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Central Asia: Report highlights worrying trends of stifling dissent
Central Asia: Report highlights worrying trends of stifling dissent

A new report highlights ongoing and increasing efforts by the authorities in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to stifle dissent and pluralism as part of a region-wide trend of shrinking space for independent voices. Outspoken media and journalists are muzzled; websites featuring criticism of government policies are blocked; political opposition parties, NGOs, religious communities and independent trade unions are subjected to repressive measures; and civil society activists, lawyers and others who stand up for justice, rule of law and accountability are intimidated and harassed. (See more below in the summary of developments in each of the three countries).

The report is based on monitoring carried out by Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Nota Bene (Tajikistan) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights in their respective countries in August-November 2015. International Partnership for Human Rights (Belgium) has worked with these three organizations on the preparation of the report within the framework of a joint project, which is aimed at documenting and raising awareness of developments in the areas of freedom of expression, association and assembly, as well as non-discrimination and access to justice.

KAZAKHSTAN

In the recent period, the crackdown on free speech and dissent has gained new force in Kazakhstan. This development has taken place against the background of a deteriorating economic situation in the country, which appears to have made the authorities wary of growing protest sentiments among the population.

As part of a pattern of forced media closures, another journal critical of the authorities – ADAM – was shut down by court in October 2015 after first being suspended for alleged violations of technical requirements. It also remains of concern that courts continue to award excessive sums in compensation in defamation cases against media.

Corruption-covering journalist and blogger Bota Zhumanova was physically assaulted in October 2015, reinforcing concerns about the vulnerability of journalists. A suspect was detained and an investigation is under way.

In the recent period, there have been new cases of blocking of news and social media sites. In some cases, online resources have suddenly became unavailable without any official reason being stated, while other sites have been blocked by court because of alleged “extremist” content. Access to the popular blog platform LiveJournal was finally restored after four years in November 2015.

In an alarming trend, there has recently been a growing number of cases where journalists, activists and other individuals have been charged under Criminal Code provisions that lend themselves to enforcement restricting the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and other fundamental rights. These include broadly and vaguely worded provisions on “inciting” inter-ethnic and other “discord”, “spreading false information”, “propagating separatism”, as well as provisions on defamation.

Well-known activists Ermek Narymbaev, Serikzhan Mambetalin and Bolatbek Blyalov were all arrested in October-November 2015 on charges of “inciting discord” because of social media posts, and in early November the trial began against blogger Ermek Taychibekov who is facing similar charges because of online writings. The case against Muslim Union head Murat Telibekov, who has been charged with “inciting discord” over a book he tried to publish two decades ago, was suspended in mid-October 2015 but has not been closed. In November 2015, Protestant believer Yklas Kabduakasov was convicted of “inciting discord” and sentenced to 7 years’ restricted freedom for sharing his faith with others.

A case on “spreading false information” has been opened against human rights defender Elena Semenova because of Facebook posts concerning the alleged use of torture in prison, while social media administrator Igor Sychev was recently sentenced to five years in prison for propagating “separatism” because of a survey shared online. In a new worrying example of the implementation of provisions criminalizing defamation, in October 2015, civil society activist Amangeldy Batyrbekov was sentenced to 1.5 years in prison over an article questioning the actions of a prosecutor.

New widely criticized legislation on NGOs was signed by the president at the beginning of December 2015. This legislation contains a number of problematic provisions that could result in restrictions on the freedom of association of NGOs. In a joint appeal, several dozen Kazakhstani human rights NGOs called on the president to veto the draft legislation, and UN human rights representatives warned that it runs counter to international human rights standards.

Trade unions that have failed to re-register under new Trade Union Law adopted last year remain at the threat of closure, while the decision to close down the opposition Communist Party because it allegedly does not have the required number of members was upheld on appeal in September 2015.

In its annual report presented in October 2015, the presidential Human Rights Commission recommended the adoption of a new law on assemblies consistent with international standards, as long called for by civil society and international human rights bodies. Meanwhile authorities continue to reject requests to hold peaceful protests on various pretexts, as well as to detain and sanction participants in unauthorized protests.

KIBHR continues to assist victims of trials that fall short of international standards with the submission of complaints to UN human rights bodies. In October 2015, the organization learned that the UN Human Rights Committee had admitted for consideration a complaint filed on behalf of Vladislav Chelakh, a conscript who was given a life sentence on charges of killing fellow soldiers in a 2012 trial that attracted wide attention.

As previously, there are concerns about the treatment in prison of imprisoned opposition party leader Vladimir Kozlov, human rights defender Vadim Kuramshin and poet and dissident Aron Atabek, who have all repeatedly been penalized for alleged violations of prison rules. The French government’s approval of a decision to extradite well-known Kazakhstani opponent Mukhtar Ablyazov to Russia was criticized by human rights groups because of the risk that he may be sent onwards to Kazakhstan and that he may be subjected to an unfair trial and ill-treatment upon return.

TAJIKISTAN

The Tajikistani authorities have linked two armed attacks that took place in the capital Dushanbe and a nearby city in early September 2015 to the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), although this party has denied having anything to do with these events. In the weeks following the attacks, the self-exiled IRPT chair was accused of masterminding the attacks, over 20 members were arrested on charges of involvement in the violence, and the IRPT was banned as an “extremist” organization. This decision, in effect, marked an end to the era of political pluralism under the peace agreement that ended the 1997 civil war and set out a power sharing deal between the authorities and the opposition.

Tajikistan’s international partners responded with great concern to the measures taken against the IRPT and its representatives and emphasized that the Tajikistani authorities must comply with their international human rights obligations in the pursuit of national security.

In an alarming development, two lawyers defending the rights of arrested IRPT members were themselves arrested on charges of fraud – charges that have also previously been used against lawyers working on sensitive cases in the country. Lawyers Buzurgmehr Yorov and Nuriddin Mahkamov were arrested in September and October 2015, respectively, and currently remain in detention. Yet a third representative of the lawyer’s office where they have worked, Dilbar Dodadzhonova was arrested on fraud charges at the end of October. International NGOs and other representatives of the international community have called for an end to the pattern of arresting lawyers on charges that appear to be motivated by the professional activities of these lawyers.

Amendments to the recent Law on the Bar and the Practice of Law, which were adopted in November 2015, have reinforced concerns that this legislation is threatening the independence of the legal profession in the country. In order to practice law, all lawyers will now be required to pass a qualification exam administered by a non-independent body under the Ministry of Justice, as well as to undergo re-certification with this body every five years. Individuals with a criminal record will not be eligible to work as lawyers. While all lawyers also will be required to join a new nation-wide bar association, this association has yet to be registered by the Ministry of Justice, which has given rise to concerns that already practicing lawyers will not have much time to comply with the requirements of the new law within the deadline that expires in late March 2016.

As part of a trend of arbitrary restrictions of internet and cell phone services, new cases of blocking of news and social media sites, as well as text messaging services have been reported in recent months. As on previous occasions, providers have indicated receiving informal orders from the government’s Communications Service to implement such measures. Amendments to the legislation on counteracting terrorism adopted by the lower house of the parliament in late November 2015 grant security services new broad powers to restrict internet and phone access during anti-terrorism operations, thus creating a legal basis for a problematic practice that has already been repeatedly used.

The criticized amendments to the Law on Public Associations, which require NGOs to report information about foreign and international grants to the government prior to using them, entered into force in August 2015. However, government instructions detailing the notification procedure have yet to be adopted, as a result of which NGOs continue to operate in uncertainty with respect to how the new provisions will be implemented. Intrusive and unregulated inspections of NGOs carried out by tax and other authorities remain a matter of concern. Nota Bene remains at the threat of closure as the lawsuit brought against it by the Tax Committee is still pending in court. The Tax Committee has requested that the organization be closed down because it allegedly used gaps in the legislation when registering as a “public foundation” rather than as a “public association”.

TURKMENISTAN

The severe censorship that prevails in Turkmenistan has resulted in a climate in which any criticism of the country’s policies is met with hostility by the authorities. While a Turkmenistani delegation participated in this year’s OSCE Human Dimension Implementation (HDIM) for the first time in years, it left the meeting already after two days in a move that appeared to have been prompted by the critical statements made by other participants about Turkmenistan’s human rights policies. The government condemned these statements as “provocative”, “unethical” and aimed at “discrediting” the country’s image.

Concerns about the government’s deplorable free speech record have been reinforced by the case of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, who has been held incommunicado since the summer and is believed to have been sentenced to three years in prison on dubious narcotics possession charges. Another case illustrating the authorities’ intolerance of free speech is that of internationally acclaimed horse-breeding expert Geldy Kyarizov, who fell out of favour with the government over a decade ago. Kyarizov was finally allowed to leave the country in September 2015. However, he has reported facing continued intimidation in Russia where he now resides as he and his family have refused to keep quiet and have publicly shared their experience of harassment by the Turkmenistani authorities.

While a Turkmenistani government official claimed at the HDIM that information about the forcible removal of satellite dishes from residential buildings does not correspond to reality, official documents seen by TIHR indicates that this practice is in fact systematically implemented in the context of the preparations for the 2017 Asian Indoor Games to be held in Turkmenistan. As part of the preparations for these Games, the authorities have also continued to demolish apartment buildings in the capital Ashgabat and to forcibly evict residents with little notice, depriving them of both accommodation and belongings they do not have time to collect.

In connection with Independence Day on 27 October 2015, citizens were again mass mobilized for regime-praising celebrations, which included performing a new patriotic song composed by the president. As a result of time-consuming rehearsals, participants had to miss out on studies and work. However, this time, school children were reportedly spared from participating in the rehearsals. The authorities also mass mobilized citizens for participation in this year’s cotton harvest amid calls by the president to increase the pace of the harvest.

While young men of conscription age have already previously been banned from travelling abroad, TIHR learned that also young men who have completed the compulsory military service recently were prevented from leaving the country on the grounds that they may allegedly be recruited by military groups. Arbitrary bans on travelling abroad are a regular practice in Turkmenistan.

During his visit to Turkmenistan at the beginning of November 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry was said to have raised human rights concerns, including the issue of political prisoners with President Berdymukhammedov. However, it is not known whether the Turkmenistani authorities took any concrete measures in follow-up to the visit. As previously, the fate of dozens of individuals imprisoned on politically motivated charges in Turkmenistan remains unknown, and the most recent presidential pardon is not believed to have benefited any prisoner in this category.

The report, Spotlight: Fundamental Rights in Central Asia, December 2015 is available here:

Download the full report
Download the part on Kazakhstan
Download the part on Tajikistan
Download the part on Turkmenistan

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See also: Spotlight: Fundamental rights in Central Asia, September 2015

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