A prominent human rights group says Kazakh authorities are failing to deal properly with the country's mounting HIV/AIDS epidemic. The group charges that HIV-infected people in Kazakhstan are seeing their rights violated by police and are ostracized by the public. The overall number of HIV-infected people in Kazakhstan now exceeds those in the four other Central Asian states combined, but Astana's stance on the problem is no more progressive than elsewhere in the region, rights experts say.
New York, 13 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Human Rights Watch (HRW) has charged that in Kazakhstan, residents living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, are routinely subjected to physical mistreatment, planting of drugs, improper arrests, extortion, and severe prison terms.
In a presentation last week at the Open Society Institute, which has been active in fighting HIV/AIDS in the region, HRW representatives gave fresh details about what they said was a pattern of police abuse against injecting-drug users. Drug users represent the majority of HIV-infected Kazakhs.
HRW consultant Marie Struthers said HIV-positive Kazakhs are often targeted by police looking to meet their so-called "arrest quotas." She said arresting injecting drug users has become a common practice throughout Central Asia. "Injecting-drug users, at least [those] in Central Asia and other parts of the [former] Soviet Union, make wonderful arrest targets for police not least because -- at least in Kazakhstan again, from my experience, and in other Central Asian countries -- police continue to observe and respect what they call 'arrest quotas.' And because injecting-drug users can be arrested for very small [drug] possession amounts, they are very easy to detain."
In the Kazakh towns of Karaganda, Pavlodar, and Shymkent, Struthers said, police officers must report at least five arrests of injecting-drug users per month. She adds that detainees are often furnished with drugs while in pretrial custody as a way of buying their silence on their often dubious arrests.
Struthers noted that persecution and intimidation of injecting-drug users in Kazakhstan is particularly attractive to the police since it is advantageous both in terms of extortion income and fulfillment of arrest quotas. She said the Kazakh police use various methods to intimidate their detainees: "Police use different techniques to conduct arrests of injecting-drug users: threats, physical mistreatment including beating and sometimes mistreatment so severe as to constitute torture, planting of drugs on a person, or extortion. Extortion is a significant motivation for police officers who are grossly underpaid. Similarly, arrests can be avoided by these persons by complying with the extortion demand or agreeing, for example, to act as an informant for police to reveal the identities of other drug users so that arrest quotas can be met."
The problem is complicated by the fact that many drug users are HIV-positive. Astana said there are some 25,000 HIV-infected people in the country, although independent experts say the number is likely to be much higher.
Joanne Csete, who is director of the HIV/AIDS and human rights program at Human Rights Watch, said most official Kazakh statements about the disease are "fiction": "One way in which Kazakhstan is very much like the rest of the former Soviet Union is that the official numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS are pretty much fictions. The capacity is there, obviously, to do good population-based surveys, but they are not done. Instead, the fiction is maintained by a system of registration of cases -- which any sensible person affected by AIDS is going to avoid because those official registrations are used in so many negative ways, including to violate people's right to confidentiality in HIV testing."
HRW mentions other rights abuses of HIV-positive Kazakhs, including forced sexual slavery of detainees, forced HIV testing of all people in pretrial detention, and segregation of HIV-positive prisoners. Outside of the criminal justice system, people infected with HIV often face discrimination in the workplace and other forms of demonization.
Roman Vassilenko is first secretary at the Kazakh Embassy in Washington. He described Kazakhstan's HIV/AIDS situation as "not a major problem as of now, but a growing problem." He said he is not aware that HIV-positive Kazakhs are subjected to any form of employment discrimination. "Concerning specific cases, I am not aware of any specific case when person would be rejected on the basis that he is HIV-positive," he said.
Kazakhstan, with its relatively young population, became an important stopping point in the heroin trade in the 1990s. The price for heroin there remains low by world standards.
A recent UNICEF survey in Kazakhstan indicates that young Kazakhs, while aware of HIV/AIDS and its consequences, still have a poor understanding of how the virus is transmitted and how those already infected should be treated. "Among young people in the country, there is the widespread idea that it is a very good idea to quarantine people with AIDS or to lock them up. This view among the young people, which is such a sad thing, also sadly reflects both wider social opinion and government policy. People living with HIV/AIDS in Kazakhstan face deep stigma and social ostracism and often abandonment by their families," the HRW's of Csete said.
The plight of those with HIV/AIDS in Uzbekistan is said to be similar. Ravshan Nazarkulov, a spokesman at the Uzbek Embassy in Washington, told RFE/RL the HIV/AIDS situation in the country is a "very threatening issue that Uzbekistan itself is not able to cope with."
As of October 2002, the number of officially registered cases of HIV infection in Uzbekistan was just 1,748. But as with Kazakhstan and much of the former Soviet Union, independent experts say the actual numbers could rise far higher.