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Roundtable: Activists Discuss Human Rights In Central Asia

An antigovernment protest in Kyrgyzstan in October (RFE/RL) On 10 December, RFE/RL's Tajik Service hosted a roundtable discussion on human rights in Central Asia. Roundtable participants included Tursunbek Akun, chairman of the Kyrgyz Presidential Human Rights Commission; Yevgenii Zhovitis, a leading human rights activist in Kazakhstan; Surat Ikromov, a leading human rights activist in Uzbekistan; and Shokirjon Hakimov, a Tajik lawyer and parliamentarian from the Social-Democratic Party. The roundtable was moderated by RFE/RL Tajik Service Deputy Director Normohamad Kholov.

RFE/RL: The human rights situation in Central Asian countries is characterized by instability. Every year, these issues come up in reports by international human rights organizations. These reports particularly emphasize freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and limitations on the activity of opposition political parties. There are still reports of human trafficking.

To discuss these and other issues, we have in our studio, via telephone, several human rights activists from Almaty, Bishkek, Dushanbe, and Tashkent. I will now introduce the participants in today’s discussion: Surat Ikromov, a human rights activist in Uzbekistan; Yevgenii Zhovitis, a human rights activist in Kazakhstan; Shokirjon Hakimov, a lawyer in Tajikistan; and Tursunbek Akun, a human rights activist in Kyrgyzstan.

Freedom of speech and freedom of press are some of the basic principles in a democratic society. Mr. Hakimov, let’s start with Tajikistan. There is growing popularity of so-called “independent newspapers” in your country. However, according to reports by Human Rights Watch, the persecution of independent newspapers and opposition journalists remains a problem. There has been, however, a decline in the number of physical attacks compared with last year. Should we interpret this as an improvement in conditions? Or is this simply a more careful approach to limiting freedom of speech in Tajikistan?

Tajik newspapers (RFE/RL)

Hakimov: Although we have some 200 media organizations – newspapers, magazines, and electronic media – there is still little real freedom. Despite the fact that there are about 10 independent sources of information, there are still no editorials. There is no mention of important issues like corruption. There is no investigative journalism. Political parties and representatives of political groups do not have the ability to express their opinions through the media – even the independent media. Every time important political changes or reforms approach -- referendums, constitutional reforms, elections to local representative bodies or higher legislative bodies, or presidential elections -- measures are taken by the executive powers to limit the freedom of speech as much as possible. As a result, the media are unable to fulfill their social task in the formation of new political thought, which is necessary for the establishment of democratic institutions and the formation of civil society in Tajikistan.

RFE/RL: This year some publishing houses have expressed the desire to print independent works.

Hakimov: Indeed, we are quite surprised. Although some independent printing houses have been created -- thanks to financial support from various international bodies -- they still refuse to publish certain popular newspapers and magazines. Censorship has been abolished in our country because it contradicts democratic values, but it still exists on an unofficial level. These independent publishers seek to make a profit, but collaborating with the independent press -- especially that which belongs to the opposition -- negatively impacts their state of affairs, so they try to not associate themselves with that press.

RFE/RL: Let’s compare this with Uzbekistan. Mr. Ikromov, how would you characterize the situation with freedom of speech, or freedom of press in Uzbekistan?

Ikromov: Even if we only look at the recent period, we can see that some publications have been shut down. Literally, a few days ago, they closed the popular newspaper “Advokat press,” which is considered a branch of the bar association. This happened only because serious issues were discussed there. Recently, they shut down the BBC office in Tashkent for six months. So, clearly, the situation is getting worse every day in terms of freedom of speech. Or let’s look at the recent trials that took place. The government does not announce in the press who is being tried where in connection with the events in Andijon. Human Rights Watch has been trying to obtain access to these trials, as have other international organizations, including representatives from various embassies. They have all been denied access. The government doesn’t even tell them where the trials are taking place.

RFE/RL: Mr. Akun, could one say that after the March events [in which the regime of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev was overthrown], the human rights situation has changed in terms of freedom of speech and freedom of press?

Akun: I should say that after the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, we started seeing more and more events like the takeover of coalfields, civil unrest, pickets, demonstrations, and so on. Many negative things came out of it. After the revolution, the peoples’ consciousness awoke, and they began to experience a sense of freedom and, consequently, the capacity for various excesses. The only positive achievement of the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan is freedom of speech. Before, many journalists underwent “peoples’ trials” and many newspapers were being shut down. These problems no longer exist in Kyrgyzstan. We want to show that the revolution in Kyrgyzstan should be the impulse for other countries to strive toward the freedoms that we have been able to achieve.

A pro-Nazarabaev demonstration in Almaty earlier this month (RFE/RL)

RFE/RL: Mr. Zhovitis, on 5 December, after his victory in the elections, [Kazkakh President] Nursultan Nazarbaev, declared that there are no restrictions on the rights of opposition parties in Kazakhstan, and he wants to have what he calls an opposition. Does this mean that there is actual democracy in Kazakhstan?

Zhovitis: We should look at the situation concerning freedom of speech in the context of the opposition. Freedom of speech, per se, exists. People are not persecuted for what they say, for the speeches that they deliver at conferences, and for what they write. These things are not prohibited or persecuted.

There is a far greater problem with the media. First of all, in my opinion, Kazakhstan has no independent television or radio. There is, of course, private television and radio – 80 percent of all networks, actually – but the fact that they are private does not mean that they are independent. All these channels either are controlled by the government in some way or another, or take their cues from the government, or indulge in self-censorship. As for the press, the situation here is different. There are, indeed, several newspapers of an oppositional nature that publish very critical materials and don’t indulge in self-censorship. But these newspapers are under constant pressure. They are shut down and they have to reopen under different name. Their offices are burned, and their print runs are confiscated. In other words, there is significant pressure exerted on them.

RFE/RL: What is the reason?

Zhovitis: The reason is political. The government sees independent media as an instrument of propaganda and fears that the emergence of independent television channels, like Channel 5 in Ukraine or Rustavi-2 in Georgia, will provoke some sort of revolution or will work to somehow influence the voters. It’s a means of control, just like they control the post and the telegraph.

RFE/RL: Mr. Hakimov, after the Tajik parliament adopted an amendment to the constitution concerning presidential elections, the deputy chairman of the Democratic Party, Rakhmatulo Valiev, said on multiple occasions that the president always uses amendments to the constitution and to the to law codes to his own advantage. What do you think of this? What is your reaction to the words of Mr. Valiev?

Hakimov: Indeed, the chairman of the Social-Democratic Party of Tajikistan disseminated this statement. He was then joined by the Democratic and Socialist parties and later the Islamic Party. These four parties demanded that a new constitutional law be passed concerning the election of the president of the Republic of Tajikistan.

In addition, they demanded that laws be passed permitting – and making it necessary – to have elections monitored and to ensure that the Central Election Committee remains independent on all levels. They also called for laws specifying the process of putting forth nominees for the post of president, because according to our current laws, not only parties, but also trade unions have this right, which is nonsense. In our current political system, we have eight parties, and our trade unions are very pro-government and are not concerned with any reform. They are completely under the control of the government and support anything it initiates, including its socioeconomic policy.

Although the Justice Ministry officially recognizes about 90 youth organizations, only one of has the right to nominate a candidate, because the leader of this organization is, at the same time, the chairman of the Committee for Youth Affairs of the Republic of Tajikistan.

After the candidates are selected, they have to gather signatures of support from at least 5 percent of the population. According to our estimates, this makes approximately 170,000 people. These signatures must be approved by local administrators, who are the president’s nomenclature.

Since 1994, we have passed two constitutional reforms, and every time, the parliament had one year to accordingly modify and create laws. This did not happen. There are other important issues in the process by which the president of the republic is elected, but they are not taken into account. Therefore, we cannot be sure that our next elections will be free, democratic and fair; that they will respect the current principles of international law, particularly those adopted by the UN and by OSCE, and which Tajikistan has ratified.

RFE/RL: Mr. Zhovitis, do you think that following the end of the new term of Mr. Nazarbaev’s presidency, he will also change the election law, or do you think he will take another path?

Zhovitis: It is difficult to say, because the technologies of power maintenance used in post-Soviet countries vary. Some change the constitution and so prolong their term. Some change election laws. Others say that according to changes made in the constitution, the previous term does not count, so everything starts over again. I still hope the president’s current term will, in accordance with the constitution, be his last and that no steps will be taken in imitation of Turkmenbashi [Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov] to instate life-long presidency. I don’t think the constitution will be amended in this regard, but instead “Operation Heir” will take place, like it did with [former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin. Therefore, we will not have Mr. Nazarbaev, but rather his heir, if the elections take place in 2013.

RFE/RL: What about Uzbekistan, Mr. Ikromov?

Ikromov: As far as I know, we are supposed to hold elections toward the end of 2007. Concerning whether the president will run again, no statement has been made yet, so we cannot know. I think President [Islam] Karimov will run again for another seven years.

RFE/RL: You know, this year the events in Andijon were an example of the brutal violation of human rights in Uzbekistan. The government used force against the demonstrators and the international community condemned this approach. What do you think of government’s approach concerning the investigation?

Andijon in May (click on the image to view a timeline of the Andijon events) (epa) Ikromov: After 13 May, when all this happened, they used force, there were executions, and many died. The government greatly underreports the number of dead. They say that 180 people were killed, but in reality, eyewitnesses, journalists, and human rights activists who were there report thousands of casualties. In this number, they also include people gone missing. This means that it is necessary to have an international, independent investigation.

Unfortunately, from the start, the government said there would be no investigation. This very fact shows that the government doesn’t want the global community to know what really happened there. I hope that eventually we will be able to investigate. The way things stand now, many politicians, democratic countries, and organizations are demanding an investigation. This is good, but only if the pressure is maintained.

It is also necessary to demand punishment for these crimes. I say crimes because the fact in itself that weapons and force were used against peaceful demonstrators is criminal. There were other means of stopping the demonstrators, like spraying them with water hoses. There were also theaters and other buildings burning, which the government didn’t bother to extinguish. So many questions will remain unanswered until an international investigation has taken place. I must emphasize how necessary this is.

RFE/RL: Mr. Akun, after the May events in Andijon, many sought refuge in Kyrgyzstan. What is the situation in the refugee camps right now? Are there still refugees there or has the UN immigration service sent them to other countries?

Akun: More than 400 refugees were held for some 4 months in our country. We are grateful to international organizations like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for their enormous help. It was very difficult for us to take care of these people. We had to feed, clothe, and shelter them. In accordance with our international agreements, we provided them with aid and, through the assistance of the UN refugee committee, they were sent to Romania. However, 15 refugees remained. Some officials wanted to send them back to Uzbekistan, but our Presidential Human Rights Committee issued a categorical statement, in which it dismissed any further discussion of this. Several officials spoke out, refusing to turn over the individuals to the Uzbek president.

Kyrgyzstan strictly followed its obligations concerning refugees. Our president listened to us and supported our refusal to turn over the refugees. Nevertheless, we failed in one case, and four of the refugees were turned over. This was a harsh move on the part of Kyrgyzstan. The prime minister of the republic spoke out about this, condemning these actions and saying he did not know how it happened. He underwent serious scrutiny.

RFE/RL: Was there an opportunity to return these refugees to Uzbekistan?

Akun: Of course. There not only was the opportunity, there was an outright attack. Uzbekistan's legal authorities came. They worked in several regions in the country, making threats and trying to influence our government and local officials. However, our political parties did not want Kyrgyzstan to lose the respect of the international community and we strictly followed our obligations toward the refugees.

RFE/RL: Mr. Akun, do you think that Islam Karimov used the events in Andijon to attack his political opponents?

Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan in May (RFE/RL)

Akun: The actions of President Karimov are not supported by our organization. I believe that the events in Andijon were indeed a peaceful demonstration, based on the constitutional right to hold public meetings. I believe that the demonstrators wanted, just like people in other regions, to come out and put forth their constitutional demands, but unfortunately, they were violently put down. This tells that there is no real democracy in Uzbekistan; that there is no freedom of speech; and that the peaceful demonstration received a harsh punishment. This shows that Islam Karimov and his entourage are trying to sustain their authoritarian regime for years to come.

RFE/RL: Mr. Ikromov, what is your opinion on this matter?

Ikromov: I would like to use this occasion to express my gratitude to the human rights activists of Kyrzyzstan, including Tursunbek Akun. We have reports that there were many refugees, especially in May and June. Mr. Akun and his colleagues worked hard to defend their rights. Unfortunately, at the present moment the UN has to deal with many refugees. Half an hour before this program, I met with five of them. They recently received citizenship in other countries and were getting ready to leave. I also know that there are many refugees, both in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The majority of them are in the regions of Jalalabad and Osh. As far as I know, their number is constantly increasing, but Uzbek forces are going around capturing or arresting them, even though they already have political asylum granted by the UN. This is still happening.

In general, I think the flow of refugees from Uzbekistan is growing. Some groups are still arriving, looking for asylum through the UN in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Some groups are being persecuted. Uzbek special forces are pursuing them, capturing some. You may have heard that nine Muslims, who were forced to immigrate to Kazakhstan, were recently arrested. The same is happening in Kyrgyzstan.

RFE/RL: Mr. Zhovitis, on 26 November, on the eve of the election day, a large number of foreigners were deported from Kazakhstan. Among them were 43 citizens of Tajikistan, citizens of Kyrgyzstan, and six Ukrainians. How do you interpret this measure taken by the government?

Zhovitis: Our government periodically conducts these operations, capturing so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘illegal work immigrants’ who work in Kazakhstan. It is no secret that a number of citizens from neighboring countries, including Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan come to Kazakhstan to make money. The economic situation here is slightly better. There are more job opportunities compared to those countries, and they have an opportunity to make money and feed their families back home. Periodically, the government turns a blind eye to this, and sometimes it performs these operations.

So far, unfortunately, in terms of intergovernmental agreements, these issues have not been discussed. Most commonly, these deportations take place without any prior judicial proceedings, which is unfortunate, because some of those deported are actually legitimate businesspeople. For example, some of the Kyrgyz citizens who were recently deported were not illegal immigrants, but businesspeople who traded legally imported goods. Their registration periods were shortened and thus they were kicked out.

For the most part, this concerns citizens of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and is part of a policy of immigration ‘cleansing,’ by which the government tries to avoid the spreading of the ‘Orange Revolution virus’. Allegedly, an employee of the Interior Ministry told a Ukrainian citizen that he had received an order to deport citizens of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrzyzstan. In the case of three Ukrainians, their five-day visas were reduced to one day and they were expelled. As the basis for shortening their period of stay in Kazakhstan, they were told that they were collecting information about the elections without being registered with the Central Election Committee. Obviously, this was not a legitimate reason, because, in fact, no registration is necessary for this kind of activity.

RFE/RL: Citizens of Tajikistan are not only being deported from Central Asian countries, but often from Russia as well. Mr. Hakimov, how do you interpret this situation? Is it the lack of knowledge of laws on the part of Tajik immigrants or is there some other issue?

Hakimov: There are several reasons. First of all, our citizens have a fairly low level of legal awareness. Another reason is our low living standards and the inefficacy of socioeconomic reforms that are being conducted in the Republic of Tajikistan, resulting in high unemployment. All this forms a whole complex of reasons why our citizens leave the country as work immigrants. At the same time, it is important to note that as part of Commonwealth of Independent States and the Central Asian commonwealth, we strive toward integration. As part of this process, there must be mutual legal consensus and understanding on all sides.

RFE/RL: Mr. Akun, for a long time laws permitting capital punishment in Kyrgyzstan have been a subject of concern in the international community. This has been discussed by the UN human rights committee as a potential violation of the International Pact concerning civil and political rights. What is the new Kyrgyz government doing in order to remedy this situation?

Akun: First of all, I would like to add to the words of my colleague from Tajikistan. We consider the deportation of the citizens of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan a severe violation of the international agreement on civil rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the constitution of our republic. Every citizen has the right to move freely from one place to another, including the crossing of borders.

As far as capital punishment is concerned, human rights activists in Kyrgyzstan are against it. Reforms are currently being discussed, including an amendment to the constitution. Under influence from the Presidential Human Rights Committee, as well as the country’s highest human rights authority, the president has agreed to abolish capital punishment, and this will be reflected in the new draft of the constitution. If this constitution is adopted, we will become the first country in Central Asia to abolish capital punishment, which will be a big step forward.

Central Asia In Focus

Central Asia In Focus

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