Kazakhstan’s annual human rights consultations with the European Union took place this week against the backdrop of what activists say is an alarming spike in arrests over social media postings.
Astana is set to upgrade its relations with EU with the signing of an expanded partnership agreement, prompting concerns that Brussels may choose to gloss over rights issues for geopolitical ends.
While tolerance for dissent has always been low in Kazakhstan, authorities appear to have opened a new front by chasing down what they deem to be critical postings on websites like Facebook and Russia’s VKontakte.
Ahead of the human rights consultations, which took place in Astana on November 26, advocacy groups urged Brussels to address the clampdown.
“The EU should insist that the Kazakhstani authorities stop criminally prosecuting individuals who are legitimately exercising their right to freedom of expression to voice opinions or share information that may not be to the liking of those in power,” said Brigitte Dufour, director of the Brussels–based International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), in a joint statement with the Almaty-based Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR). “Open debate – both off- and online – is a key element in any society aspiring to be a free and democratic one.”
On November 11, activist Bolatbek Blyalov of the Anti-Heptyl movement, which campaigns against Russia’s use of Kazakhstan’s Baikonur space station, was arrested on charges of inciting ethnic strife in social media postings.
Blogger Yermek Taychibekov is on trial on the same charge over postings in which he argued Kazakhstan should become part of Russia.
For more than two decades, Murod Juraev languished behind bars in Uzbekistan and was subjected to torture and ill-treatment so bad that all his teeth fell out.
All kinds of pretexts were cooked up to extend the political activist’s jail term, including, on one occasion, a charge that he peeled carrots incorrectly.
Now, after 21 years in detention — a timespan that has made him “one of the world’s longest imprisoned peaceful political activists” — Juraev has been released, nine human rights groups said in a joint statement on November 12.
Juraev was a member of the Erk opposition party and a former local mayor in southern Uzbekistan when he was jailed, in 1994.
“The last 21 years have been a living hell that Murod Juraev and his family should never have had to experience,” Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch, said in the joint statement. “The Uzbek authorities should see to it that those who are alleged to have tortured Juraev and arbitrarily extended his prison sentence are promptly investigated and brought to justice.”
Swerdlow was referring to abuse to which Juraev, now 63 years old, was allegedly subjected in jail and to apparently groundless extensions to the original nine-year prison sentence.
Juraev had his jail term extended four times to keep him in jail — in 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2012 — after authorities found he had broken prison rules, including “peeling carrots incorrectly.”
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev got the red carpet treatment at Buckingham Palace this week after signing billions of dollars in investment deals in London.
The focus of the two-day trip, which started on November 3, was trade, and British Prime Minister David Cameron – fresh from hosting China’s leader Xi Jinping about to welcome Egypt’s Abdul Fattah al-Sisi – showed no sign of succumbing to pressure from campaigners to press Nazarbayev over Kazakhstan’s checkered human rights record.
Nazarbayev met Cameron and British businessmen and came away with 40 trade and investment deals worth around $5 billion, according to Nazarbayev's office.
One coup for Nazarbayev was an agreement for a British company to invest some $3.1 billion in a project to bring gas from the energy-rich west of his vast country to the capital Astana and the industrial heartlands.
Kazakhstan may have plenty of gas, but it lacks distribution capacity. So the deal reported by TengriNews for Britain’s Independent Power Corporation to build a gas pipeline and construct four gas stations is welcome for Astana.
Nazarbayev also secured agreement for British involvement in EXPO-17, a flagship international exhibition that Astana is hosting in two years, and investment in the steel and solar industries.
Washington’s top diplomat traveled to Central Asia to kick-start a historic initiative to reinvigorate U.S. engagement with the region, but it was the unceremonious treatment of a reporter that is going to stick in the memory.
Activists had hoped in advance of John Kerry’s whistle-stop tour that human rights issues might feature prominently on the agenda. But talk of those was relegated to the sidelines — in public at least.
Instead, Kerry focused on prospects of security, energy and economic cooperation, which have long constituted core priorities for Washington.
The closest Kerry came to mentioning Central Asia’s poor human rights record in public was in remarks about “quality of governance and the strength of democratic institutions.”
“In Central Asia, as elsewhere, people have a deep hunger for governments that are accountable and effective,” he said at the meeting on November 1 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, with foreign ministers from the region’s five former Soviet republics.
The U.S. State Department said in advance of the tour that this meeting would form the basis of a new diplomatic format, which it has dubbed C5+1.
“We should have no doubt that progress in democratic governance does lead to gains in every other field about which we are concerned and about which we are talking,” Kerry said.
The muted tone of those remarks will have come as a disappointment to many.
A human rights campaigner who alleges that she was tortured, gang-raped and forcibly sterilized while in custody in Uzbekistan has won a landmark United Nations ruling ordering Tashkent to investigate and prosecute those responsible for her ordeal.
The UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) found there had been “multiple violations” of the rights of Mutabar Tadjibayeva, an activist who now lives in exile in Paris, a press release issued by three human rights groups on October 8 said.
These include her rights “to be free from torture and ill-treatment; to liberty and security; to a fair trial; to freedom of expression; and to be protected against discrimination on the grounds of sex and opinion,” the press release from Tadjibayeva’s own group, the Fiery Hearts Club, and two international groups supporting her, London-based Redress and Paris-based FIDH.
“I hope this decision adds to the struggle against impunity in Uzbekistan and serves to put an end to the many indignities committed against human rights defenders by its repressive regime,” Tadjibayeva said in response to the UNHRC ruling, issued on October 6.
Tadjibayeva alleged in a complaint filed with the UN in 2012 that she was tortured, gang-raped and forcibly sterilized (a practice the government denies but which has been documented by the BBC) while in custody in Uzbekistan, where she was jailed in 2005 shortly after a bout of fatal unrest in her hometown of Andijan.
Legislation approved last month by Kazakhstan’s parliament is creating onerous rules on how nongovernmental organizations are funded and sparking alarm among activists of a fresh crackdown on civil society.
Critics of the bill have drawn comparisons to a 2012 law adopted in Russia that requires foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents,” a label with toxic Cold War-era associations.
Although the wording of the bill in Kazakhstan is different, many fear the results may be similar.
The law will grant the government “ideological control over NGOs,” activist Amangeldy Shormanbayev warned on October 6.
Over 60 NGOs have signed an appeal for President Nursultan Nazarbayev to veto the bill, which was approved by the lower house of parliament on September 23 and is now awaiting a vote in the Senate.
The petition warns that “if this draft law is adopted, it will seriously restrict human rights,” including the rights to freedom of speech, conscience and association.
Since the constitution guarantees those rights, the law is anti-constitutional and also breaches international human rights commitments to which Astana subscribes, the appeal said.
The law will establish a single state operator through which funding for NGOs must be channeled. Activists believe that will give the state a veto over which NGOs receive funding, and for what kind of activities.
The law “contradicts the principles of open civil society, because NGOs cannot be 100 percent dependent on the state,” Shormanbayev, a representative from the International Legal Initiative, a nongovernmental foundation offering legal advice, told a news conference in Almaty on October 6.
On September 30, Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry issued a testy press release to complain about “certain people (at the conference) indulging in a range of subjective, provocative attacks and biased comments about Turkmenistan with the clear aim of putting psychological pressure on members of the Turkmen delegation.”
Radio Azattyk cited Turkmen deputy foreign minister Vepa Hajiyev at the meeting as insisting that freedom of speech is respected in Turkmenistan and that Internet access was on the increase. Hajiyev also denied reports that authorities have forced people to dismantle their satellite dishes, which remain for many a sole inlet to news from the outside world.
“We continue to provide various social benefits, like free gas, water and electricity,” Hajiyev was quoted as saying by Radio Azattyk. “A dictator doesn’t do these things. This is all done for the people.”
The U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE, Daniel Baer, was unimpressed by Turkmen commitments to bring ever more people online. In a speech, also delivered on September 22, he criticized an Internet law recently adopted by Turkmenistan.
Tajikistan’s justice system has set a disconcerting precedent by jailing an independent reporter for an offense purportedly committed when he was around six years old.
Human Rights Watch in a statement on September 1 decried the two-year sentence handed down to Amindzhon Gulmurodzoda, who was convicted on charges of forgery on August 18.
A court in Dushanbe found Gulmurodzoda, 33, who was formerly a reporter from the Tajik language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, guilty of obtaining falsified birth certificate in 1989. Prosecutors also accused Gulmurodzoda of obtaining a fake passport in 1998.
“The verdict is sending a chill throughout Tajikistan’s journalistic community as yet another example of the crackdown on free speech and independent voices,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement.
The jailing fits into a broader pattern of suppression of dissenting or independent voices on Tajikistan’s political and media scenes.
On August 28, the Justice Ministry sent a letter to the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan informing it that it was being abolished over alleged technical violations of legislation on political parties.
Less than two weeks earlier, IRPT’s printing house was closed over claimed health code violations, Interfax news agency reported. The government sanitary standards body said workers had not undergone regular medical checks and were not equipped with uniforms or provided with medical nutrition, as required by law.
When it comes to human rights and Uzbekistan, the news is usually bad.
The U.S. State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, published on July 27, does not buck that trend, but it is notable in recognizing what it says are efforts by Tashkent to reduce forced child labor.
That has prompted the American government to promote Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to Tier 2 on its watch list — a move that has stunned the Cotton Campaign advocacy group.
Cotton Campaign, which has as it aim the end of forced child and adult labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, says the upgrade lets Tashkent off the hook.
“The Uzbek government continues to operate one of the largest state-orchestrated systems of forced labor in the world,” the group said in a statement.
Nadejda Ataeva, president at the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, said in comments carried on the Cotton Campaign statement, that the United States “has effectively sent a message to Uzbek authorities that forced labor of millions of its citizens is cost-free.”
The U.S. State Department paints a grim picture, but offers some ostensibly consolatory remarks in passing:
“Government-compelled forced labor of adults remains endemic during the annual cotton harvest. In 2014, despite a central government-decree banning all participation of those under age 18 in the cotton harvest, local officials mobilized children in some districts. In addition, across much of the country, third-year college and lyceum students continued to be mobilized, an unknown number of whom were not yet 18 years old.”
Imprisoned opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov has been targeted for harsh punitive measures for alleged violations of prison rules, including “speaking ill” of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, his wife told EurasiaNet.org on July 27.
The timing of the punishment could be intended to deny parole eligibility to Kozlov, who is serving a seven-and-a-half year sentence on charges of fomenting fatal violence in western Kazakhstan in 2011 and plotting to overthrow the state.
Aliya Turusbekova told EurasiaNet.org that prison authorities have characterized her husband as a “persistent offender” and transferred him “to a strict-regime cellblock” on July 27.
Kozlov is accused of “threatening the [work] team leader with physical reprisals and speaking ill of the country’s president,” she explained, citing information she received from his lawyer. The change in his status means greater restrictions on telephone calls, visits and parcels, Turusbekova said.
An official at the prison colony in Zarechniy in south-eastern Kazakhstan, where Kozlov is being held, declined to confirm or deny the change in status when contacted by EurasiaNet.org. “We do not give out any information by telephone,” the official said, before hanging up.
Kozlov briefly declared a hunger strike last week in protest at his treatment after he was placed in solitary confinement, the Open Dialog Foundation, a Poland-based human rights watchdog, said on July 21.
The watchdog added that Kozlov is suffering from health problems in jail, where he has been held in cramped conditions and forced to stand for long periods in temperatures approaching 50 degrees Celsius.