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Central Asia: International Rights Group Honors Activists

  • Francesca Mereu

Two human rights activists -- Sergei Duvanov of Kazakhstan and Topchubek TurgunAliyev of Kyrgyzstan -- yesterday were honored in New York by the International League for Human Rights as part of the United Nations commemoration of Defenders' Day. The presentation followed a roundtable discussion, organized by the Open Society Institute, on human rights in Central Asia.

New York, 10 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakh journalist Sergei Duvanov is best-known for his reports exposing corruption within the presidential regime of Nursultan Nazarbaev.

His efforts have earned him the admiration of the international community and the enmity of the Kazakh government. Just hours before he was due to fly to the United States last October to speak about press freedom and human rights in Kazakhstan, Duvanov was arrested on sexual assault charges and has been in jail ever since. His defenders say he is the victim of a government set-up aimed at muzzling one of Nazarbaev's most vocal critics.

His detention also prevented him from being in New York yesterday to receive an award from the International League for Human Rights on the occasion of the United Nations' commemoration of Defenders' Day. Duvanov's daughter, Denissa Duvanova, who accepted the award on his behalf, said she hoped continued pressure from the world community would eventually force Kazakh authorities to address the country's human rights abuses.

"When I first came to Washington a month ago, I had the hope that the Kazakh authorities would be frightened by international reactions. I hoped that they would back off and that they would not persist in these insidious charges [against my father], but they do not care what the West is talking about. They do not react in any positive manner. So my hope is that this [award] will be a clear message to the West about the nature of the Kazakh regime. [Kazakh authorities] should not be trusted in their statements. They can speak about democracy, reforms, and protection of human rights. [But] at the same time they are bringing about strong authoritarian regime. They are torturing their citizens and they are violating basic human rights. So my hope is that making this clear to the West will change [the Kazakh authorities'] attitude."

A second Central Asian activist was on hand to receive his award yesterday -- Topchubek TurgunAliyev of Kyrgyzstan, who founded the Kyrgyz Institute for Human Rights and Liberties and also helped draft the country's first constitution in 1993.

Turgunaliev, who has fought to promote democracy and pluralism in Kyrgyzstan, has been arrested a number of times and served a four-year prison term for his activities. He said all of the Central Asian regimes are similar in their authoritarian crackdown on human rights. "Central Asian countries all have a very similar development trend. First and foremost, this can been seen in the countries' variations on what is an authoritarian dictatorship. For example, in Kyrgyzstan we have an authoritarian dictatorship of a very insidious type. There are no rights in Kyrgyzstan -- natural, political, economic, or social -- which are not violated by authorities. There are no political leaders in Kyrgyzstan who haven't been persecuted or who haven't spent time behind bars."

TurgunAliyev cited as an example the case of Feliks Kulov, a leading Kyrgyz opposition figure who has spent the last two years in prison following a conviction for abuse of office while serving in two separate government posts. A Bishkek city court last October upheld a 10-year sentence for Kulov.

TurgunAliyev said a "closed corporate circle" of Kyrgyz authorities, including President Askar Akaev, use their grip on the country's judiciary system to hide widespread political persecution of opposition leaders, often turning simple civil cases into criminal cases.

The Kyrgyz government, he added, does not tolerate any kind of opposition -- even peaceful demonstrations like those initially seen earlier this year in the Asky district, when protesters called for the release of a jailed parliamentarian. TurgunAliyev said the protests eventually turned violent when police began shooting at the crowd of demonstrators. Six people were killed.

"Now in Kyrgyzstan, even the most basic and sacred human rights -- such as the right to live -- are being violated. The Akaev government, as everybody knows, this year on 17, 18, and 19 March in broad daylight shot at a peaceful group of citizens in the Aksy district. The independent committee which I headed to investigate the Asky tragedy has proof that the shooting was intentionally planned by a group of higher-level governmental officials guided by Akaev."

The presentation of the International League for Human Rights awards -- which also went to activists from Sierra Leone, Ireland, and China -- was preceded by a roundtable discussion, sponsored by the Open Society Institute, on rights issues in Central Asia. Among the participants was Robert Templer, the director of Asia programs at the International Crisis Group. Templer said law-enforcement reform is key to improving human rights in the region, and that corruption and general abuse of power are rife among the police force in Central Asia.

"The average policeman's day starts off with getting enough gas for his car. And then much of the day is devoted to ensuring that they can essentially earn their salaries by extorting bribes. You also have to pay to get into police academies and you have to pay for promotion. It costs $15,000 to get into the police academy in Tashkent. You then have to repay that money in some way."

The result, Templer said, is an entire region with a deep mistrust of public officials, and police officers in particular. Underlining his point, he noted a saying that has become popular throughout Central Asia: "If you don't come to the police, the police come to you."