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Central Asia: Rights Groups Highlight Region's Problems

(RFE/RL) March 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Human rights in Central Asia are coming under fresh scrutiny this week, with a major report by Amnesty International expressing concern with the continued rights abuses as the International Helsinki Federation (IHF) also has some critical things to say about Central Asia.

Amnesty International (AI) says in a new comprehensive report that grave human rights violations are being committed with virtual impunity in some Central Asian countries.

Rights Abuses Numerous

According to the report, deaths while in state custody, torture, arbitrary detentions, harassment, and the jailing of oppositionists continue in the region. And it says corrupt law-enforcement officers are rarely brought to account around the region despite the fact that thousands of people routinely claim that they have been ill-treated in order to extract confessions of guilt.

Dissidents, activists, and journalists have been subject to arbitrary detention in Turkmenistan, and RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova died in jail last year under suspicious circumstances.

Amnesty International Eurasia analyst Anna Sunder-Plassmann, speaking to RFE/RL from Vienna, said the authorities in most Central Asian countries will use any pretext available to clamp down on legitimate dissent.

"In Central Asia, governments often use the war on terror and also the strengthening of national security as a cloak to consolidate their power and to target vulnerable groups," he said.

Sunder-Plassmann notes that if deeds matched words, Central Asia would be in a much better position than it is at present, in that the republics have signed numerous documents promising to respect human and civil rights.

"The Central Asian governments are all party to a long list of human rights treaties, so they have voluntarily made these commitments to abide by the principles of a number of treaties, but we can see that the Central Asian governments do not have the will to fundamentally improve their human rights records," she continued.

Kazakhstan is faulted, among other things, for bowing to pressure from China and Uzbekistan to send back dissidents who may be subjected to torture or even death upon their return. Uyghurs are the main ethnic group involved in the deportations to China.

Downhill Since Andijon

The Kazakh authorities are also faulted for jailing opposition figures like Galimzhan Zhakianov and for presuming the guilt of opposition members before trial.

Uzbekistan has been the center of rights concerns since security forces killed hundreds of demonstrators in the southern city of Andijon in May 2005. Amnesty says the situation for human rights defenders in Uzbekistan continues to deteriorate, despite the apparent willingness of President Islam Karimov's government to address some of the issues raised by the European Union. Brussels imposed limited sanctions on Uzbekistan one year after Andijon.

AI says that in Uzbekistan, as in Turkmenistan, freedom of the press is severely restricted.

In a separate development, the UN's top Human Rights Council voted on Monday March 26 to end routine scrutiny of Uzbekistan. The council accepted the recommendation of a working group that Uzbekistan be removed from a procedure under which accusations of violations are discussed in confidential sessions.

The decision was opposed by human rights activists and criticized by U.S. spokeswoman Brooks Robinson.

"This is yet another way in which we find the new UN Human Rights Council disappointing; we don't believe it is living up to its goal and purpose, which should be to work genuinely to promote and protect human rights around the world," Robinson said.

Harsh Treatment In Turkmenistan

Continuing with the AI report, it says that in Turkmenistan psychiatric institutions have been used as a tool to clampdown on dissent, a method frequently used in the old Soviet Union.

RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova died in Turkmen custody in 2006 (RFE/RL)

Dissidents, activists, and journalists have been subject to arbitrary detention, and RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova died in jail last year under suspicious circumstances after a trial which was internationally viewed as failing to reach international standards of fair proceedings.

In Tajikistan, there were continued reports of widespread and routine torture or other ill-treatment by law-enforcement officers, plus unfair trials and detentions, and death in custody.

Amnesty says that in one instance, more then 50 alleged members of the banned opposition party Hizb ut-Tahrir -- including some 20 women -- were detained and many were sentenced to long prison terms after trials viewed as unfair.

AI says its report that there have been reports in Kyrgyzstan during the past year of the harassment of human rights defenders and fear among Uzbek refugees of being sent home. There have even been allegations of deaths, torture, and other ill-treatment of people held in detention.

Sunder-Plassmann notes the rights report comes as a team of senior EU officials are in the region holding talks with Central Asian foreign ministers. Some rights activists see the EU as preoccupied about securing access to Central Asia's energy resources, and they fear rights issues will be pushed aside.

A spokesman for the German EU presidency said in Berlin that human rights will be a subject of discussion at the talks in Astana. But Amnesty wants a stronger focus.

"The European Union is currently developing a long-term strategy on Central Asia, and this can certainly be an opportunity; Amnesty urges the European Union to use this opportunity to make human rights and the rule of law key components of this strategy," Sunder-Plassman said.

The IHF has also issued a report lamenting what it sees as a return to Soviet-style repression in parts of Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

The IHF says the death in December of Turkmenistan's president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov, temporarily raised hopes that reforms would be made there. But those hopes were dampened by the opaque and undemocratic elections that brought a new leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, to office.

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