Sunday 22 September 2002

Central Asians Victims of War on Terror

This is a piece I wrote from Bishkek with BBC stringer Sultan Jumagulov. It ran on IWPR's website on 22 September 2002.


The September 11 atrocities and subsequent "war on terrorism" are being used to justify a crackdown on human rights and delay democratic reforms in Central Asia, concluded delegates to an IWPR-sponsored conference in Bishkek examining regional developments over the past year.

The September 9 conference, "Central Asia: One year after", brought together Central Asian journalists, human rights activists, NGO leaders, regional specialists, diplomats and politicians for a wide-ranging discussion of events in Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan since September 11, 2001.

Presentations included specific analyses of post-9/11 changes in regional geopolitics; support for human rights, civil society and the independent media; as well as the general political situation within each country.

The conference concluded with a declaration that human rights and democracy in Central Asia have generally been eroded since last year's attacks in New York and Washington. Most of the region's authoritarian regimes, it was widely agreed, had used the attacks and the "war on terrorism" as excuses to clamp down further on civic movements, independent media and political dissent.

The meeting recognised, however, that Central Asian regimes had used the threat of Islamic extremism even before 9/11 to justify strong measures against opposition parties and civil society.

The 100 or so delegates admitted that the situation also varied from country to country. Two Tajik representatives said that Tajikistan was an exception to the overall rule, claiming that there had been no noticeable degradation of human rights in that country in the past year. Others at the conference disagreed, saying the absence of a human rights organisation in Tajikistan was telling.

Dosym Satpaev, IWPR's country director for Kazakstan, told the gathering that he felt US policy in the region is driven only by security interests, and that Washington's support for human rights has taken a back seat. In his view, the region's leaders are hoping the US will approach its long-term relationship with them as it does with Saudi Arabia, where it supports a harsh regime and makes little mention of democracy.

US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, John O'Keefe, speaking at the conference, said Washington remained concerned about human rights in Central Asia and claimed that despite some setbacks, the region had seen overall progress in democracy and human rights over the past year.

Representatives from Uzbekistan said that the situation under authoritarian president Islam Karimov was difficult both before and after September 11. They admitted some changes for the better since the atrocities, for example a human rights organisation had its official registration reinstated. But they claimed the changes were small and symbolic in nature and that Karimov could reverse them at any time.

These changes, it is generally believed, were made to please Tashkent's new ally, the US, but Washington's post-9/11 support for the oppressive Karimov regime, the delegates told the conference, could lead to anti-American feeling in Uzbekistan.

According to civil society activist Tolekan Ismailova, Kyrgyzstan demonstrated what happens in a retreat from democracy, which she says the country experienced especially in the past 12 months.

Kyrgyzstan, once considered the most democratic among the five post-Soviet Central Asian countries, is becoming a police state, Ismailova said. She pointed to the events at Aksy, in the south of the country, in March of this year, when six people were killed and dozens were injured by police breaking up a peaceful demonstration.

The strongest criticism at the conference was reserved for Turkmenistan, where the regime of the increasingly Ceausescu-like ruler, Saparmurat Niazov - who prefers to call himself "Turkmenbashi", or "father of all Turkmen" - has completely eliminated all traces of independent media.

A Turkmen representative pointed to his regime's total censorship of the press, complete control over the Internet and sweeping customs restrictions on imported newspapers and magazines as evidence, though he was quick to note that much of this was in force prior to 9/11.

Independent experts from all five post-Soviet Central Asian countries, the UK, the US, Turkey, France and Russia attended the event, sponsored by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and the European Union Mission to Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan and held at the Hotel Pinara in Bishkek on September 9.

Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek; Andrew Stroehlein is Training Co-ordinator for IWPR.

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