Fundamental freedoms under serious threat in Central Asia twenty years after Soviet collapse

Brussels, The Hague, Vienna, Almaty, Tashkent 7 March 2012. A new 36-page report published today by a coalition of five human rights groups from Europe and Central Asia highlights serious threats to fundamental freedoms in the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, these countries continue to be ruled by authoritarian leaders, who have monopolized power, marginalized and silenced the political opposition and curtailed the rights of citizens to express their views, ideas and convictions.

“The recent wave of uprisings in the Arab world has made the leaders in Astana, Ashgabat and Tashkent keenly aware of their own vulnerability and they now appear more intent than ever to use repressive measures to hold on to power, stifle dissent and escape responsibility for their actions,” said Brigitte Dufour, director of International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR).

The new report, which is entitled “Sobering reality: Fundamental freedoms in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan twenty years after the Soviet collapse”, details violations of freedom of expression and media, freedom of association and assembly, and freedom of religion in the three countries under review. Trends long documented in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are now increasingly seen in Kazakhstan as well. These include: the use of state media as instruments of government propaganda; harassment of independent media and journalists; restrictions on internet use and blocking of websites that feature information critical of the authorities; attacks on independent civil society actors and political opposition movements, to the extent such can exist at all; suppression of peaceful protests; and persecution of so-called non-traditional religious communities, including both Muslim groups that function outside strict state control and non-Muslim groups branded as “sects.”

“While Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have long had the questionable reputation of belonging to the world’s most repressive countries, we are seriously concerned that the human rights situation in Kazakhstan has deteriorated in the recent period,” commented Harry Hummel, director of the Netherlands Helsinki Committee (NHC).

In the aftermath of the December 2011 events in western Kazakhstan, when police used excessive force to put down riots, the Kazakhstani authorities have launched a new crackdown on the political opposition, opposition media and labor activists. They have also recently reinforced efforts to control the internet and other electronic media and enforced a new restrictive law on religion.

“We, the human rights defenders of Kazakhstan, and our international partners call on the authorities of our country to uphold the Helsinki commitments, which were unanimously reaffirmed in the Astana Declaration of the 2010 OSCE Summit in Kazakhstan,” said Roza Akylbekova, acting director of Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR).

The Turkmen and Uzbek regimes have also paid lip service to democracy and human rights, while continuing efforts to consolidate their rule and suppress opposition. The run-up to the February 2012 presidential elections in Turkmenistan saw new attempts to prevent the dissemination of information that casts doubt on government propaganda and to intimidate and silence critics of the authorities. Disguised as a democratic exercise, the pro-forma elections cemented the hold on power of the incumbent president, who took office amid expectations of political change after the death of Turkmenbashi in 2006.

“During President Berdymukhamedov’s first period in office, his promises of a democratic transition did not translate into any changes in practice,” said Farid Tukhbatullin, head of Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR). “Prior to last month’s elections he again promised to carry out reforms, but I suspect that these promises will also remain just promises,” he continued.

The Uzbek authorities have responded to growing internet use among Uzbek residents and speculations about the possibility of an Arab-style revolution in Central Asia with new measures to rein in the internet. At the same time, they have continued their relentless campaign against dissident voices in the country.

“The Karimov regime’s talk about reform is only a ploy to curry international favor,” said Surat Ikramov, chairman of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan (IGIHRDU). “In reality the Uzbek authorities have not shown any willingness to change their repressive tactics and continue to persecute independent journalists, human rights activists, religious believers and others who challenge official policies,” he added.

The report published by the five human rights groups outlines broader trends regarding the protection of fundamental rights in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and describes recent individual cases that illustrate these trends. It is primarily based on information obtained through human rights monitoring conducted by KIBHR, TIHR and the IGIHRDU in 2011 and early 2012. It ends with a set of recommendations to the authorities of the countries under review, as well as to the international community.

For more information:

Brigitte Dufour, IPHR Director (English, French), +32 473363891

Harry Hummel, NHC Director (English, Dutch), +31 70 392 6700

Roza Akylbekova, KIBHR Acting Director (Russian, English), +7 727 2395345

Farid Tukhbatullin, TIHR Head (Russian, English), +43 1 3191822

Surat Ikramov, IGIHRDU Chairman (Russian), +998 971 197689

Download the Summary, Central Asia Report, March 2012

Download the full version A Sobering Reality – Fundamental Freedoms in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan Twenty Years after the Soviet Collapse, March 2012

Source: TIHR