992 to 1997.
But human rights activists point out that the Tajik authorities continue to tighten their grip on power. Several opposition members and journalists were jailed in 2005 on what HRW said were spurious charges. The crackdown strengthened after the March revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the violence in Andijon.
(Guvanch Geraev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report).
A dedicated webpage bringing together all of RFE/RL's coverage of the events in Andijon, Uzbekistan, in May 2005 and their continuing repercussions.
An annotated timeline
of the Andijon events and their repercussions.