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Rights Group Warns Of Soviet-Style Abuses

Opposition demonstration in St. Petersburg earlier this month (epa) March 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- An international human rights watchdog has warned that rights violations reminiscent of the Soviet era are reappearing in some Eastern European and Central Asian countries.

In its annual report, the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) singled out the governments of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as repressive regimes that regularly violate human rights.

The report looks at events in 2006 in all of the member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

That includes the United States and Britain, which both come under scrutiny for scaling back judicial and civil rights in the name of combating terrorism.

Torture And Disappearances

Much of the report, however, focuses on Central Asia, Belarus, and Russia's North Caucasus -- regions the IHF made a priority in 2006-07.

There, the IHF argues, authorities have resurrected the tactics of the region's Soviet past, clamping down on freedom of religion and expression, muffling the political opposition, and -- in some regions -- allowing torture and disappearances to continue unchecked.

IHF Executive Director Aaron Rhodes says that progress on human rights seems to be on hold.

"In the 1990s, there was some progress being made toward building human rights institutions and building cooperation in international organizations like the Council of Europe and the OSCE," Rhodes says. "And the UN was also more functional during those years. Now there's a kind of freezing of progress and in fact backsliding."

"Because of concerns about energy, European governments are putting human rights on the back burner."

The IHF report says new measures were taken throughout the region to stifle the work of nongovernmental organizations.

In Russia, new legislation enacted in April 2006 forced all NGOs receiving foreign funding to undergo a cumbersome re-registration process and subjected them to punitive tax regimes.

Similar bureaucratic measures aimed at shutting down NGOs have been seen throughout Central Asia as well.

Freedom of assembly was also severely restricted in many CIS countries.

In Belarus, which saw flawed elections return autocratic leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka to an unprecedented third term as president, more than 1,000 activists and opposition politicians were arrested and detained on politically motivated grounds.

Central Asia Abuses

Some of the worst human rights violations were seen in the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

In Uzbekistan, the IHF report notes, the crackdowns that followed the May 2005 Andijon uprising have continued. It has become increasingly difficult to hold public demonstrations, and dozens of rights defenders have been jailed or placed under house arrest.

Ogulsapar Muradova

Turkmenistan saw near-complete repression of activists and journalists, including RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova, who died in September 2006 while in police custody. Her children said her body showed signs she had been severely beaten.

The IHF report said the death in December of Turkmenistan's president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov, temporarily raised hopes of reforms. But those hopes were dampened by the opaque and undemocratic elections to elect his successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

The IHF also notes that gross human rights abuses continued unabated in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus.

And according to Rhodes, new-found energy wealth is negatively affecting human rights in the region: "Because of concerns about energy, European governments in particular are putting human rights on the back burner and there's an increasing tendency to overlook human rights violations and to pretend that political progress is being made in order to maintain relationships, which will, in turn, ensure energy flows."

Rhodes says that Western governments should raise the level of importance they attach to human rights in their relations with countries in the former Soviet Union.

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