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Central Asia Report: January 12, 2006

12 January 2006, Volume 6, Number 1

WEEK AT A GLANCE (30 December-8 January). Direct flights between Kabul and Almaty began, with the weekly connection aimed at boosting trade and commerce between Afghanistan and Kazakhstan. The Kazakh parliament adopted a new national anthem with added lyrics by President Nursultan Nazarbaev; the law now stipulates that listeners must stand during public performances of the anthem. An Azerbaijani-registered tanker spilled more than a ton of oil into the Caspian Sea at the Kazakh port of Aqtau. And Mels Eleusizov, former presidential candidate and chairman of the Tabighat nongovernmental environmental group, announced that he plans to form an eponymous political party to pursue environmental concerns.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev issued a decree with measures to prepare for a national referendum on the country's future form of government. He also extended Kyrgyzstan's moratorium on capital punishment, while the government announced plans for legislation to ban the death penalty. Defense Minister Ismail Isakov said that the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan "continues to play an important role from the point of view of security in the Central Asian region," adding that the duration of the U.S. presence will depend on the course of operations in Afghanistan. Isakov termed the Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan "a key and long-term element of the regional security system." In Russia, Kyrgyz and Russian security forces arrested Vladimir Nosov, former head of the Kyrgyz Penal Department, and Yurii Lysogorov, former chief of the National Agency for Information Resources and Technology. The two face corruption charges in Kyrgyzstan.

A fire at an orphanage in Tajikistan killed at least 13 children, with some eyewitnesses charging that firefighters were slow to respond. President Imomali Rakhmonov convened an emergency cabinet meeting and formed a special state commission to investigate the blaze. The head of state-owned natural-gas company Tojikgaz announced that Uzbekistan has raised the price of gas for Tajikistan from $42 to $55 per 1,000 cubic meters. Tajikistan imports 95 percent of its natural gas from Uzbekistan.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov confirmed that he reached a verbal agreement with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko that will see Turkmenistan supply Ukraine with 40 billion cubic meters of natural gas in 2006 at a price of $50 per 1,000 cubic meters.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov issued a decree appointing Bahodir Matlyubov interior minister. Matlyubov, who previously held senior positions in the Interior Ministry and State Customs Committee, replaces Zokir Almatov, who resigned for health reasons in December.

RFE/RL INTERVIEWS ANALYST ON PRISON POPULATIONS. On 6 January, the International Center for Prison Studies, a London-based NGO, released a report on the world's prison population. According to the center, some 9 million people are imprisoned worldwide, with Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine having the largest per capita prison populations in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

Mohammad Tahir, a correspondent with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, spoke with center research associate Anton Sheleupanov about the difficulty of getting information about prison conditions in Central Asia.

RFE/RL: In your last report on the world prison population, you put Turkmenistan near the top of the list. What do you think is the reason it has been placed at the top?

Anton Sheleupanov: It is entirely to do with the sentencing policy of each country. However, some countries make available statistics on their sentencing policies. Turkmenistan -- the prison system there is quite a closed one so we know very little about it. They don't make those figures available. They only make an absolute figure available and that is the only official figure we can go on. And from that, knowing the population of the country, we can work out the prison population rate -- placing it in the top 10.

RFE/RL: So this is the official figure that was given to you?

Sheleupanov: That's right, yes.

RFE/RL: Did you or your colleagues manage to visit Turkmenistan?

Sheleupanov: The researcher who compiled the report has worked in prisons in many countries. I don't know whether he's been to Turkmenistan or not. I think that given the nature of the political situation there, the sort of things that you would be able to have access to in the prison system might not necessarily be a full reflection of what the entire picture looks like.

RFE/RL: What do you think is the true picture in the country? It could be worse or better than this report indicates?

Sheleupanov: The way we compile these figures is...while we do use official figures, we wouldn't publish a figure unless we were reasonably certain that it was a reliable figure. So, I don't know whether it is 100 percent accurate, but it is as accurate as anybody is going to get and it is probably the most accurate figure that is available in the world at the moment.

RFE/RL: Do you know anything about the conditions in Turkmen jails?

Sheleupanov: We don't monitor conditions in prisons. We are an organization which (a) looks at the trends of imprisonment and (b) at the management in prisons. Turkmenistan is a country which, while there is some international cooperation going on, mostly within the Central Asian arena, doesn't work very closely with many international organizations. So it would be very difficult.

RFE/RL: If you compare the cooperation of all the Central Asia countries with international organizations such as yours, what would your comments be about Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan?

Sheleupanov: In each country, the picture is different. I'd say Kyrgyzstan has been very good at the prison-health aspect. They have worked very hard to address the issues of tuberculosis and HIV in prisons. They are one of the few countries in the world -- admirably -- to introduce legislation to allow for measures which reduce the harm caused by drugs in prisons. Not very many countries are willing to do that, but Kyrgyzstan has been a country which has realized how serious the problem is.

Kazakhstan -- again, there have been a lot of very interesting pieces of work going on there and I think the general trend in the country is toward reform, toward extensive prison reform. They have -- without any international pressure from organizations such as the Council of Europe because they don't belong to it -- of their own accord transferred their prison system from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry, which is a very important step toward demilitarization.

Uzbekistan -- the political situation there is difficult, but there have been some efforts on the part of the country to work with some medical organizations, including the World Health Organization, to address the problems of tuberculosis and HIV in prisons.

RFE/RL: Again, to come back to Turkmenistan, what was the main reason for people being sentenced to Turkmen jails?

Sheleupanov: As I said earlier, we don't know. They don't make available their sentencing data.

RFE/RL: Recently we have been witnessing lots of problems in Kyrgyzstan jails. We understand three deputies have been slain in different cases. Do you not think that represents a worsening situation?

Sheleupanov: I think that one shouldn't necessarily make a direct link between issues of prison management and control and the wider political situation in the country. The recent troubles in Kyrgyz jails are indicative of the fact that there are managerial issues there that need to be addressed. But, in a way, it is irrelevant whether it is a member of parliament or whether it is a visitor or whether it is a member of staff or whether it is a prisoner that dies in a situation such as this. Clearly, something has gone wrong in terms of management and it is a human life -- it doesn't matter who it is. And the management issues in the prison need to be addressed first and foremost, not the political issues.

RFE/RL: What kind of images are you getting from Uzbek prisons after the Andijon events?

Sheleupanov: Once again, Uzbekistan is another country whose prison system is quite closed. So it is difficult to comment accurately. We look at data which is concrete and definite and if we don't have concrete data it is very difficult to comment. I would say, though, that a very important aspect of prison reform is making prison systems more open, allowing them to engage more with civil society, and introducing proper systems for accountability both within the system and publicly and internationally. That is very significant. (Originally published on 9 January.)

MEDIA MONITOR TALKS TO RFE/RL ABOUT PRESS FREEDOM. The Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders on 4 January released its annual global survey of press freedom, in which it reported that 63 journalists were killed in 2005 and some 1,300 were physically attacked. The same day, RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Mohammad Tahir spoke with Anabelle Arki, head of the organization's post-Soviet section, about press-freedom issues in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

RFE/RL: During 2005, some 63 journalists were killed and 1,000 were attacked. What was the most dangerous zone for journalists in 2005?

Annabelle Arki: The most dangerous zone in the world for journalists that year was probably without any doubt Iraq, because of the war. Many, many journalists were killed there.

RFE/RL: Were there any incidents reported from Turkmenistan?

Arki: We know that this year a Russian journalist from the state press agency RIA-Novosti -- his name is Viktor Panov -- and he has been accused of spying by the Turkmen authorities. He has been thrown out of the country by the authorities and he went back to Russia. It was in March 2005. There were several cases, but this is the only one that we investigated.

There is very little information about what is happening in Turkmenistan because the country is quite closed. The regime of President Niyazov is very strong for the independent press and human-rights defenders. The regime of the president controls entirely the country. All the media are controlled by the state and it is quite impossible for foreign journalists to get into Turkmenistan. They cannot get any visas. Their requests are rejected by the authorities and we have some journalists who told us they think there is a kind of black list for foreign journalists.

RFE/RL: In your previous reports Turkmenistan is always shown as one of the most repressive countries in the world. But what was the rank of this country in terms of media censorship for 2005?

Arki: For that year, there were no cases of censorship in Turkmenistan, as far as we were concerned. We know that Russian radio, Radio Mayak, had troubles last year. They had troubles broadcasting their programs in Turkmenistan because they have a station in Turkmenistan. They had technical problems to broadcast and the information director of the station said the Turkmen authorities wanted to sanction Radio Mayak. Radio Mayak was investigating discrimination against the Russian minority in the country, which is a problem there. So, they have been cut off from broadcasting -- it was in July last year.

RFE/RL: There is no indication that the situation regarding press freedom in Turkmenistan will get better in the coming year?

Arki: No, we don't think the situation will be better this year. Unfortunately the situation is very, very controlled. Everything is controlled by the president, who has been elected for life.

RFE/RL: In your report it shows that press freedom in Uzbekistan is also deteriorating. What was the situation in that country in 2005?

Arki: The situation in Uzbekistan is a little bit better than in Turkmenistan, but since the Andijon uprising in May 2005, the situation has been getting worse and worse for journalists working there and for freedom of the press and of expression in general. It was impossible for journalists to cover the events in Andijon. People got killed after those events, as you know, and the authorities officially recognize only 186 murdered people and actually it seems that it is probably from 500 to 1,000 people killed.

So, the authorities are very afraid about a [possible] revolution in Uzbekistan and particularly an Islamist one. And that is why they try to control the media. The situation is getting worse and worse for journalists.

During the year, after those terrible events, the British channel BBC got closed by the authorities. The Internews office also was closed in Uzbekistan in September of this year. And not so long ago, the Radio Free Europe local bureau lost its accreditation to work officially in the country. So, the will of the current president, Islam Karimov, to control the media is quite obvious. They don't want any voice from outside to tell the truth or to criticize the authorities. (Originally published on 9 January.)

CENTRAL ASIAN PILGRIMS DEPART FOR HAJJ AMID STATE CONTROL, FINANCIAL BURDENS. The hajj, a pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, is one of the five pillars of Islam. Every Muslim is supposed to go on the hajj at least once in a lifetime, if he or she is financially and physically able to do so. The pilgrimage is conducted during Zul-Hijjah, the last month of the lunar calendar used by Muslims. This year, the hajj officially began on 8 January.

Saudi Arabia, where Mecca and Medina are located, expects to receive some 2.5 million pilgrims from more than 160 countries. Muslims from Central Asia are among them, ready to perform one of the main rituals of their faith. But many found themselves encountering interference from the state on the eve of the midnight deadline set by the Saudi authorities to arrive in the country.

As in many Muslim countries these days, the airport in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, is full of pilgrims flying to Saudi Arabia for the annual hajj.

A flight-control officer at the Tashkent airport described the scene: "Many have already left [for the hajj]. We started flights on 24 December, and they're still continuing. Today, for example, we have another flight for our pilgrims, God willing."

In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, hajjis arrange their trips either through private firms or state agencies.

In Turkmenistan, where the lives of citizens are strictly controlled by the state, the final say on the issue of the hajj belongs to President Saparmurat Niyazov. He personally approves the list of pilgrims from Turkmenistan, which usually includes some 200 people, the fewest among the five countries of the region.

Uzbekistan's Muslims have to apply for the hajj through a state agency that monitors procedures related to the pilgrimage. They travel on the state airline.

Uzbek authorities say pilgrims benefit from state control over the hajj. "I am not bragging about it, you know, but it is true that Uzbekistan has the best conditions in terms of organizing the hajj and paying attention to pilgrims' needs among all the Central Asian countries," Shukhrat Ismailov of Uzbekistan's State Committee on Religious Affairs told RFE/RL.

"This year, 5,000 people are going on the hajj. They are accompanied by 100 heads of groups, 30 doctors, and some 40 members of the working group," Ismailov added. "There are even cooks, because Uzbeks are picky in terms of food and drink lots of tea. We took all these into account while organizing the hajj."

Ismailov said Uzbekistan's cabinet of ministers issues a special decree on the hajj every year and gives instructions to certain government bodies on organizing it, including the Interior Ministry and the Transportation Ministry.

The Uzbek government strictly controls citizens' religious activities. Any Muslims caught practicing their faith outside of state-controlled mosques risk persecution. Officers from the Uzbek security services accompany pilgrims on the hajj.

"Escort includes police and officers of the national security service. They also go [to Mecca], watch the activities of pilgrims, and provide their security," the flight-control officer at the Tashkent airport explained.

The Saudi ministry in charge of the hajj issues quotas for the number of pilgrims allowed from each Muslim country. Usually it is 1,000 pilgrims for every 1 million people.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan use their quotas fully. But Uzbekistan, with a population of 26 million, is sending only 5,000 pilgrims to the hajj this year. Ismailov did not explain the reasons for not filling the quota, but said this year's number is higher than last, when 4,000 pilgrims from Uzbekistan were given permission to perform the hajj.

High prices are likely to prevent many Uzbeks from undertaking the pilgrimage, in any event. This year, each pilgrim had to pay more than $2,500. Others were not able to pass state-organized exams that test the faithful on their knowledge of Islam, the Koran, hadith, and the hajj itself.

Muhammadjon, from Uzbekistan's eastern Ferghana Valley, paid for his mother's pilgrimage and was involved in organizing it. He said many people willing to go to Mecca are refused by the authorities. "The problem they encountered was that all groups were full, places were not available," he said. "This was the major problem."

In Kyrgyzstan, pilgrims face a similar problem. This year, 4,500 Kyrgyz Muslims are expected to travel to the hajj. But the number of those who wanted to go was much higher. Reportedly, more than 7,000 applied for the hajj.

Some 2,500 of them have still not had their passports returned, however, nor have they received their money back. Last week, a group of Muslims protested outside the Islamic center in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh.

One of them, Sabirjon Iminov, told RFE/RL: "We asked [the authorities], 'Why didn't you stop accepting [applications] when they reached 4,500? Why do you have our money?' They said they didn't know anything. Let us have our money back! We don't know whether we were issued a visa. We don't have our passports."

The Kyrgyz problems have occurred despite a decree aimed at improving the hajj process signed by Prime Minister Feliks Kulov on 19 December.

In 2004, Tajik authorities banned private firms and travel agencies from handling the hajj process. They transferred the right to deal with potential pilgrims to the government's Committee for Religious Affairs. Bus tours to Saudi Arabia were also banned, leaving the state air company as the only carrier of pilgrims.

This year, Tajikistan's 6,000 pilgrims had to pay some $2,300 for the hajj -- $500 more than last year. Authorities say the hike was due to a rise in fuel prices. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova, with contributions from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. Originally published on 4 January.)