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Civic space under attack in Central Asia: NGOs document key trends as region sees increasing international engagement

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Civic space under attack in Central Asia: NGOs document key trends as region sees increasing international engagement
Photo by David Mulder/CC BY-SA 2.0
Civic space under attack in Central Asia: NGOs document key trends as region sees increasing international engagement
Photo by David Mulder/CC BY-SA 2.0

International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and its partners draw attention to the widening attack on civic space and freedoms seen in Central Asia at a time of increasing international interest in the region and an increasing number of high-level meetings with the region’s leaders, such as a meeting organised by US President Joe Biden in New York earlier this month, a meeting to be hosted by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin this week, and an EU-Central Asia Summit planned for next year. In their engagement with the Central Asian countries, international actors should use all available opportunities to speak out against current alarming trends and push for concrete steps by the governments of the region to roll back repressive policies, which undermine public debate and civic participation on issues of concern to citizens.

IPHR and its partner organisations Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Legal Prosperity Foundation, Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and Association for Human Rights in Central Asia have prepared an overview of current key concerns regarding the protection of the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the five Central Asian countries ahead of the Warsaw Human Dimension Conference, which will be held on 2-13 October 2023 to discuss human rights protection in the OSCE region.

The key trends documented in the NGO briefing include:

Lack of accountability for serious human rights violations related to the crises seen in Central Asia in 2022, when the authorities employed harsh measures to end mass protests against government policies and ensuing unrest during the so-called ‘Bloody January’ events in Kazakhstan, in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) in Tajikistan and in the Republic of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan. To date, measures taken to investigate allegations of excessive use of force, torture and ill-treatment, and other violations of the rights of protesters during these events, as well as to bring those responsible to justice have lacked independence, thoroughness, and effectiveness, resulting in widespread impunity for serious human rights abuses.

Persecution of civil society activists, opposition supporters, human rights defenders, journalists, and bloggers who speak out against injustice, criticise government policies and demand transparency and accountability of those in power. The use of criminal prosecution as a tool to intimidate and silence critical voices is of particular concern across the region. This tactic was used during wider crackdowns launched in response to the mass protests seen in Kazakhstan, the GBAO in Tajikistan and Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan in 2022, but is also used more broadly in all countries of the region, with criminal cases on slander, extortion, fraud, rioting, extremism and other charges initiated in retaliation against those who exercise their freedoms of expression, association, and assembly in peaceful and legitimate ways. It is of serious concern that especially the authorities in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan have misused extremism-related charges to target government critics and that a growing number of bloggers have been singled out for prosecution in Uzbekistan and other countries because of social media posts on issues deemed sensitive by the authorities. Recently, there has been an increase in politically motivated criminal cases in Kyrgyzstan in the context of a worsening climate for free speech, while the authorities of Turkmenistan have sought the forcible return of outspoken activists based abroad, in addition to imprisoning “inconvenient” individuals living in the country.

Pressure on independent media and restrictions on access to alternative information through the internet. The few independent media outlets that operate in the region, as well as those working for them are subjected to ongoing intimidation and harassment, both on- and offline. There have been several recent government initiatives to shut down independent media services and block access to their sites in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, a country where the media environment has up until now been more favourable than in other countries of the region. Draft media legislation currently under consideration in Kyrgyzstan, as well as in Kazakhstan threatens to result in increased state control over media operations. Broadly worded restrictions on blogging activities have been initiated in several countries, including Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and the authorities are misusing the fight against disinformation to stifle free speech across the region. Internet censorship is most pervasive in Turkmenistan where thousands of sites have been arbitrarily blocked and the authorities actively campaign against censorship circumvention tools used to access blocked sites that provide information alternative to that of state-controlled national media.

Excessive and unjustified restrictions on the operation of independent civil society organisations. An increasing number of NGOs have either been forcibly shut down or pressured to “voluntarily” close in Tajikistan, while several independent human rights groups have been denied registration on technical grounds in Uzbekistan, and not one human rights NGO is registered in Turkmenistan. Draft NGO legislation initiated in Kyrgyzstan mirrors legislation seen in more repressive countries in the post-Soviet region and would – if adopted – undermine the hard-won gains in terms of civil society participation in this country. In particular, foreign-funded NGOs risk being subjected to stigmatisation and excessive state regulation and interference. There are also concerns that a recent government initiative in Kazakhstan to publish a list of foreign-funded NGOs could result in increasing stigmatisation and state control of such groups.

Practices undermining the right to peacefully protest. Such practices include a court-sanctioned ban on protests that has been in place in central areas of Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek for more than a year; the systematic dispersal of peaceful gatherings held without government approval and the detention of protesters before, during and after such assemblies in Kazakhstan; and measures taken by authorities in Turkmenistan to promptly cut short public expressions of discontent about economic hardships, corruption and other problems.

These issues are covered in more detail in the joint briefing paper, which describes recent developments concerning civic space and freedoms in each of the Central Asian countries, features descriptions of individual cases of concern, and provides recommendations for measures that the authorities of the region should take to improve the situation.

The briefing paper is based on ongoing cooperation between IPHR and its Central Asian partners on monitoring and documenting developments affecting fundamental freedoms in the five Central Asian countries in the framework of the CIVICUS Monitor, an initiative to track and rate civic space across the world.  The CIVICUS Monitor currently assesses civic space as ‘’closed’’ in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as ‘’repressed’’ in Kazakhstan and as ‘’obstructed’’ in Kyrgyzstan.

The joint NGO briefing can be downloaded below

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