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Central Asia: State Department Sees Little Improvement In Rights Situation

The U.S. State Department has released its annual report on the human rights situation around the world. The report noted the five former Soviet states in Central Asia are still experiencing difficulties with democratic reform. RFE/RL looks at the report and the situation in Central Asia.

Prague, 1 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States State Department released its annual human rights report yesterday, and there was little surprise that the five former Soviet Central Asian states once again received relatively low marks.

Lorne Craner, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights, described the rights situation in Central Asia as outlined in the report by saying: "Decades of Soviet-style political culture will not be changed overnight. This edition of the human rights report states that the human rights observance remains poor in all five countries [of Central Asia]."

The individual reports' descriptions of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan tell much about the countries and their lack of progress. The first few sentences of the reports often set the tone.

"The Constitution of Kazakhstan concentrates power in the presidency."

In Kyrgyzstan, "although the 1993 constitution defines the form of government as a democratic republic, President Askar Akayev dominated the government."

Tajikistan, it says, "is ruled by an authoritarian regime."

And in Turkmenistan, "there is a one-party state dominated by its president, who continues to exercise power in a Soviet-era authoritarian style."

Uzbekistan, the report says, "is an authoritarian state with limited civil rights."

These descriptions are not only indicative of the present situation in these countries, they are identical to the assessments made by the State Department in its report two years ago.

Aaron Rhodes, the director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, said the situation may even be deteriorating from two years ago. "I think in general, the human rights situation in Central Asia is very grave, very bad, especially with respect to the imprisonment and torture and murder of people on the basis of their religion, especially on the basis of the suppression of political minorities and the denial of basic civil and political rights," Rhodes told RFE/RL.

Alex Vatanka is the editor of "Jane's Sentinel CIS," a publication affiliated with the London-based Jane's group. Long an observer of events in the region, Vatanka said the situation is similar to what it was right after all five Central Asian states became independent in 1991.

"The situation in Central Asia, to my mind, hasn't really changed much at all," Vatanka said. "[If] you go back to 1991, when the countries became independent, and you look at the situation on the ground today, in 2003, you will detect, to my mind again, nothing notable in terms of progress toward closing the gap between these five Central Asian states and what we in the West would call democracy or civil rights and political pluralism," Vatanka said.

This year's report has dashed hopes that closer engagement with the West, because of the situation in neighboring Afghanistan, would lead to an improvement in the rights situation. Three of the countries -- Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- are currently hosting U.S. and other Western troops.

International rights organizations said at the start of the campaign in Afghanistan that the spotlight was finally on Central Asia and the governments of the five countries would have to change their repressive ways because of international pressure.

Yet one need only take a look at events since the end of March last year to see those problems have not been addressed.

In Kazakhstan, two leaders of the Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan movement were jailed last summer on charges of corruption. The U.S. State Department report noted, "the arrests came years after the alleged crimes were committed, but only months after...[the two]...founded an opposition political movement."

Independent media there continue to suffer. One journalist who reported on government corruption was jailed on rape charges that his supporters say were fabricated to keep journalists from writing such stories. Other independent journalists were threatened, beaten, and, in one case, an independent newspaper's office was fire-bombed.

Uzbekistan is now in the midst of what many media groups are calling a crackdown. One journalist was jailed in February, and at least six others have been detained. Three newspapers at least have been closed since the start of February.

Tajikistan is scheduled to hold a referendum in June that will give the incumbent president, leader since 1992, a chance to stay in office, potentially until 2020. Crackdowns on certain religious groups perceived as radical continue.

In Kyrgyzstan, independent media continue to encounter difficulties in the courtrooms. Citizens, some of them government officials, keep newspapers such as "Res Publika" and "Moya stolitsa" in court every month with libel charges. The country already claims the dubious distinction of being the only one in Central Asia to have actually jailed a journalist for his writing and barred the journalist from publishing articles for a period of 18 months.

In Turkmenistan, considered the region's most flagrant rights violator, a reported assassination attempt on the country's president last November sparked a wave of arrests that included rounding up members of entire families.

Vatanka of "Jane's Sentinel" said the very nature of the regimes and the manner in which the five presidents have built up and maintain their power suggest that democratic reform is next to impossible.

"If they did pursue some sort of systematic policy of cleaning up their acts, then they are basically chopping down the very platform these regimes are based on. These regimes are not based on popular consent. Their political legitimacy, as far as I'm concerned, is at best dubious," Vatanka said.

Vatanka went on to say that if any of the five held free elections, the rulers could expect to lose. He said the leading rivals of these regimes are the free press and political opposition parties. Vatanka argued that by introducing greater freedoms, the rulers would effectively be committing political suicide, something they are extremely unlikely to do.

(Gulnoza Saidazimova of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)