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Central Asia: A Bad Rights Reputation That's Getting Worse

  • Bruce Pannier

Tajik businessman and politician Zayd Saidov was convicted on charges that emerged shortly after he declared his intention to run for president -- accusations he has vehemently denied.

Tajik businessman and politician Zayd Saidov was convicted on charges that emerged shortly after he declared his intention to run for president -- accusations he has vehemently denied.

Anyone familiar with the work of international rights organizations Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, or Reporters Without Borders and the like is probably also familiar with the places Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and to a lesser extent Kyrgyzstan.

The rights records, certainly of the first four, have been criticized from their early days of independence. But their situations have actually grown noticeably worse, and even Kyrgyzstan has recently been the subject of a number of appeals and reports from rights groups.

To look at what is going on and why it is happening, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel to review these recent negative trends and suggest possible remedies.

And I'll mention here that Turkmen authorities just this month forced one of Azatlyk's journalists in Turkmenistan to cease his work for RFE/RL (read this, this, this, and this).

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel. Participating were Johann Bihr, head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk; Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch (and a Qishloq resident); and RFE/RL intern Bradley Jardine, a graduate student at Glasgow University who was back for his second straight appearance (his professor told us to work him hard). I, of course, simply had to say my piece as well, considering how long I've been writing about this topic.

The deterioration of rights in Central Asia runs across the spectrum: civil rights, media freedom, labor rights, religious freedom, respect for minorities, ability to participate in the political process, and on and on.

Let's start with the great information highway and Central Asian governments' efforts to control or cut off the Internet.

Bihr brought up the recent case of a Tajik commander of the elite Interior Ministry troops (OMON) who apparently defected to the Islamic State (IS) militant group and then released a threatening video. Bihr recalled that Tajik authorities initiated a "nearly two-week-long Internet blockade in Tajikistan, which targeted all major social networks including YouTube, Odnoklassniki, Vkontakte, and others."

Bihr noted that it's not only Tajikistan. "This trend has been on the rise across Central Asia -- Internet censorship, I mean -- and it has been more and more obvious, nearly all the Central Asian states have adopted laws allowing the authorities to filter Internet websites without any court decision," Bihr said, then added, "It's not the case yet in Kyrgyzstan, but a bill has been submitted last month to the parliament in this direction."

Bihr singled out Kazakhstan as having one of the more "draconian" attitudes, pointing out that in 2014 a law was passed "allowing the authorities to cut off any communication network at will, without any court order."

He said it had become "the habit in Central Asia to kill the messenger rather than tackle the problem."

Swerdlow spoke about the "decline in the democratic credentials" in Tajikistan, saying "we've seen the Islamic Revival [aka Renaissance] Party for the first time in Tajikistan's modern history not get a seat in parliament, this is a real decline in the democratic credentials of modern Tajikistan."

Swerdlow mentioned there had been more political victims recently in Tajikistan, "for example Zayd Saidov, a businessman from Tajikistan who announced an interest in running for president and formed a new party prior to the presidential election in 2013. He was put away [in prison] for actually 26 years." Swerdlow drew special attention to the fact this was an amazingly long prison sentence by Tajik standards.

In Tajikistan, people convicted of being leaders in banned extremist groups plotting the overthrow of the government rarely receive more than 20 years in prison. Saidov was convicted of sexual relations with a minor, polygamy, fraud, and corruption, charges that emerged shortly after he declared his intention to run for president and accusations he has vehemently denied.

Swerdlow also spoke about recent religious laws passed in Tajikistan. "We've seen there some of the world's most restrictive laws on religion; for example, the parental responsibility law, which prevents minors, anyone under the age of 18, from attending a mosque, a church, a synagogue even with the accompaniment of a parent," he said.

But Swerdlow noted that in Central Asia, Uzbekistan really started the practice of adopting legislation meant to keep the faithful in line. Among the practices now banned in Uzbekistan are "worshipping in one's home or worshipping in a small group of people, discussing religion in an unsanctioned place, wearing a beard, wearing a hijab, carrying a Bible which is not registered."

Jardine examined the decline of labor rights, starting with the perennial "Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where you have forced labor, picking in the cotton fields, where they take children 15 to 17 out of schools basically for two months out of the year for very minimal pay to fulfill government quotas." Over the years, people from many walks of life have been forced into the cotton fields of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, but in Uzbekistan's case public attention on the use of children to pick cotton has led the authorities to resort to students and adults.

Jardine pointed out that after the oil-worker strikes in Kazakhstan in 2011 that ended with 17 people being killed by the police, authorities in that country moved to tighten controls over the labor unions and workers. "Kazakhstan has further restrictions for assembly labor unions; there are criminal sanctions against workers who continue strikes that are declared illegal by the courts" and, Jardine added, "On top of that Kazakhstan also harasses a lot of labor activists, even imprisons many of them."

Why is all this happening in just the last several years?

Several reasons were suggested, but two seemed to carry the most weight. The first was the change in emphasis on the part of Western countries involved in the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. Swerdlow said the new relationship with the Central Asian states "put more emphasis on the Northern Distribution Network," the supply route through Central Asia to Afghanistan. "They [Western governments] notably lessened the pressure on these [Central Asian] governments and I think that really did actually enable many of them to deepen abuses," he said.

The other reason was Russia -- the Kremlin's involvement in Ukraine -- which has alarmed leaders in former Soviet republics, and President Vladimir Putin's push for closer integration of those former Soviet republics through the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

The panelists noted countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have been mulling the adoption of, as Swerdlow said, the "Russian-style, copy-and-paste" laws on foreign funded organizations being forced to register as "foreign agents" and also a law on dissemination of information about same-sex relations. Clearly the Kremlin will not complain about such legislation and passage, even consideration, of such odious laws pays symbolic allegiance to Russia.

Can the damage be stemmed?

Difficult to be sure and Bihr noted, "Change can only happen in the inside" and said that "there are still seeds of hope in these activists and human rights defenders and independent journalists that keep fighting in more and more adverse circumstances for the respect of their rights and the rights of their fellow citizens."

Swerdlow said this week's visit of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Central Asia and the upcoming annual EU-Central Asia dialogue were examples of events that could be used to urge Central Asia's governments to end some of these undemocratic and abusive policies. But he said these officials need to "make the call for releases of specific political prisoners, lay out the laws that are specifically discriminatory, don't speak in abstract terms about worsening levels of freedom of expression but really be as specific as you can."

The discussion went much deeper into these topics and touched on other matters. You can listen to the full recording here:

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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