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.
Throughout the year, numerous detainees have died; in many cases their bodies were returned to their families with clear signs of torture. In one case reported by local journalists, a 12-year-old boy was kidnapped and tortured for three days by the secret police. NGOs reporting on these issues are being forced to close.
--In Turkmenistan, the president is so bent on having his people wave to him, that two students forced to march out in the cold and practice reportedly died last month of exposure. There is no way to verify or refute the deaths because the country is so closed.
--In the gulags of Uzbekistan there are thousands of political prisoners. Some have their sentences extended at the last minute for no apparent reason at all. Here’s an example from this year.
--Kazakhstan, which chaired the OSCE in 2010 and likes to fashion itself as a modern democracy, is perhaps Clinton’s biggest disappointment. Since deadly unrest in Zhanaozen a year ago, when 15 died after an oil-workers’ strike spiraled out of control and police fired into the crowd, authorities have systematically muzzled critical voices, jailing one of the most prominent opposition figures for 7.5 years, and silencing independent media.
The day Clinton spoke, authorities in western Kazakhstan arrested a rights defender for filing lawsuits on behalf of victims of police abuse that followed the Zhanaozen unrest. Today a court in Aktau sentenced Asel Nurghazieva to 12 days in prison, Radio Free Europe reports. That will keep her in jail just long enough to ensure she does not participate in any mischef on the anniversary of the bloodshed, December 16. Her lawyers say the sentence is politically motivated.
Clinton did not mention Kyrgyzstan, where human rights activist Azimjon Askarov languishes in prison with a life sentence for a murder few believe he committed after a trial marred by blatant irregularities. And last year parliament blocked an independent website without a court order because of its critical coverage of ethnic violence in 2010.
In general, according to a separate RFE report, Clinton, singling out Turkmenistan, said governments in the region "are becoming much more aggressive in trying to stifle dissent.”
The Secretary reserved her strongest words for Russia. Besides criticizing new laws that are forcing civil society groups to close, she called projects like the Moscow-led Customs Union, which wraps Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus into an economic and trade block, “a move to re-Sovietize the region.”
“We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it," she said.
Russian officials dismissed the eyebrow-raising remark, with President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman saying Clinton has “a completely wrong understanding” of the situation.
Clinton is due to step down as secretary of state early next year amid widespread speculation her future may include a run for president in 2016.