Time to turn the tide and end repression of Central Asia’s civil society

Photo: MrX_EaE / CC BY

We, the undersigning human rights NGOs[i], are deeply concerned about the serious and deteriorating situation for civil society  in Central Asia and call for an end to the repression of those who stand up for human rights, justice and rule of law in the countries of the region.

Although Turkmenistan’s government has committed itself to ensuring the necessary conditions for civil society development[ii], it continues to tightly control the dissemination of information, suppresses any dissent and prevents independent human rights groups from working in the country. There have been no substantial improvements in conditions for civil society in Uzbekistan since the death of long-time President Islam Karimov last autumn, despite the recent releases of a few government critics, and opportunities for human rights engagement are still severely restricted in the country. The situation in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan has recently worsened dramatically, with the authorities exploiting concerns about national stability and security to justify measures curtailing freedom of expression and other fundamental freedoms. This has resulted in shrinking space for civil society in these three countries.

The protracted economic downturn, recent and upcoming elections and international events scheduled to be held in the region[iii] have made the Central Asian governments increasingly wary of criticism and contributed to growing intolerance of those who scrutinize and draw attention to the shortcomings of state policies, in particular on social media and other online platforms.

While the situations in the five Central Asian countries differ, there are major trends that are of concern across the region.[iv] These include:

  • Legislation that seriously restricts the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly in violation of international standards.
  • Excessive oversight mechanisms, checks and sanctions affecting NGOs, in particular those that receive foreign funding.
  • Denial of registration and court-ordered closures of independent NGOs, trade unions, political parties and media outlets because of their alleged failure to meet technical requirements.
  • Language used by government officials, public figures, GONGOs and pro-government media aimed at discrediting and stigmatizing pro-democracy and human rights advocates.
  • Arbitrary blocking of news and social media websites, and monitoring of social media users by security services, with individuals posting negative comments about public policies and officials being summoned, warned and even criminally prosecuted.
  • Pressure on those independent media outlets that are able to operate at all and financially crippling defamation lawsuits brought against such outlets and individual journalists by public officials and figures who object to articles criticizing them.
  • Measures taken to prevent and disperse peaceful protests, the detention and punishment of the participants in peaceful protests and the failure to hold law enforcement officials accountable for the use of excessive force against protesters.
  • Persecution of civil society activists, human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, bloggers, trade union leaders and dissident voices, including through surveillance, travel restrictions, summoning and questioning of them by law enforcement authorities, arbitrary detentions, forcible psychiatric treatment, prosecution on charges of “extremism”, inciting “discord”, spreading “false” information, possessing prohibited substances, economic crimes and other offenses and imprisonment on such charges after unfair and politically motivated trials.
  • Intimidation of exiled human rights defenders who have been forced to flee their countries, as well as their relatives and colleagues still residing in the region.

Recent developments have resulted in a growing sense of fear and vulnerability among civil society actors in the region, significantly impeded civil society efforts to promote human rights and assist victims of violations, and prevented progress toward greater civil society participation, accountability and transparency in public affairs.

We call on the authorities of the region to take concrete and effective measures to expand rather than restrict space for civil society and to stop labelling independent civil society organizations as threats and instead support their role in the promotion and protection of human rights.

We express solidarity with those individuals who are currently deprived of their liberty in the countries of the region because of their exercise of fundamental freedoms protected by national and international law and call for justice for them. The authorities of the region should release all civil society activists, human rights defenders, lawyers, trade union leaders, journalists, bloggers and other individuals who have been arrested or imprisoned for their legitimate professional or civic engagement. (See below for examples of recent cases of concern).

We would also like to use this opportunity to express our solidarity with the hundreds of journalists, human rights defenders and other individuals who were detained and subjected to police brutality in connection with the recent peaceful protests held in Russia and Belarus. All those who are still in detention for their participation in these peaceful protests, or for their efforts to monitor and report on the protests should be immediately released.

Finally, we appeal to the international community to remain steadfast in its support of civil society in Central Asia and the wider region of the former Soviet Union and to use all avenues available to push for the release of those wrongfully imprisoned, the reversal of restrictive legislation and policies, and meaningful reforms to improve conditions for free expression and civil society operation in the countries of the region.

Signed by the following organizations:

Public Foundation “Charter for Human Rights” (Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (Kazakhstan)
International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech “Adil Soz” (Kazakhstan)
Office of Civil Freedoms (Tajikistan)
Human Rights Centre (Tajikistan)
Public Foundation “Nota Bene” (Tajikistan)
Public Foundation “Voice of Freedom” (Kyrgyzstan)
International Partnership for Human Rights (Belgium)
Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (Austria)
Human Rights Movement “Bir Duino Kyrgyzstan” (Kyrgyzstan)
Center for Human Rights Protection “Kylym Shamy” (Kyrgyzstan)
Union of Crisis Centers in Kazakhstan (Kazakhstan)

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These are a number of recent cases of concern with respect to the arrest and imprisonment of civil society activists, human rights defenders, trade union leaders, lawyers and journalists in Central Asia (this list is not exhaustive):

Kazakhstan: Independent journalist Zhanbolat Mamay is in pre-trial custody on spurious money laundering charges. Local trade union leaders Nurbek Kushakbaev and Amin Yeleusinov were criminally charged and arrested in January 2017 after participating in a hunger strike to protest the closure of a nation-wide independent trade union and a separate embezzlement case has been opened against the head of this union, Larisa Kharkova. Civil society activists Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan were each sentenced to five years in prison in November 2016 because of their role in peaceful land reform protests, while media figures Seytkazy Matayev and Asset Matayev were imprisoned on charges of economic crimes following an unfair trial in October 2016. Human rights defender Vadim Kuramshin is serving a 12-year sentence on extortion charges believed to be retaliation for his human rights work and human rights activist Alexander Kharlamov is facing new charges of inciting religious discord because of his atheist writings.

Kyrgyzstan: Human rights defender Azimjan Askarov remains in prison after his life sentence was upheld in January 2017 following a re-trial, at which he was presumed guilty and no credible evidence was presented to prove the charges of his supposed role in the killing of a police officer during the June 2010 inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan. A year ago, the UN Human Rights Committee found that Askarov had been arbitrarily detained, tortured and denied fair trial rights and concluded that he should be immediately released and his original conviction quashed.[v] However, this has not happened. During the re-trial, the court dismissed the Committee’s findings on the flaws in the first investigation and trial. Human rights defenders Aziza Abdirasulova and Tolekan Ismailova have been subjected to intimidation, public shaming and other pressure because of their work in support of Askarov and other victims of injustice. A number of independent journalists and media outlets have been subjected to huge defamation lawsuits initiated by the president of the country.

Tajikistan: Following a closed trial lawyers Buzurgmehr Yorov and Nuriddin Mahkamov, who represented members of the banned opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, were sentenced to 21 and 23 years in prison, respectively, on extremism and other charges in October 2016. International human rights organizations and representatives expressed serious concern that these sentences were handed down in retaliation for the lawyers’ professional activities.[vi] In mid-March 2017, Yorov was sentenced to two additional years in prison on charges of allegedly showing contempt for court during the original trial against him, when he quoted an 11th century Persian poet.[vii] In addition, a third criminal case on fraud charges has reportedly been opened against him.[viii]

Turkmenistan: Anyone who criticizes government policies in Turkmenistan risks being subjected to persecution, including arrest and imprisonment. The recent cases of two journalists are particularly worrisome. In December 2016 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Hudaiberdi Allashov was detained together with his mother , allegedly tortured and held for 2.5 months before they were both given three-year suspended prison sentences on charges of possessing chewing tobacco, which is officially banned although widely used in the country. Freelance journalist Saparmamed Nepeskuliev continues to serve a three-year prison sentence on charges of possessing prohibited drugs, with the government insisting that he is “psychologically unbalanced” and “no real journalist”.[ix]

Uzbekistan: A few individuals imprisoned for their journalism and human rights activities have recently been released, including human rights defender Bobomurod Razzokov who was released on health grounds in October 2016, journalist Muhammad Bekjanov who was freed after 18 years in February 2017, and journalist Jamshid Karimov who was released after years of forcible psychiatric detention in March 2017. However, numerous other human rights activists and journalists remain in prison on politically motivated grounds. Among these are Ganihon Mamathanov, Nuraddin Dzhumaniyazov, Fakhriddin Tillaev, Azam Farmonov and Yusuf Ruzimuradov, who was sentenced together with Bekjanov. Human rights defender Elena Urlaeva was forcibly held in a psychiatric hospital for three weeks in March 2017 and human rights activist Shukrat Rustamov remains at the threat of such treatment after being deemed “mentally incompetent” by a court in 2015.

[i] This statement has been adopted by the organizations attending an NGO seminar held in Tbilisi on 27-28 March 2017 to discuss challenges facing civil society in Central Asia and strategies for countering them. The seminar was held as part of the project “A Transnational Civil Society Coalition in Support of Fundamental Rights in Central Asia,” which is funded by the European Union. The contents of this statement are the sole responsibility of the organizations issuing it and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union.

[ii] According to Turkmenistan’s new Constitution that was adopted in September 2016, the state will ensure the “necessary conditions for the development of civil society” and the National Human Rights Action Plan for 2016-2020 states that the authorities will “create favorable conditions for registration, operation and development of non-governmental organizations”.

[iii] These include the Expo 2017, which will be held in Kazakhstan in June-September 2017, and the Asian Games, which are scheduled to be held in Turkmenistan in September 2017.

[iv] For more information about current concerns regarding the civil society situation in each Central Asian country, see recent overviews published as part of the global CIVICUS Monitor initiative on the basis of information submitted by International Partnership for Human Rights and Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (http://iphronline.org/threats-civic-space-kazakhstan-20170215.html), Legal Prosperity (http://iphronline.org/kyrgyzstan-current-trends-freedom-association-assembly-20170227.html), Nota Bene (http://iphronline.org/declining-civic-space-tajikistan-20170303.html), Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (http://iphronline.org/turkmenistan-crushing-dissent-ahead-elections-20170210.html) and the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (http://iphronline.org/despite-releases-conditions-remain-dire-cs-uzbekistan-20170313.html).

[v] See the decision of the Human Rights Committee on the individual complaint submitted in Askarov’s case: http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CCPR%2FC%2F116%2FD%2F2231%2F2012&Lang=en

[vi] See, for example, the statement by the International Commission of Jurists issued in response to this verdict, at https://www.icj.org/tajikistan-long-prison-sentences-for-lawyers-endangers-the-fairness-of-the-justice-system/

[vii] See RFE/RL article, 16 March 2017, http://rus.ozodi.org/a/28372839.html; and Eurasianet, “Tajikistan Extends Lawyer’s Long Prison Sentence For Quoting Poet”, 16 March 2017, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/82876

[viii] See the previous endnote.

[ix] Statements to this end were made by the Turkmenistani delegation at the UN Human Rights Committee review of the situation in the country on 8-9 March 2017.