Human Rights Watch (HRW) is urging the European Union to make clear that greater support for Central Asia is tied to “genuine” human rights reforms.
The New York-based human rights watchdog made the call on November 16, as EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell prepares to meet remotely with foreign ministers from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan for the 16th EU-Central Asia Ministerial meeting.
Central Asian countries’ responses to political turmoil, such as in Kyrgyzstan, or to challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic “would have been more effective if they had lived up to their pledges to respect rights,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW, said in a statement.
It said that Central Asian governments justified their moves to limit access to information and restrict freedom of expression by their efforts to slow down the spread of the virus, while economic hardship and inequalities increased in the region as a consequence of the pandemic.
According to HRW, recent political upheavals in Kyrgyzstan that led to the resignation of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov also put human rights at risk in the country.
The group said the EU should press the Kyrgyz authorities to hold a “genuinely independent inquiry” into the death of prominent human rights activist Azimjan Askarov in custody in July.
Askarov “had wrongfully been behind bars since 2010, and his untimely death is a serious stain on the country’s human rights record,” it said.
In Kazakhstan, President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev’s promises for reforms “have not brought meaningful improvements," according to HRW.
Peaceful protesters continue to be “harassed or detained” in the oil-rich nation, obstacles to independent labor organizing persist, and many journalists continue to be “harassed or attacked” while doing their jobs.
The statement noted that the "wrongfully jailed" Kazakh activist Maks Boqaev, who was sentenced to five years in prison in 2016 for organizing massive unsanctioned protests against land reform, remains in prison.
In Uzbekistan, HRW said, there have been some concrete steps to improve the human rights situation, but “people released from arbitrary detention are often denied legal rehabilitation, the criminal code retains deeply problematic provisions, and pledges to bring the nongovernmental organization (NGO) code in line with international standards remain unfulfilled.”
"The EU should make sure that Uzbekistan addresses important failings before granting new trade incentives conditioned by EU law on genuine implementation of core human rights treaties," the watchdog said.
In Tajikistan, more than 150 political opponents, critics, or their lawyers remain imprisoned on politically motivated charges, while prison conditions remain “abysmal,” with activists reporting “widespread torture and ill-treatment” in detention, according to HRW.
It said Tajik citizens residing abroad face attacks and extradition requests, while their relatives in Tajikistan are harassed and detained.
Calling Turkmenistan the “most repressive country” in the region, HRW said it was not possible to determine the exact number of people imprisoned on politically motivated grounds there.
"Scores of people remain forcibly disappeared, some for as long as 18 years," it said.
The Turkmen government "tightly controls information in the face of major social and economic fallout, with shortages of subsidized food putting people’s well-being at risk," the statement added.
HRW concludes that the EU should use its leverage to show that there will be political consequences if governments fail to translate their rhetoric for reforms into concrete actions.
In 2019, the EU adopted a new strategy for Central Asia, prioritizing the rule of law as a necessity to make public institutions more responsive and accountable to their citizens.