By Michael Ochs
CSCE Staff Advisor
On March 28, Co-Chairman Christopher H. Smith presided over a Helsinki Commission briefing on human rights problems in Central Asia.
Four activists and monitors discussed the situation in the region: Vitaly Pononaryov, director of the Central Asia Program of the Moscow-based “Memorial” Human Rights Center; Atanzar Arifov, general secretary of the opposition Erk Party in Uzbekistan; Pulat Akhunov, director of the Central Asian Association of Sweden; and Abdusalom Ergashev, head of the Ferghana branch of the recently-registered Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan. The group was in the United States at the invitation of the International League for Human Rights.
Co-Chairman Smith began by expressing concern about worsening trends in Central Asia. Despite the post-September 11 rapprochement between the United States and the states in the region, he said, there is “little sign of any willingness on the part of Central Asian leaders to make fundamental systemic changes.”
The panelists agreed. Pononaryov noted that any improvements were “token gestures to appease the West.” Actual reform would threaten the current leaders, according to Atanzar Arifov, and “lead to a change of power in the region.” Not surprisingly, the leaders of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have extended their terms in office and, in the case of Turkmenistan, contrived to remain in office for life.
A major focus of discussion was torture. Though Uzbekistan received the most attention, the panelists asserted that the use of torture as a means of extracting confessions and as punishment is widespread throughout Central Asia. Religious activities, membership or alleged membership in a particular group, or dissident political views are reason enough for torture in many Central Asian countries, Pononaryov said. He and the other panelists listed beatings, rape, burning, asphyxiation, and threats to family members and friends among the gross human rights violations routinely committed.
“Most Americans will be shocked to know that some of the allies that we've now embraced in our fight against Al Qaeda and worldwide terror are at the same time torturers who not only permit, but use as a means of extracting confessions, horrific beatings coupled with rapes and threats of rapes against family members,” Smith solemnly stated after hearing their testimony. He strongly urged a united stance on this issue by the Bush Administration, saying, “We need zero tolerance for torture,” and America will not “stand idly by, even if [these countries] are partners with us in fighting terrorism, while [they] repress, rape, and butcher [their] own people.”
Pulat Akhunov mentioned protests held in Uzbekistan against torture and the oppression of political opposition, indicating that even in conditions of severe repression, society can try to organize resistance. But Abdusalom Ergashev gave voice to the fear shared by all the participants, namely, that religious oppression and the absence of outlets for political activity not controlled by the state will provide a breeding ground for terrorist groups.
The dangers of engaging in human rights work in Central Asia have become even more clear since the briefing. One of the Central Asian participants, Abdusalom Ergashev, upon returning home to Fergana, has been informed that the police are opening a criminal case against him.
An earlier March 7th briefing on the human rights situation in Central Asia and the ramifications for U.S. policy included several expert panelists: Lawrence Uzzell, Director of Oxford-based Keston Institute; E. Wayne Merry, Senior Associate at the American Foreign Policy Council; and Nina Shea, member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The three panelists focused their comments largely on religious persecution in the region. They placed special emphasis on Uzbekistan, since President Islam Karimov was scheduled to arrive in Washington a few days later to meet President George W. Bush and other U.S. officials. Co-Chairman Smith did meet with the Uzbek President, along with Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, and handed over a letter signed by eight members of the Helsinki Commission. The letter conveyed the deep concerns over ongoing human rights violations in Uzbekistan.
Larry Uzzell, citing severe religious persecution of Muslim and Christian groups alike, urged U.S. officials to discuss this issue and other human rights concerns with Karimov. Otherwise, extremist groups could interpret silence as apathy or even acceptance. Uzzell warned that “...the more Washington embraces the [Uzbek] regime, the easier it is for the Islamic militants, not just in Uzbekistan but around the world, to argue that the West is fighting not just terrorism, but Islam as a whole....”
Wayne Merry commented on the economic, political, and human rights conditions in each Central Asian country. During the last ten years, he contended, these countries have “deteriorated dramatically.” Merry described Uzbekistan as the region’s “greatest tragedy, considering its potential ten years ago and how many opportunities have been missed. Turning to religious freedom, Merry concluded, “Unfortunately, in Central Asia, and particularly in Uzbekistan, we have seen regimes...seeking to eradicate any form of religious practice that is not directly under government control.”
Nina Shea suggested various policies the United States could adopt to encourage “much-needed improvement” by Uzbekistan’s Government. She proposed ending all non-humanitarian aid to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan until those governments carried out measurable reforms in human rights policies. Suggested improvements include: the release of prisoners held on religious or political, charges; removal of arduous legal requirements for religious groups; and the end of torture, false imprisonment, and detention of religious leaders.
All three panelists underscored the value of directly raising human rights violations with President Karimov during his visit, as well as with other Central Asian leaders. It was recommended that Russian translations of any letters be given to Karimov with the original, so he can read the letters himself, instead of passing them to a staffer. Merry and Uzzell encouraged governmental and non-governmental organizations to continue letter writing campaigns, even if past practice left few reasons to hope.
At the end of the briefing, Chary Annaberdiev, the former deputy chief of Turkmenistan’s mission to the United States, spoke publicly for the first time since leaving his position and receiving political asylum. Annaberdiev made clear his view – shared by many – that Turkmenistan’s President Saparmurat Niyazov is an irrational megalomaniac with whom logic and reasonable persuasion would be useless. He indicated his willingness to aid the U.S. Government, saying, “I hope that my experience and my knowledge will bring closer those days when this [Turkmen] regime comes to its end.”
In a letter sent to President Bush in February, Helsinki Commission leaders raised their concern over reports that the Administration, in reconsidering whether and how to apply the provisions of the 1974 Jackson-Vanick law to several New Independent States, is inclined to “bundle” those countries into a single package. Such a plan would effectively grant Permanent Normal Trade Relations to governments with dismal human rights records, including the Central Asian states. The Commissioners urged the Administration to evaluate governments on an individual basis when deciding whether to grant them PNTR status.
Transcripts of the March 7, 2002 briefing and the March 28, 2002 briefing are available by clicking on their respective dates above or through the United States Helsinki Commission Internet home page located at http://www.csce.gov.
The U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.
Helsinki Commission intern Kari Watson contributed to this article.