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Richard Hoagland
ALMATY (Reuters) -- The United States urged Kazakhstan today to use its chairmanship of Europe's main security and human rights watchdog to lead by example and improve its own record.

Rights groups have criticized the West for allowing Kazakhstan to assume the rotating chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) this month, saying the nation is unfit to lead a group devoted to promoting democracy.

The first ex-Soviet republic to assume the role, Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free and fair. Public criticism of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, in power for 20 years, remains taboo.

"The United States is eager to collaborate with Kazakhstan as it leads the OSCE by example and reflects in practice the principles of the organization in all three dimensions - security, economic, and human," U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan Richard Hoagland said in a statement.

"The OSCE's work in the human dimension is a key priority and one where implementation of commitments must be taken most seriously. Kazakhstan has a critical and important opportunity to lead both by word and by deed."

Kazakhstan has said the OSCE was too focused on the so-called "human dimension" -- human rights and democracy -- and paid insufficient attention to other issues.

The United States is one of the biggest investors in Kazakhstan, Central Asia's top oil producer, and U.S. support was instrumental in Kazakh efforts to get the OSCE role.

Often a critic of political restrictions in many other transition economies, Washington has traditionally used softer diplomatic language toward Kazakhstan, where U.S. and other foreign oil companies control most energy deposits.

Not referring to Kazakhstan in particular, Hoagland said journalists in the OSCE region still faced dangers and media pluralism was lacking.

"Elections that fail to achieve transparency and reflect the will of the people have also been a source of concern," Hoagland said. "Judiciaries too often serve as a tool of the few rather than a safeguard for the rule of law for all citizens."

The OSCE has never recognized elections in Kazakhstan as free and fair.

Hoagland mentioned the conflict between Russia, Kazakhstan's close partner, and Georgia -- a tough issue for Kazakhstan which cautiously sided with Moscow in the wake of a brief 2008 war.

"We believe the OSCE has a meaningful role to play in stability within and along Georgia's internationally recognized borders," he said. "To that end, we, along with many other participating states, remain committed to the re-establishment of an OSCE presence there that respects Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty."
Photographer Umida Ahmedova
The International Association of Art Critics (AICA) has launched a campaign in support of Uzbek photographer Umida Ahmedova, who has been charged by the government with defamation, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reports.

The Paris-based art organization has published an appeal to Uzbek authorities to acquit Ahmedova. The appeal is signed by nearly 1,000 artists, art critics, journalists, and rights activists from around the world.

The AICA appeal calls on the Uzbek government to dismiss the charges against Ahmedova on the grounds that art is not journalism and cannot be viewed "as an agent" of defamation. (For a slideshow of Ahmedova's work, click here.)

The AICA said it is attempting to draw the attention of the international community and rights organizations to Ahmedova's case.

It says that if Ahmedova's case is not stopped, "any photo taken on the Uzbek streets could become a pretext for legal charges."

Ahmedova, 54, was arrested on December 16 and charged with defamation and damaging Uzbekistan's image with a series of photos and videos she took in remote villages that she used for the documentaries "The Burden Of Virginity" and "Customs Of Men And Women." The films focus on poverty and gender inequality in Uzbekistan.

The documentaries were sponsored by the Swiss Embassy in Tashkent.

Ahmedova, who has contributed photographs to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, says the charges against her are "groundless" and "absurd."

If found guilty, Ahmedova could face a fine and up to two years in a labor camp or up to six months in prison.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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