The US State Department noted some modest improvements in human rights conditions in Central Asia in its annual Human Rights Report, although, overall, the region remained one of the worst in the world in terms of respecting basic freedoms.
In spite of a strategic rapprochement between the United States and Uzbekistan, featuring Tashkent's prominent role in resupplying US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, President Islam Karimov's administration was the only Eurasian government prominently criticized in the introduction of the State Department's 2009 Annual Report on Human Rights, which was released on March 11. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The State Department highlighted Uzbekistan's repressive media environment, restrictions on non-governmental organizations and religious groups, and the use of forced child labor in the cotton industry. [For additional information click here].
In the section of the report that described conditions in Uzbekistan in detail, the State Department noted minor improvements in the conduct of elections, referring to the parliamentary vote of December 27: "While noticeable procedural improvements were observed, the elections were not considered free and fair due to government restrictions on eligible candidates and government control of media and campaign financing."
The report continued: "For the first time, however, the political parties engaged in debate and criticized each other's proposed policies. Election observers noted that the elections themselves appeared to be conducted with fewer irregularities than in previous years."
The State Department also noted modest improvements in enforcement of laws on human trafficking, in prison conditions and in the ability of local journalists to participate in foreign embassy events. It likewise noted that, for the first time in several years, the government of Uzbekistan approved some Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe programs in the "human dimension," which generally relate to human rights and democratization.
Still, the picture the report draws of Uzbekistan is overwhelmingly negative, which should serve as a caution to US government officials who are now advocating closer ties with Tashkent, said Eric McGlinchey, a Central Asia expert at George Mason University. As in 2002, when the United States established an airbase in Uzbekistan, some in Washington are currently arguing for a policy of "enhanced engagement" with Uzbekistan. That engagement bore little fruit then, McGlinchey noted. "I'm hearing a similar 'enhanced engagement' discourse from some within the US government today," he said. "The 2009 report can serve an important role and temper some of the expectations of enhanced engagement."
The State Department rights report was harshly critical of Kyrgyzstan, in particular for its election conduct, pressure on NGOs and independent media, poor treatment of refugees and prisoners, and pervasive corruption. Kyrgyzstan was the only country in the region to report arbitrary killings, including at least one in which Ministry of Internal Affairs personnel are suspected of involvement, noted Erica Marat, a Washington-based political analyst. She said that overall "the situation particularly worsened in Kyrgyzstan."
The report did note some improvements by Bishkek: "Unlike in previous years, there were no reports that the government forcibly returned Uzbek refugees or asylum seekers to Uzbekistan," the report said. The report also noted some small improvements in Kyrgyzstan's media environment: for the first time in recent years, there were no libel lawsuits against opposition newspapers that were suspected of being politically motivated and designed to suppress criticism. In addition, an increase in advertising revenue meant that media outlets could reduce dependence on government funding for financial support.
Kazakhstan, which recently assumed the chairmanship of the OSCE, saw little improvement in its human rights situation in 2009, the report said, noting: "severe limits on citizens' rights to change their government; military hazing that led to deaths; detainee and prisoner torture and other abuse; unhealthy prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of an independent judiciary; restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association; pervasive corruption, especially in law enforcement and the judicial system; prohibitive political party registration requirements; restrictions on the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); discrimination and violence against women; trafficking in persons; and societal discrimination."
The report did call attention to improved Kazakhstani government action to help victims of human trafficking.
Tajikistan, the report said, remained "an authoritarian state," with restrictions on elections, the press and NGOs; patterns of police abuse and impunity for security forces and "harsh and life-threatening prison conditions."
In Turkmenistan, "although there were modest improvements in some areas, the government continued to commit serious abuses, and its human rights record remained poor," the report stated. The improvements included greater access to the Internet, cooperation with NGOs on children's health and respect for restrictions on pre-trial detention. "In contrast with previous years, there were no reports during the year that authorities detained persons in psychiatric hospitals as punishment," the report noted.
The report said that while school curriculum continues to include study of the Ruhnama, the book reputedly written by the country's former dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, the amount time devoted to study of Niyazov's writings is declining. The study of the Ruhnama is no longer a separate course for secondary school students, but it remains so for primary students. Meanwhile, secondary school textbooks were revised to "remove all text devoted to Niyazov and his family; however, a picture of Niyazov continued to appear on the first page of each textbook."
Instead of studying Niyazov's works, more time is being devoted in schools to the study of the writings of the country's current president, Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov: "Teachers reported that [administrators] required them to spend substantially less class time studying Niyazov's works than in the past and instead began introducing books and speeches by President Berdymuhammedov into the curriculum," the report said.