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HRW: Central Asia’s authoritarian governments restrict freedom of speech

Central Asia’s authoritarian governments severely restrict freedoms of speech, assembly, and other fundamental freedoms, Human Rights Watch says in its World Report 2024.

As the human rights organization stresses, the governments arbitrarily lock up government opponents and critics, and allow impunity for serious human rights violations, including torture and domestic violence.

Authors of the report note that Western governments are intensifying their relations with Central Asian countries against the backdrop of Russia’s war on Ukraine, offering an opportunity to achieve specific advances for human rights.

«The West’s renewed interest in Central Asia coincides with human rights backtracking or stagnation across the region,» said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. «As Western and Central Asian states bolster ties, it’s critically important for other countries to make human rights concerns a central part of the agenda and for Central Asian governments to follow through on promised reforms.»

In the 740-page World Report 2024, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries.

HRW Executive Director Tirana Hassan says that 2023 was a consequential year not only for human rights suppression and wartime atrocities but also for selective government outrage and transactional diplomacy that carried profound costs for the rights of those not in on the deal. But she says there were also signs of hope, showing the possibility of a different path, and calls on governments to consistently uphold their human rights obligations.

Kyrgyzstan

Human Rights Watch experts say that human rights protection and civil liberties in Kyrgyzstan continued to decline in 2023, with systematic stifling of critical voices by the authorities. Civil society and media freedom came under severe threat, with criminal cases against leading media outlets and draft laws that would expand censorship and government control over nongovernmental organizations. A law was adopted banning «propaganda of non-traditional relations and same-sex partnerships.»

Scores of activists, journalists, human rights defenders, and politicians remain in pretrial detention on charges of fomenting «mass unrest» over disagreement with the transfer of Kempir-Abad reservoir to Uzbekistan in a border agreement.

Tajikistan

In Tajikistan’s repressive political and human rights climate, the government forced hundreds of nongovernmental organizations to close, detained scores of bloggers for their opinions on the government’s policies, and banned or limited the activities of religious organizations. A crackdown on dissenting voices in the Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast following violent dispersal of peaceful protests by the Pamiri minority in 2022 was expanded into the prohibition of Pamiri languages and Ismaili religious practices.

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan’s government remains closed and repressive, quashing religious and political expression that is not sanctioned by the authorities. The government tightly controls the media and access to information, prosecutes people who enable access to an uncensored internet, and allows no independent monitoring groups. The authorities also jail perceived opponents and government critics and harass activists abroad and their relatives in Turkmenistan. Dozens of people remain victims of enforced disappearance.

The government denies its citizens access to passport renewal services abroad, in contravention of international law, in an effort to force them to return to the country.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan’s human rights record deteriorated in 2023, with a notable increase in harassment and prosecutions of bloggers and journalists, impunity for human rights abuses committed during protests in Karakalpakstan in 2022, and promised legislative reforms continuing to stall.

Kazakhstan

In the two years since large-scale protests rocked the country, authorities in Kazakhstan have failed to ensure accountability for the disproportionate use of force against protesters or for the arbitrary arrests, imprisonment, ill-treatment, and torture of detainees in the aftermath.

Violent attacks on journalists increased in early 2023 and authorities have persisted in using overbroad criminal charges against government critics and activists. New legislation strengthening protections for women fell short of criminalizing domestic violence as a stand-alone offense. Kazakhstan continues to impose heavy restrictions in law and practice on the right to peaceful assembly.

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