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World: 2006 A Hard Year In Human Rights

RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova was killed while in detention in Turkmenistan (file photo) (Courtesy Photo) PRAGUE, December 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- From the fighting in Chechnya, Iraq, and Afghanistan to repression in Uzbekistan, Iran, and Belarus, the news on the human rights front in 2006 was often grim.

The observance of human rights deteriorated in 2006 as a result of conflicts and political repression. In Central Asia, human rights continued to come under attack.

Few Changes In Central Asia

Conditions in Uzbekistan did not improve, according to outgoing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In a report, Annan said there is "ample evidence" that authorities there are still using torture.

The UN cited Belarus and the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka for numerous human rights abuses, including rigged elections, the jailing of protesters, and the use of government power against opposition election candidates.

Tom Porteous, a senior official with the Human Rights Watch organization in London, believes the international community has not been firm enough with Tashkent.

"Our main concern with Uzbekistan is that the European Union is not really following up on its actions, in the aftermath of the Andijon massacre, with a strong enough policy to really affect change in the country," he said. "As you know, the EU imposed fairly strict sanctions on Uzbekistan just over a year ago."

Turkmenistan continued its course under President Saparmurat Niyazov as one of the world's most authoritarian regimes.

Suspicious Deaths

September saw the death in custody of RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova. She was serving a six-year jail sentence on what Western rights organizations had described as trumped-up charges. Family members who saw her body said she had a large wound on her head. The Turkmen Helsinki Foundation described Muradova's death as a "political assassination."

Kazakhstan suffered the suspicious murder of another senior opposition figure.

On February 13, the body of Altynbek Sarsenbaev was found on the outskirts of Almaty, along with the bodies of two of his aides. He was a cochairman of the Naghyz Ak Zhol opposition party. A former ambassador to Russia, Sarsenbaev was an outspoken critic of the Kazakh government of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Kazakh journalists staged protests in June against a new media law that complicates the registration of media entities and increases the power of the authorities to shut down media.

Late in the year, Kazakhstan suffered a setback at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE put off until next year a decision on Kazakhstan's bid to chair the organization in 2009.

Kazakhstan And The OSCE

The bid was mainly opposed by the United States and Britain, who argued that Kazakhstan must do more to meet OSCE standards. However, in explaining the decision, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns took a conciliatory line.

"We're Kazakhstan's strategic partner," he said. "We're a close friend. We admire the fact that Kazakhstan wants to lead this organization. You need a consensus in this organization for that to happen, and I think the decision by all of us is that it's better to wait until 2007, have the OSCE look again in 2007 at the request from Kazakhstan to take a leadership role, and make a decision then."

November saw a presidential election in Tajikistan that was boycotted by opposition parties, who alleged that a result in favor of incumbent President Imomali Rakhmonov had been fixed long before the voting.

Turning to Russia, fighting continued in Chechnya despite Moscow's assertion that the war against separatist Muslim insurgents has been won.


"The situation in Chechnya is clearly poisoning the political atmosphere in the whole of the Russian Federation," Porteous said. "The Russian government says the war in Chechnya is over. This is not really true. The war has been pushed underground and has become a very dirty war, and we have evidence that the authorities in Chechnya are engaged in very repressive practices, including the use of torture."

It was also revealed in 2006 that Chechen security forces loyal to pro-Moscow Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov have been using cell phones to record videos of themselves torturing and humiliating ordinary Chechens accused of crimes.

But the practices in Chechnya are not the only alleged Russian infringements of freedom. In 2006, as in previous years, President Vladimir Putin presided over a tightening of state control over independent media and foreign nongovernmental organizations.

"We are also worried about the suppression of civil society in the Russian Federation, particularly this year," Porteous said. "There is a requirement for NGOs to reregister, including Human Rights Watch, and we do feel this is an attack on the last [free] bastion in the Russian Federation."

Media Repression In Azerbaijan

In the Caucasus, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's government came under criticism. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has denounced what it calls the systematic targeting of press freedom in that country. It referred to the eviction of the independent Turan news agency and two opposition newspapers from their Baku offices.

That followed the decision to revoke the license, for alleged violations of broadcasting regulations, of the ANS independent television station, which was retransmitting BBC, RFE/RL, and Voice of America broadcasts. Elsa Vidal is a spokeswoman for Reporters Without Borders. He told RFE/RL that "The fact is that for over a month we have seen a real worsening of the situation in Azerbaijan, and the most worrying aspect was the closure of the ANS private TV channel and the relocation of many media, including the most read daily paper, 'Azadliq.' "

ANS was back on the air almost three weeks later, on December 12. The National Radio and Television Council says ANS will have to bid for a broadcasting license next year.

In Iraq, the fighting goes on, with scores of casualties daily, many of them being Shi'ite civilians targeted in suicide bomb attacks. Others are sometimes caught up in air strikes or ground fighting.

On November 29, the UN's high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, described the Iraqi violence as worse than ever, and she called on the government to ensure the rule of law.

Also in Iraq, the UN Human Rights Council and Human Rights Watch declared the trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as having fallen far short of international legal standards. Hussein was found guilty and condemned to death on charges of mass killings.

"We feel there was a huge opportunity with the trial to establish a legal and factual record of the crimes under Saddam Hussein's regime," Porteous said. "And the fact that the trial has been so deeply flawed means that the losers are really the victims of the Saddam Hussein regime."

Worse Situation In Iran

Iran had a dark year in terms of human rights. Right groups said state censorship increased significantly, leading to an increased restriction on freedom of expression. More newspapers were closed down and journalists were intimidated.

Tehran also increased its censorship of the Internet by blocking websites, including sites belonging to domestic and foreign news organizations, political organizations, and those with information about human rights and women's issues.

Dozens of student activists were barred from classes, and a number of liberal professors were forced into early retirement or dismissed. Students reacted by organizing several protests denouncing the growing pressure on universities.

On December 11, students at Tehran's Amir Kabir University disrupted a speech by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and called him a dictator.

Bijan Pouryoussefi, a student who witnessed the unusual incident, told Radio Farda that "Polytechnic University students started to chant against the president and against the policies of the new government in universities. They chanted 'Death to the dictator! Down with oppression! Ahmadinejad is the cause of poverty and corruption,' and similar things."

In Afghanistan, many civilians fell victim to the insurgency and terrorist attacks, while others were killed during counterterrorist operations by U.S.- and NATO-led forces. Many schools were torched by the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

Concerns over the situation of women in Afghanistan also remained. In November, a conference on self-immolation was held in Kabul to bring attention to the plight of Afghan women who -- five years after the fall of the Taliban -- still face violence and discrimination.

In Europe, the UN cited Belarus and the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka for numerous human rights abuses, including rigged elections, the jailing of protesters, and the use of government power against opposition election candidates.

(RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari contributed to this article.)

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