Human rights in Central Asia

(Updated in January 2012)

The era after gaining independence has been turbulent for the five Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia is still described as one of the most repressive regions in the world.

Kazakhstan is rich in natural resources and enjoys economical prosperity, but the country remains under the tight rule of President Nazarbayev, who has been in office since 1990. Close relatives to President Nazarbayev serve in some of the country’s most influential positions. Groups trying to establish opposition parties face obstacles with registration and harassment from the authorities. In February 2010, Nazarbayev announced that the presidential elections due in 2012 will take place earlier – in April 2011, giving the opposition minimum time to prepare.

Tajikistan has still to recover from the civil war that shook the country in the 1990’s. Poverty is widespread and migrants working abroad earn almost half of the country’s GDP. The mountainous country remains a haven for drug trafficking, and has been criticized by neighbouring countries for tolerating training camps for Islamist rebels to take place on its territory. President Rakhmon is currently enjoying his third term in office.

2010 was a chaotic year for Kyrgyzstan, and the country is now on the insecure and unstable recovery path. Former President Bakiyev, whose five years in office were characterized by corruption and authoritarianism, was ousted to Belarus following the April 2010 uprisings in southern Kyrgyzstan.

On 30 October 2011 Presidential elections were held in Kyrgyzstan to replace Interim President Roza Otunbayeva. It was won by the former Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan. The new government faces the challenge of restoring stability and ensuring the respect for fundamental human rights.

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are among the seven most corrupt states in terms of perceived administrative and political corruption, according to Transparency International’s 2010 survey of 178 states. Uzbekistan received global condemnation following the Andijan massacre in 2005, where security forces opened fire on civilian protestors killing hundreds. An international body has still not gained access to carry out an independent inquiry to the massacre.

All five states have failed to carry out free and fair elections. They are all described as ‘consolidated authoritarian regimes’ in Freedom House’s 2009 Report on Nations in Transit, with Turkmenistan named the most authoritative regime, closely followed by Uzbekistan.

The heritage of the many undemocratic features of the Soviet system makes it a difficult and timely procedure for the Central Asian states to implement respect for human rights, the rule of law, and good governance. But the process has begun. By joining the OSCE, and by signing international human rights instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the United Nations Millennium Declaration, the countries of Central Asia have committed to implementing a number of ambitious goals related to human rights.

Despite this, the human rights record in the region remains bleak; gender equality is undeveloped, freedom of association and of the press is limited, journalists are often victims of harassment, torture, and unwarranted imprisonment.

Limited freedom of speech and freedom of the press
President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan recently signed amendments to a law on the Internet, classifying all online sources, such as websites and blogs, as mass media. Consequently, material published online is subject to the same rules that govern other mass media, for instance criminal sanctions for criticizing the President and government officials. In Turkmenistan the authorities continue to block websites run by exiled members of the opposition and dissidents.

Strenuous working climate for human rights defenders
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the region are forced to operate in a climate characterized by government repression and harassment. The crackdown on human rights defenders, independent journalists, and political activists continues in the entire Central Asian region, though to various extent. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are especially, known for failing to conduct prompt, thorough and impartial investigations, and consequently maintain a judicial system dominated by impunity. Unfair treatment of prisoners and horrid prison conditions is also frequent in the region.

There are frequent examples of what appears to be politically motivated imprisonments of human rights defenders and political activists. One such case is the imprisonment of Evgeny Zhovtis, one of Kazakhstan’s most prominent human rights defenders and Director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights, following a car accident in 2009. The sentence has been widely criticized for being unusually harsh, and is believed to be retaliation for Zhovtis’ professional activities. Evgeny Zhovtis was awarded the 2010 Andrey Sakharov Freedom Award.

Human rights groups in Uzbekistan report on cases of extrajudicial deprivation of liberty, despite a law on habeas corpus being introduced in 2008. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture refers to the government’s record on torture as ‘systematic’. One example is that of Uzbek human rights defender Elena Urlaeva, who received the 2010 Per Anger award by the Swedish Government. Urlaeva has been the victim of beatings on numerous occasions for her outspoken criticism of the government, and on one occasion her five-year-old son was attacked because of the work of his mother.

Upon a visit to Kazakh prison and detentions centres in 2009, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture commented on detainees’ almost complete denial of contacts with the outside world, often for prolonged periods, which is contradictory to the principle of the presumption of innocence. There were also credible allegations noted of severe forms of torture in order to obtain confessions from suspects.

It remains to be seen how the new Kyrgyz government will ensure thorough and impartial investigations into the violent clashes during the political uprisings of 2010 and fair trials for defendants in cases resulting from the protests.

Vulnerability of women and children
Domestic violence against women, and the kidnapping of women for forced marriage, seemingly increased in recent years. Reportedly, some 40 to 50 victims of domestic violence are registered monthly at Bishkek city hospital alone. Between a third and one half of the women in Tajikistan are victims of domestic violence. Moreover, figures from the Kyrgyz government’s statistical office show that in the south of the country, half of all women between the ages of 15 and 19 who give birth are not married. They are thereby often subject to discrimination and abuse, as they lack the legal protection ensured by official marriage status and especially susceptible to domestic violence.

The use of child labour has been reported in the region despite all Central Asian countries being signatories to the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, following Turkmenistan’s ratification in November 2010. The cotton and tobacco industry in Uzbekistan has been particularly known to exploit underage workers. Far beyond one million children are believed to work in Uzbek cotton fields every year.

Widespread discrimination against minorities and refugees
Failure to protect refugees and asylum seekers is common in the region. One example is instances where Kyrgyz National Security Service has targeted Uzbek asylum seekers and other minority groups in operations described as anti-terrorism measures.

Religious minorities suffer from frequent harassment by the police and by the local authorities in terms of censorship, unduly administrative regulations and bureaucratic delays, legal restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, raids, and interrogations. One example is that of Scientologists in Kazakhstan who have reported on charges against them characterizing their religious practices as illegal medical activities. Similarly, in 2006 leaflets prepared by the Kazakh Ministry of Justice entitled “How to avoid the influence of religious sects” warned against the risks of involvement with non-traditional religions, whose activities in some cases were described as ”treason against the Motherland.”

The LGBT-community in Central Asia
In all Central Asian countries the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) persons is a highly sensitive and controversial issue. Homosexual acts between consenting men were only legalized in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 1998. In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan sexual relationships between males are illegal and can result in imprisonment of up to three years.

There are no legal safeguards against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in any of the five Central Asian countries. LGBT persons face stigmatization and discrimination on a daily basis, both from the society in general but also very often from family members.

This discourages individuals from organising themselves, and very few activists dare to claim their rights openly. General human rights organisations and media are often unwilling to endorse and include the rights of LGBT persons in their work. When LGBT issues are raised it is usually with an HIV-prevention perspective, which creates further stigmatisation.

There are very few LGBT organisations working openly in Central Asia. In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where the overall human rights situation is critical, it is impossible to act openly. In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan the situation is slightly better and there are initiatives and organisations working with LGBT rights and HIV prevention. However, it is common that that the police harass gay persons visiting well known gay bars and gatherings. This sometimes results in physical attacks.

Read more about the situation for LGBT people in Central Asia


Kategorier: Landanalyser.
Etiketter: Mänskliga rättigheter.
Regions: Centralasien.