Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, two of the world's most repressive dictatorships, came under harsh criticism from Western democracies during the latest Universal Periodic Review hearings at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva this week. But likeminded authoritarian regimes came to their defense, praising the two for "progress" at improving their records in recent years.
The Human Rights Council, made up of 47 UN member states, is examining the progress the two Central Asian countries have achieved since their first review in December 2008. Ahead of the hearings, Human Rights Watch called on the council "to expose and denounce the ongoing repression" in both countries and to exert pressure on them to "end abuses."
“The extraordinarily high levels of repression in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, coupled with their governments’ refusal to acknowledge problems, let alone to address them, underscores the need for a strong, unified message,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Ashgabat and Tashkent need to hear, loud and clear, just how unacceptable their abusive records are, and what specific changes they need to make.”
Following last year’s crackdown on Kazakhstan’s media and opposition, many have wondered what political course President Nursultan Nazarbayev is steering.
Today, Nazarbayev delivered his response: Kazakhstan is firmly set on becoming a Western-style democracy, he said – but it will take time.
“We believe that the democracy and freedom that exist in the West, as in Finland, are for us the final goal, and not the start of the path,” he told visiting Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, in remarks quoted by Tengri News. “We are going along that path.”
Kazakhstan may have occasionally stumbled along the way, but Nazarbayev believes the glass of democracy is at least half full. “To put it vividly in the words of a philosopher, our glass is half or three-quarters full, and we have to fill it up,” he said.
Nazarbayev was speaking the day after a motion was made in the European Parliament urging members to vote for a new resolution expressing concern about Kazakhstan’s human rights situation.
The draft resolution specifically points to court rulings last year banning the Alga! party and independent media outlets, alleging that such a move "violates the principles of freedom of expression and assembly and raises great concerns with regard to subsequent repression of media and opposition.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross will no longer try to visit prisoners in Uzbekistan because authorities are not allowing ICRC officials private access as promised, the organization said on April 12.
Uzbekistan has one of the world’s worst human rights records; torture and incommunicado detention are considered common. The Geneva-based ICRC suspended visits, which have been held sporadically since 2001, last October.
The decision, which the ICRC described as rare, came after last-ditch talks between its director-general Yves Daccord and authorities this week in Tashkent.
"Visiting all detainees of ICRC concern and speaking to them in private - without witnesses - are essential preconditions for the effective protection of detainees," said Daccord in a statement.
"Visits must have a meaningful impact on detention conditions, and dialogue with the detaining authorities must be constructive. And that's not the case in Uzbekistan," he said.
ICRC officials have been visiting prisoners on and off in Uzbekistan since 2001. In return for access, their findings are only shared with authorities.
The U.S. envoy to the U.N. Human Rights Council last month drew attention to alleged violations.
"Torture and abuse of detainees by security forces, denial of due process and fair trial, and government-organised forced and child labour in cotton-harvesting continues," ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told the Geneva forum.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan likes to call his second term the “Era of Supreme Happiness of the Stable State” and refer to himself as “The Protector.” Some of his citizens might call themselves his “inmates.”
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan reports that secret blacklists barring certain individuals from leaving the country continue to exist, much as they did during the “Golden Age” of Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in office in late 2006.
The Chronicles website, run by Turkmen exiles in Vienna, says 48 Turkmen citizens were prevented from boarding Istanbul-, Dubai- and Moscow-bound flights on just one recent day. Despite having tickets and brand-new biometric passports, border guards told the grounded travelers on January 24 that they were banned from leaving the country. "However, no documents were produced to the frustrated passengers, nor reasons given for the ban on leaving," the website said.
When these would-be travellers sought explanations from the Border and Migration Service, they were sent to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of National Security. Both maintained they had nothing to do with the decision, said the report.
Unsuspecting Turkmen citizens often do not know that their names are on the secret blacklists until they attempt to pass through immigration. Others reportedly have been pulled off airplanes on the tarmac.
There is an interesting piece posted recently on Foreign Policy’s website that highlights how authoritarian-minded leaders in Eurasia are becoming adept at leveraging thuggish behavior.
The article, titled “The League of Authoritarian Gentlemen,” is written by Alex Cooley, a Central Asia specialist at Columbia University. It examines the ways in which Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have used the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to stifle dissent.
International pressure can affect the abysmal human rights situation in Uzbekistan, it turns out: After years of withering criticism, Tashkent is deploying fewer children into its cotton fields and relying increasingly on teenagers and adults – including public service workers threatened with loss of employment and loss of benefits such as pensions – Human Rights Watch says.
The “abuses persist,” however, in all of Uzbekistan’s provinces, says the New York-based watchdog in a report released late Friday night.
For the 2012 harvest, the Uzbek government forced over a million of its own citizens, children and adults – including its teachers, doctors, and nurses – to harvest cotton in abusive conditions on threat of punishment, Human Rights Watch found. The authorities harassed local activists and journalists who tried to report on the issue. In 2011, Uzbekistan was the world’s fifth largest exporter of cotton.
“The issue here is forced labor, plain and simple” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Forcing more older children and adults to work in the cotton fields to replace some younger children, does not change the fact that Uzbekistan is forcing a million of its people to labor in these fields involuntarily every year at harvest season.”
It is widely acknowledged that the Uzbek government has long relied on forced labor, including of children as young as nine, to pick cotton produced for export. In 2012, the burden was shifted somewhat to older children and adults, according to cotton workers, independent activists, and local rights groups across Uzbekistan who spoke with Human Rights Watch.
Marking a year this week since the start of a political crackdown, Kazakhstan has entered 2013 with a transformed political landscape, the opposition effectively decimated and independent media muzzled.
Under the strongman reign of 72-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power for over two decades, Kazakhstan has never willingly opened its arms to criticism. But critics say last year witnessed an unprecedented attack on dissenting voices, leaving the political scene bereft of any meaningful platform from which to hold the administration accountable.
The crackdown began on January 23, 2012, with the rounding up of opposition figures and journalists a month after fatal unrest in Zhanaozen, a western oil town.
The anti-dissent campaign culminated in December court rulings that shut down approximately 40 independent media outlets (including outspoken newspapers Respublika and Vzglyad) and Kazakhstan’s most vocal opposition party, Alga! (whose leader Vladimir Kozlov is serving a jail term on charges of fomenting the Zhanaozen violence and plotting to overthrow the state).
Alga! and the media outlets were declared extremist and accused of inciting the Zhanaozen violence, which spiraled out of a protracted oil strike that the government acknowledges was mismanaged.
Uzbek human rights activists have plenty of reasons to feel unsafe at home and in exile. Their well justified fears may now spread: A prominent Russian activist who has written extensively about human rights abuses in Uzbekistan says he has received death threats originating in Tashkent.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on Russian authorities to investigate the death threats against Vitaliy Ponomarev, the lead Central Asia expert with the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center, and his family.
His latest report, published on December 26, detailed the Uzbek security services’ interrogations of Uzbek migrant worker Latif Zhalalbaev in a Russian prison: Uzbek operatives have allegedly tortured Zhalalbaev, who was arrested last October on counterfeiting charges, in attempts to extract information on the financing of an Islamist militant group, Ponomarev reported.
On January 12, Ponomarev received three emails within several minutes threatening him and his family. The authors of the emails said they know where Ponomarev lives and specifically threatened to decapitate him. The emails, which came from a single IP address in Tashkent but from different addresses, also warned him against travelling to southern Kyrgyzstan. When Ponomarev publicized the death threats on January 18, he received another threatening email.
With a pinch of of whataboutism, President Islam Karimov says Uzbekistan is democratizing in its own way, and no one should rush it.
Speaking on state television on December 7 to mark the 20th anniversary of Uzbekistan’s constitution, Karimov said his country is rapidly developing into “a modern sovereign country with democratic, social, political and civil institutions that view human rights and freedoms as real values.”
Most EurasiaNet readers will scoff at the suggestion that one of the world’s longest-ruling autocrats, who throws critics into prison while his family seems to seize anything not nailed down, has much belief in values like the rule of law or protection of private property.
Nonetheless, the speech, though nothing unusual for Karimov, will give our readers a taste of the verbose spin the 74-year-old employs. Much of it sounds as dated as he is – which may help explain why he views things like the Internet and Western video games as such a threat.
Karimov – who has run Uzbekistan for 23 years – paints himself as a reformer. Democratization “is a long and continuous process that is not limited to a certain period of time, and we are certainly aware of that,” he said of the “Uzbek model” of development.
Transcript and translation provided by BBC Monitoring.
[We are] implementing a blueprint for evolutionary development, making sure that the economy is free of ideology, introducing democratic reforms gradually, ensuring the supremacy of law, recognizing the state's role as the chief reformer and further increasing its influence during the transitional period, and taking into account our country's unique features, conducting a strong social policy.
American government statements on human rights in Central Asia tend to be pretty tepid, especially when they focus on countries necessary for transit routes into and out of Afghanistan.
A December 6 speech by Hillary Rodham Clinton, the US Secretary of State, was not much different, though she did single out the region for attention as part of what she called wider backsliding on human rights in the former Soviet world.
I just met with a group of the Civil Society Solidarity Platform leaders from a number of member states. They talked to me about the growing challenges and dangers that they are facing, about new restrictions on human rights from governments, new pressures on journalists, new assaults on NGOs. And I urge all of us to pay attention to their concerns.
For example, in Belarus, the Government continues to systematically repress human rights, detain political prisoners, and intimidate journalists. In Ukraine, the elections in October were a step backwards for democracy, and we remain deeply concerned about the selective prosecution of opposition leaders. In Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, there are examples of the restrictions of the freedom of expression online and offline as well as the freedom of religion. In the Caucasus, we see constraints on judicial independence, attacks on journalists, and elections that are not always free and fair.
Clinton was speaking at an OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in Dublin (all five Central Asian states are OSCE members). She didn’t get into details on Central Asia, so here’s a quick recap of recent events:
--In Tajikistan, authorities have been blocking websites critical of President Emomali Rakhmon and his military’s violent assault on the Gorno-Badakhshan region this summer.