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Central Asia: Six Months After -- Human Rights Seen As Backtracking (Part 3)

  • Bruce Pannier

When the United States and its coalition partners in the international campaign against terrorism focused on Central Asia as a base for humanitarian and military missions into Afghanistan, it raised hope that pressure would be put on the region's governments to improve their poor records on human rights and democratic reform. But as RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports in the third of a four-part series on Central Asia, many analysts believe that, instead, the nations used the campaign against terrorism as a license to further crack down on dissent.

Prague, 12 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The human rights situation in Central Asia has always been poor and did not improve after the five regional states gained their independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Indeed, one of the lasting legacies of the Soviet period in Central Asia has been the use of internal security forces to keep the current regimes in power.

Acacia Shields is the Central Asian researcher for the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch. She describes the human rights situation in Central Asia prior to the events of last September.

"Prior to 11 September, we saw that the countries of Central Asia were, in fact, stymied in their own web of Soviet-style policies and methods. What we saw even before 11 September was a pattern throughout the region of strict government control and a tight grip on power on the part of leaders of these countries."

After the September attacks, when it became clear that the nations of Central Asia would be well placed to offer help to the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, international human rights observers expressed concern that the West would turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in exchange for access to regional military bases and other strategic cooperation.

In early October, with the military campaign in Afghanistan about to begin, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the new relationship with the nations of Central Asia did not mean the U.S. government would ignore human rights abuses in the region.

"I can't tell you that human rights is mentioned in every conversation with every person, whether they have anything to do with human rights or not. But I can tell you that we've been in close touch with the governments in Central Asia and elsewhere, and we've maintained a consistent stance vis-a-vis human rights, and we have not dropped it in any way from our agenda."

As recently as last month, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell reiterated that sentiment, saying the U.S. is well aware that problems with human rights still exist in Central Asia.

"We have a number of new friends, but we're not unmindful that a number of these new friends -- and I will say, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan -- do not have the kind of political systems yet that we think are appropriate to the 21st century. And we have no reservation about saying that to them."

There had been hope that the governments in the region would be forced by this increased diplomatic and media attention to begin to change their ways -- to show increased respect for human rights and move toward genuine democratic reform.

Instead, many observers believe the human rights situation in Central Asia is worse now than before September. Saule Mukhametrakhimova is a project coordinator at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Mukhametrakhimova believes that many of the Central Asian governments saw the international war against terrorism as a license, of sorts.

"As for the situation after 11 September, I would say, unfortunately, it has worsened. And it has to do with the fact that after 11 September, the United States tried to cooperate with the leaders of Central Asia for its own purposes in the war against terrorism. In this cooperation of the United States with the Central Asian leaders, the presidents of the Central Asian countries felt that now they've got some kind of approval for what they are doing in exchange for their cooperation."

Judith Arenas, a spokesperson for the London-based organization Amnesty International, agrees. She said the international campaign against terrorism gave some of the governments in the region a renewed reason to crack down harder on groups they considered domestic security threats, both acknowledged extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), as well as more mainstream Islamic opposition parties.

"There had always been concern about what might have been happening by Islamic opposition parties. In Uzbekistan, the IMU had always been seen as a very big threat by [Uzbek] President [Islam] Karimov. And, in fact, there had been a lot of steps taken previous to 11 September to actually clamp down on the IMU, but not [only] clamp down within Uzbekistan but to put pressure on the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to actually clamp down on any suspect Islamic organizations within those countries. So what 11 September provided was, really, people with an excuse to get away with gross human rights violations."

Like all of the analysts RFE/RL spoke with, Vitalii Ponomorov of the Moscow-based Central Asian Human Rights Center says he believes Kyrgyzstan has witnessed the greatest deterioration in basic human rights. He says Bishkek appears to be paying even less attention today to outside criticism of its human rights record.

"Here we have the example of Kyrgyzstan, where the situation with human rights has greatly worsened. Even a year ago, the Kyrgyz government reacted more to social criticism or criticism from outside the country."

Kyrgyzstan had once been considered the region's best hope for a democratic government, one which could serve as a model to others in the region. But Shields of Human Rights Watch says that not only have the Kyrgyz media and the political opposition noticed more pressure since September, another disturbing development has also occurred.

"The government of Kyrgyzstan has, in fact, exploited the tragedy of 11 September in order to justify a much harsher crackdown than we've seen in past years on the media, on political opposition. And we've seen for the first time in quite a while some very credible allegations of the use of torture against prominent political opposition members."

There have been bright spots in the human rights situation in the region, however, most notably in Uzbekistan. Tashkent registered its first independent human rights organization -- the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan -- earlier this month. In addition, four policemen in Uzbekistan were recently convicted of beating a suspect to death during an interrogation.

Analysts interviewed by RFE/RL agreed that the U.S. has not been putting sufficient pressure on its Central Asian coalition partners to implement reforms. Their opinions were best summed up by Shields of Human Rights Watch when she said, "The international community has, in fact, rewarded its allies in the counter-terrorism operation despite their continued poor record on human rights."