yrgyzstan: U.S. Congressmen Concerned About Rights Abuse
Among American human rights activists, there is growing concern that the questions of freedom and democracy are taking a backseat to security issues as the United States seeks vital support from the governments of Central Asia for its war on terrorism.
Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey), co-chairman of the panel also known as the Helsinki Commission, said Kyrgyzstan is of key concern to many in Congress who believe the U.S. must continue to strongly support human rights and democracy in Central Asia -- despite needing support from authoritarian regional leaders.
The Kyrgyzstan hearing was the last in a series on the Central Asian republics. Smith said the hearing -- which also featured testimony by State Department official Lynn Pascoe and Bishkek's ambassador to Washington, Baktybek Abdrisaev -- had been delayed by the 11 September terrorist attacks.
Smith recalled that following independence in 1991, the former Soviet republic appeared to be one of Central Asia's more progressive countries. One former senior U.S. diplomat, Strobe Talbott, compared Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev to Thomas Jefferson, a founder of the American republic and champion of democracy.
But Smith said early economic reforms and democratic progress in Bishkek has stalled in recent years. Citing a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Smith said that parliamentary elections last year were riddled with irregularities and expressed concern that Akaev is seeking to extend his five-year term to seven.
Smith also voiced objections to the treatment of opposition leader Felix Kulov, who was jailed after running for election last year on embezzlement charges that Amnesty International and other human rights groups call politically motivated. They consider Kulov is a political prisoner.
Smith said Bishkek was violating other rights as well. "In the last few years," he said, "almost all of the opposition and independent newspapers have been forced to close after losing lawsuits when officials who had been accused of corruption launched slander cases against media outlets. And judges, to nobody's surprise, ruled in favor of the plaintiff."
Pascoe, who handles Kyrgyzstan for the State Department, said that since the terrorist attacks of September, the U.S. has received "an unprecedented level of support and cooperation from Kyrgyzstan and our other Central Asian partners."
He said that on 11 December that the Kyrgyz parliament formally agreed to the stationing of American and allied forces at the Manas airport for military and humanitarian actions in neighboring Afghanistan. He added that America would not forget Central Asia's help once the Afghan crisis is over.
But Pascoe also said the U.S. will not let up on its insistence that Bishkek address these human rights concerns and democratic reform. He said that without human rights, free elections, religious freedom, open markets, and foreign investment, there can be no long-term stability for Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia. He said the U.S. would step up its efforts to assist Kyrgyz civil society groups.
He added that Secretary of State Colin Powell planned to bring up the problem of Kukov with Akaev during a scheduled trip to Bishkek that was called off in early December due to a storm. But Powell phoned Akaev and invited a high-level Kyrgyz economic delegation to Washington for talks with officials from the government and the major international financial institutions.
Kyrgyz Ambassador to the US and Canada Bakyt Abdrisaev acknowledged there were problems in Bishkek and that reforms may not be proceeding fast enough.
But he said the country had a long history of freedom and that recent steps had been taken to implement self-rule in the regions. He also praised the role of parliament, which he said is working independently.