21 November 2003, Volume 3, Number 39
TAJIKISTAN AND INDIA TO CREATE JOINT ANTITERRORIST GROUP. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee arrived in the Tajik capital Dushanbe on 13 November for a two-day visit, which yielded several new bilateral agreements and mutual pledges to continue expanding ties. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and Vajpayee, meeting on 14 November, reportedly concurred in viewing their two countries as long-term strategic partners, while Rakhmonov told his guest that Tajikistan saw relations with India "as an important factor of peace and stability in the region," Asia Plus and Interfax said. His own country's role in providing regional security, Rakhmonov said, was as "a buffer that protects not only Central Asian countries, but also Russia and European countries from the inflow of drugs [from neighboring Afghanistan]."
Documents signed during the Indian leader's trip covered technology exchanges, tourism, and visa-free travel for diplomats. A declaration on friendship and cooperation was also signed. As additional recent achievements in bilateral cooperation, Rakhmonov referred to agreements on establishing direct air links between Dushanbe and New Delhi, opening a Tajik mission in the Indian capital, and forming a working group on a direct land route between their countries via Afghanistan, Tajik radio reported. Afghans, as well as Tajiks and Indians, will be represented in the working group. Vajpayee added, at a press conference following the summit, that India wanted to extend the New Delhi-Dushanbe air route to Kabul, ITAR-TASS reported on 14 November. The importance of developing regional transport infrastructure to improve Tajikistan's economic outlook was one of the themes of the meeting.
In fact, on the eve of the Indian prime minister's arrival, Tajikistan's Mazhlisi Namoyandagon (lower house of parliament) endorsed a resolution to join the Treaty on International Transit of Goods, a tripartite agreement between India, Iran, and Turkmenistan dating from 1997, Asia-Plus reported on 12 November. The treaty aims to facilitate trade cooperation by eliminating various import duties and customs procedures. Rakhmonov stressed that Tajikistan was eager to increase its trade with India, which is currently declining although he said there was considerable room for expansion of economic ties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2003). Tajik government figures show an 88 percent drop in trade this year as against 2002, Interfax commented on 14 November. Rakhmonov appealed for Indian participation in the development of Tajik hydropower, processing of agricultural produce, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, and other industries. He suggested that an existing Tajik-Indian economic cooperation commission could and should be more active in encouraging bilateral trade, business, and investment.
Perhaps the summit's most significant outcome, however, was an agreement to create a joint antiterrorist group. Both Vajpayee and Rakhmonov considered the antiterrorist group "an important mechanism of withstanding modern threats and challenges," in the words of Tajik president spokesman Zafar Saidov as quoted by Asia Plus on 17 November. In the joint declaration on friendship and cooperation (text at http://www.centrasia.ru, posted on 18 November), Tajikistan and India underlined that the purpose of the group "will be to contribute to the battle and resistance against organized crime, money laundering, the illegal trade in weapons, military supplies, and explosives, the war against international terrorism, and other forums of international threats."
But neither leader vouchsafed an explanation about what this antiterrorist group would actually be. According to the Russian newspaper "Kommerant" on 15 November, citing unofficial sources, it will be composed of Tajik and Indian infantry together with Indian Air Force combat aircraft. Details of its composition and inauguration date are still subjects of discussion between the two sides' Defense Ministries, and Tajikistan will make its final decision only after conferring with its partner states in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization, the newspaper said. Again citing off-the-record sources, it added that the largest contingent seconded to the antiterrorist group would be deployed at "an airfield near Dushanbe." It reasoned that the military airfield was probably in the village of Aini, 15 kilometers west of the capital. India has stated before that it is prepared to invest up to $10 million in modernizing this airfield. Vajpayee confirmed that his country would help reconstruct Aini, but denied there were any plans to set up an Indian military base there. Rather, he said that the volume of air traffic due to Afghanistan-related operations had created a need for a backup to Dushanbe airport, and India had volunteered to refurbish the landing strip.
Rakhmonov commented that Tajikistan had recently asked "a number of countries, including Russia, to help overhaul Aini airport, particularly to repair the runway, but we were not given a positive response" -- hence the Indians had stepped in. He denied that Aini figured in Indian military plans, and Vajpayee similarly deflected journalists' questions on the subject. Yet Rakhmonov muddied the waters by going on to say: "The work that has been going on there [at Aini] is not a secret. Tajikistan and India have signed an agreement on military cooperation, and we, in Tajikistan, attach a great deal of importance to this agreement," RFE/RL reported on 14 November. He also noted: "If Aini airport had been functional before, a Russian Su-27 air squadron of the Russian armed forces could have been deployed there," according to ITAR-TASS. He did not clarify what the squadron would do if deployed there.
In a discussion of India's Central Asia strategy on 21 November, "Jane's Intelligence Digest" had this to say about Aini: "Delhi has used this strategically important base, which is close to the Afghan border, to provide military hardware and training to the Northern Alliance, which has been fighting against Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Despite denials from Dushanbe, our well-informed sources report that Indian engineers are currently expanding and modernizing the Ayni airbase and India is likely to station aircraft there in the near future.... Access to a military base in Tajikistan would give India's armed forces a greater strategic reach in protecting its vital economic and security interests. In fact, the Ayni military base is set to become a key element in India's strategic penetration into Central Asia."
Another possible vehicle for India to deepen its engagement in regional security is the SCO. Its members have often said the organization is open to new applicants. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has already mooted the possibility of India becoming a member. China quietly opposes the idea. Meanwhile, Rakhmonov strongly endorsed the notion on 14 November. "We shall welcome India's participation in the activities of the SCO, if New Delhi is willing to do so," he told ITAR-TASS, explaining that this "fully corresponds with Tajikistan's interests and will assist in strengthening peace and stability in the region." According to the text of the declaration of friendship and cooperation, "the Tajik side stated that with consideration of the question of accepting new members into the SCO, the membership of India in this organization would become an important factor in its strengthening." Nevertheless, it is difficult to gauge how keen India really is about signing up with the SCO. On the one hand, there is the advantage of joining a club that includes Russia and China, with both of which India's relations are gradually warming, not to speak of the four Central Asian members. On the other hand, it is a club that looks to be increasingly manipulated by Russia and China as a counterpoint to the regional ambitions of the United States, with which India is also anxious to keep on good terms. New Delhi will have to weigh the pros and cons.
For Tajikistan, the pros of friendship with India were manifest last week with no cons in sight, as Vajpayee wrapped up his trip to Dushanbe by pledging a $40 million economic aid package. Of that sum $25 million will be allocated in credits, with $5 million in no-strings assistance to modernize infrastructure. Additional monies will go towards training Tajik officers and supporting the military college, ITAR-TASS reported.
KYRGYZ PRESIDENT SIGNS LAW ON TORTURE. According to the old dictum, "Dog Bites Man" is blase, but "Man Bites Dog" is news fit to print. In some countries of Central Asia, torture-related stories are depressingly common, but revelations about torture in Kyrgyzstan are comparatively infrequent and thus eye-catching. Torture is not mentioned in the "Freedom in the World 2003" Kyrgyzstan country report published by the Washington-based watchdog organization Freedom House (http://www.freedomhouse.org), while, for example, the corresponding report for Uzbekistan mentions torture six times.
On 17 November, in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, human rights activists called on the Kyrgyz government to abide by its commitments to eliminate torture, RFE/RL reported. The occasion was a press conference convened by the Civil Society Against Corruption, a group led by Tolekan Ismailova. The conference was devoted to discussing the results of a special meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on the prevention of torture that was held on 6-7 November in Vienna.
According to brief prepared for the OSCE conference, posted on 10 November by the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR) at http://www.kchr.elcat.kg, President Askar Akaev's government is not honoring its commitments under the International Convention Against Torture, which it signed in 1996. The brief explicitly detailed half-a-dozen cases of alleged torture at the hands of Kyrgyz police over the last two years. The conference heard from KCHR Chairman Ramazan Dyryldaev and other rights defenders that allegations of torture were rarely investigated and the perpetrators went unpunished. Another matter of particular concern was that the March 2002 shootings in Aksy Raion have gone unpunished. Five antigovernment protestors were killed by bullets, and a sixth died later as a result of torture while in detention, according to a 5 November report submitted to the OSCE meeting by the International Helsinki Federation For Human Rights. Dyryldaev also complained that, although the Kyrgyz Parliament had passed a bill making torture a criminal offense in spring 2003, the president vetoed it; the parliament then overrode his veto this autumn, but Akaev had yet to sign the bill, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 10 November.
These issues were elaborated at the 17 November meeting. Ismailova urged the government to criminalize torture, and charged that existing laws mandating punishment for beating prisoners to extort confessions were not actually applied, Pyramid TV reported. On the contrary, she observed sarcastically, instead of being punished, policemen received from international donors the latest model rubber truncheons to wield against Kyrgyz citizens. Presumably her reference was to a $4 million grant from the OSCE to the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry to provide modern equipment and technical training for the police (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 11 July 2003). Local civil society leaders have repeatedly expressed fear that the program would increase the ability of law enforcement forces to repress the opposition (see "Kyrgyzstan: OSCE Plans Police Training," rferl.org, 7 August 2003). Opposition lawmaker Azimbek Beknazarov, leader of the Asaba (Flag) National Revival Party, also lamented on 17 November that since joining the Convention on Torture until today, "not one law has been adopted in order to punish those who organized such torture, and those who carried out it," RFE/RL reported.
Meanwhile Kyrgyz authorities have denied the allegations, saying human rights groups are making them in an effort to justify grants they receive from international sponsors. Joldoshbek Busurmankulov, chief of the Interior Ministry's press service, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on 17 November, "There is no [proof] of torture. Nobody forced anybody to plead guilty, and nobody will do it in future. This is against human morality. I would consider the actions of those NGOs and so-called human rights activists, who are saying such things in order to receive grants from abroad, to be treachery against our country."
Then in the afternoon of 17 November, Kyrgyz TV abruptly announced that Akaev had signed a law amending the country's criminal code. "In line with the amendments, Kyrgyz officials and officers will now have to bear legal responsibility for cases of torture," the television said, and has offered no further information. Since the KCHR press release, carried by centrasia.ru on 21 November, congratulated rights defenders and lawmakers for finally forcing Akaev's hand, he apparently put his signature on the bill he had previously vetoed. According to centrasia.ru, however, the Kyrgyz authorities were claiming Akaev had actually signed the law on 14 November and no pressure was involved -- in which case, it is curious why state media waited three days to announce it.
Meanwhile, in Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent, the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office held a meeting to investigate progress and challenges in the sphere of human rights, Uzbek radio reported on 14 November. Attended by representatives of the various law enforcement agencies, the meeting focused on "recommendations aimed at eliminating violations of the law in the course of criminal proceedings and serving prison terms," the radio said. In particular, the gathered officials considered the report and recommendations of the UN human rights rapporteur on torture, Theo van Boven, who concluded a two-week fact-finding mission in Uzbekistan last December with the declaration that torture was "systematic" in the country's prisons and detention camps (see "Uzbekistan: UN Rapporteur Says Use Of Torture 'Systematic,'" rferl.org, 9 December 2003).
In the latest incident, reported on 10 November by Uzbekistan's Ezgulik (Good Deed) Human Rights Society, 23-year-old Kuandyk Syrlybaev was tortured to death by Uzbek border guards earlier this month. Together with three other men, he was caught attempting to smuggle about 100 kilograms of cotton into Kazakhstan, where the price of cotton is a dozen times higher than what the Uzbek government pays. According to official reports, Syrlybaev died in an automobile accident while trying to elude an Uzbek patrol (see "Uzbekistan: Lives On The Line At Border," rferl.org, 12 November 2003).