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Central Asia: OSCE Chief Focuses On Regional Human Rights, Political Reforms

The OSCE's chairman-in-office, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, today concluded a weeklong visit to Central Asia, a region which he has declared a priority during his one-year term. RFE/RL reports that de Hoop Scheffer used the opportunity to encourage OSCE members Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to continue carrying out democratic reforms.

Prague, 11 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The OSCE's chairman-in-office, Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, ended a weeklong visit today to Central Asia. His regional trip took him to four of the five OSCE participating states in the region -- Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

De Hoop Scheffer met with all four presidents on his visit, which was intended to keep dialogue with these countries moving forward and to consolidate bilateral cooperation. He also held discussions with Kazakh, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz representatives of civil society, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and political parties.

In March, de Hoop Scheffer visited Turkmenistan -- another OSCE participating state in Central Asia -- during which he raised human rights concerns with President Saparmurat Niyazov.

During this week's visit, de Hoop Scheffer recalled the three priorities of the Dutch chairmanship.

"First of all, a balanced approach of the three dimensions of the OSCE -- the political, the economic and environmental one, and the human dimension," de Hoop Scheffer said. "Second element: the important central theme of the Dutch presidency of the OSCE, which is the theme of trafficking -- trafficking in young women and girls mainly but also in drugs and small arms. And thirdly, the geographical balance which we want to uphold in the OSCE, which is: the OSCE is an organization which operates east and west of Vienna and not only east of Vienna; and secondly, the OSCE is an organization which has taken Central Asia as one of the priority areas of interests."

At the start of his trip, in Almaty, de Hoop Scheffer said Kazakhstan is the leading force of political and economic reform in Central Asia. During his meeting with President Nursultan Nazarbaev, he discussed Kazakh bills on elections, NGOs, and the media. De Hoop Scheffer said, "The president has explained that he is embarking on ambitious projects on strengthening the economy, but also of course to fostering the political developments."

In his annual address to parliament in April, Nazarbaev outlined five priorities for the further democratization of society in the period up to 2005. His plan included the adoption or creation of new amendments to the existing laws on elections and media this year. It also attached great importance to NGOs in the process of establishing civil society.

On the human rights front, de Hoop Scheffer called for the fair treatment of opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov and opposition leader Galymzhan Zhakiyanov. Both were jailed over the past year on what their supporters and rights activists call politically motivated charges. Both men have already been sentenced, but appeals are ongoing.

However, de Hoop Scheffer made clear the OSCE will not impose its views on Kazakhstan, saying his organization "will not interfere into the legal system of Kazakhstan, as I would not accept that Kazakhstan would interfere in the legal system in the Netherlands."

Rather, de Hoop Scheffer pointed out, the OSCE is ready to assist the country if requested to do so.

On 8 July, de Hoop Scheffer and Uzbek President Islam Karimov spoke about the issue of torture. Last year, visiting UN rapporteur Theo van Boven said torture by the Uzbek security forces appeared to be "systematic." De Hoop Scheffer welcomed the possibility of a new visit by van Boven to Uzbekistan.

De Hoop Scheffer made a plea for a general moratorium on the death penalty following warnings that the country has secretly executed prisoners awaiting appeal hearings by a UN committee.

Members of a prisoners' mothers organization told him that at least four prisoners are facing imminent execution, despite appeals to the UN Human Rights Committee.

On 9 July in Bishkek, de Hoop Scheffer said Kyrgyzstan has made "certain progress" in its democratic reforms. But he said the republic still has "a lot" to do.

"I have asked the Kyrgyz government to prolong the moratorium on the death penalty. I have asked the Kyrgyz government to sign without delay the additional United Nations protocol on torture. And I have underlined that the rule of law and democracy also involves completely free mass media," de Hoop Scheffer.

Last month's approval by the Kyrgyz parliament of a new law guaranteeing immunity from prosecution for the president has widened rifts within the political opposition.

In February, the country adopted a new constitution in a referendum the opposition and international groups alleged was rife with fraud. Critics also claim the new text reduces civil rights while strengthening the president's power.

De Hoop Scheffer's meetings in Bishkek also touched upon an OSCE program aimed at supporting Kyrgyz law enforcement agencies. Almost 4 million euros ($4.5 million) has been allocated for this program.

Kyrgyz human rights campaigners protested against the project outside the building where the OSCE chief was meeting NGOs, claiming that the program might end up helping the government clamp down on future demonstrations.

De Hoop Scheffer seemingly tried to be reassuring. "This OSCE program wants to create a police force which fits into a democracy -- that is, a transparent police force, a responsible police force, and a police force which is close to the people and acts in the interests of the people," he said.

Also on 9 July, acting as foreign minister of the Netherlands, de Hoop Scheffer visited Kyrgyzstan's Ganci air base at the Manas airport, near Bishkek, where Dutch forces are conducting operations in Afghanistan.

The following day he traveled to the Afghan capital, Kabul, to visit Dutch troops. He also met with Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai.

Today, de Hoop Scheffer was in Tajikistan, the last stop on his regional tour. After his meeting with President Imomali Rakhmonov, the Dutch foreign minister said, "We have discussed the relationship between the OSCE and Tajikistan. The OSCE will certainly give assistance to the Mine Action Plan. The OSCE will assist in reforming the judiciary. And I have made a plea with the president for a moratorium on the death penalty."

Rakhmonov told the OSCE chief that the number of criminal-code articles carrying capital punishment had been reduced from 47 to five, and that women are no longer subject to the death penalty.

Earlier this year, the OSCE agreed to support a nationwide Mine Action Project to clear land mines laid during the 1992-1997 civil war. According to Tajik authorities, around 16,000 land mines are threatening the population over an area of 2,500 square kilometers.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tajik services contributed to this report.)