Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Hon. Christopher H. Smith
Chairman - United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe


Briefing: “Political Prisoners in Central Asia”

Tuesday, May 15

2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Rayburn House Office Building, room 2203

Statement by Chairman Christopher H. Smith

I would like to welcome everyone here today to this briefing on “Political Prisoners in Central Asia.” I am deeply distressed that we have to have this event - when the former Soviet republics joined the OSCE in 1992, many of us hoped the demise of communism meant that the practice of jailing people for their beliefs would be merely a vestige of an unhappy past. Unfortunately, that is not been the case. Political prisoners and prisoners of consciences still exist in several of the countries that emerged from the USSR.

This is especially the case in Central Asia, where most presidents have remained in office for decades, eliminating constitutional term limits, blocking the emergence of any credible rivals, and hindering the development of democratic institutions – including a strong legislature, an independent judiciary, opposition parties or a free press. The one country that has not followed this trend is Kyrgyzstan, which is the only Central Asian state that has had a peaceful transfer of power through an election, and has established a parliamentary system following two revolutions. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, however, have some of the highest numbers of political prisoners in the former Soviet Union.

While each country in Central Asia is different, there are worrying trends among all five.

In Uzbekistan, human rights activists, journalists, and members of certain religious groups continue to fall victim to restrictive laws and policies. A recent State Department assessment of the human rights situation there said that Uzbekistan "remain an area of serious concern, including restricted political and religious freedoms, lack of an independent media, forced adult and child labor, allegations of torture, and poor prison conditions."

Unfortunately, there are many individuals in jail in Uzbekistan who should not be. While human rights activist Alisher Karomatov was released in April – which we very much welcome - many others remain wrongly accused or imprisoned. Most recently, independent journalist Elena Bondar was convicted in a rushed and unfair trial for inflammatory remarks on the Internet despite a lack of evidence linking her to the statements. Abdulaziz Dadahanov was jailed after returning from a student exchange program it the U.S. for allegedly belonging to the moderate Turkey-based religious group Nur. Human rights activist Elena Urlaeva has once again been placed in a psychiatric institution, and in January, Muhammad Bekjanov, who has been behind bars since 1999 and was due to be released, received an additional five-year term.

In Turkmenistan, would-be political opposition and human rights activists are targeted. The exact number of political prisoners or prisoners of conscience is unknown, as the justice system lacks transparency, trials are closed in political cases, and the overall level of repression precludes any independent human rights monitoring. The government has persistently denied access to prisons, including for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Nevertheless, there are several well-known political prisoners, including Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, who had worked with human rights organizations prior to their imprisonment in 2006. Their colleague Ogulsapar Muradova, who was arrested with them, died two weeks into her sentence; her family reported that her body bore marks of torture. Political dissident Gulgeldy Annaniazov, arrested in 2008, also remains imprisoned after attempting to return to Turkmenistan to visit his family.

Many in the international community, including the Helsinki Commission, have for years urged the Turkmen government to disclose the fate and whereabouts of about 50 prisoners accused in an alleged 2002 plot against former President Nyiazov - including former foreign ministers Boris Shikhmuradov and Batyr Berdiev. These prisoners were taken into custody in November 2002 and have not been heard from since, nor have their families been given any information about their well-being, despite persistent rumors that they have died.

Tajikistan has enacted a restrictive religion law resulting in the arrest of many accused of belonging to certain religious groups. For the first time, in 2012 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended that Tajikistan be designated a country of particular concern (CPC).

While we welcome the release of human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis, we are concerned that Kazakhstan has detained several political opposition activists in the wake of a violent crackdown on protesters late last year. We discussed the human rights situation in Kazakhstan in a hearing in January.

While Kyrgyzstan does not have the same issues with political prisoners as its neighbors, we continue to be concerned about the unfair conduct of trials following ethnic violence in June 2010, which appear to have been biased against ethnic Uzbeks and human rights activists supporting them. In a hearing on the issue last summer, we raised the case of Azimzhan Askarov, who remains in prison after documenting the violence. He reportedly may have had evidence of the involvement of some government officials in fomenting the bloodshed.

While some governments claim that ensuring stability and fighting extremism are paramount, laws restricting political participation, independent journalism, civil society, and freedom of religion may have the opposite effect. Given the stubborn persistence of repression, politicized justice and poor conditions in prison, the Helsinki commission has convened this briefing to raise awareness of the plight of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience and to examine what the U.S. can do about it.

Our witnesses are:

Dr. Sanjar Umarov, Chairman of the Sunshine Coalition and former political prisoner. Dr. Umarov is a physicist and worked for the Government of Uzbekistan until 1991. He moved to the private sector just before the fall of the Soviet Union, and launched several successful enterprises. In 2005, Dr. Umarov announced his political ambitions and became the Chairman of the Sunshine Coalition, a movement that was promoting dialogue between Uzbek entrepreneurs and the current Uzbek regime. Shortly after in October 2005, he was arrested and given a sentence of 14.5 years. He was recognized as a prisoner of conscience and amnestied on humanitarian grounds in November 2009.

Muzaffar Suleymanov, Europe and Central Asia Research Associate, Committee to Protect Journalists. Mr. Suleymanov joined CPJ in 2007. He is a contributor to several Central Asia news websites and has co-authored numerous CPJ publications, including a 2009 investigative report on impunity in journalist murders in Russia. Prior to joining CPJ, he worked for nonprofits focused on Central Asia, including the Open Society Institute-sponsored Civic Education Project and the American University-based East West Center. He holds a master’s degree in international peace studies from the U.N. University for Peace in San José, Costa Rica, and a bachelor’s degree in international and comparative politics from the American University-Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. He is a 2012 recipient of CPJ’s José Barbeito Memorial Award for excellence in press freedom research.

Catherine Cosman, who joined the staff of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom as Senior Policy Analyst for the OSCE region in late 2003. She has also served here on the Helsinki Commission working on issues related to Soviet dissents, and at Human Rights Watch, where she wrote several studies on ethnic conflicts in Central Asia and on human rights. She has also worked at the Free Trade Union Institute on emerging trade unions in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, on the OSCE Mission in Estonia, at the National Endowment for Democracy where she managed the Central Asian and Caucasus grants program, and RFE/RL, where she founded and edited "Media Matters" and "(Un)Civil Societies." She received a BA in History from Grinnell College and a MA and an ABD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Brown University. She also has studied at the Free University of Berlin and the All-Union Institute of Cinematography in Moscow.

I’m going to ask Mr. Suleymanov to speak first, followed by Ms. Cosman, and then Dr. Umarov.