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Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the European Union should establish human-rights benchmarks for Central Asian governments and make their fulfillment a core objective of the bloc's Central Asia Strategy.

"Setting concrete benchmarks will give the strategy a clear direction," says Holly Cartner, HRW's Europe and Central Asia director. "Central Asia is home to some of the most repressive states of the former Soviet Union, and the EU should seize the opportunity to achieve improvements."

The strategy envisages the promotion of human rights and the rule of law, while simultaneously deepening EU engagement in energy and security issues. However, it avoids setting benchmarks for progress.

Top EU officials are scheduled to meet with Central Asian foreign ministers in Ashgabat on April 9-10 to discuss the strategy, adopted in June 2007.

In its briefing paper, HRW also urges the EU to consult regularly with civil society groups in the region and provide timely updates on the strategy's implementation.

HRW welcomed some human-rights improvements in the region, such as the release from prison of six wrongfully detained human-rights defenders in Uzbekistan and the release of several political prisoners in Turkmenistan. But Cartner noted they "should not eclipse the overall abysmal state of human rights in individual Central Asian countries and in the region as a whole."

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