Mr. Cyrill Muller, Vice President for Europe and Central Asia
The World Bank
1818 H St, NW
Washington, DC 20433
Dear Ms. Tuck and Mr. Muller:
We write to express serious concerns of ongoing forced labor in World Bank project affected areas in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek government has not fulfilled its commitments to enforce laws prohibiting forced and child labor in the areas in which it is implementing Second Rural Enterprise Support Project (P109126) and Additional Financing for Second Rural Enterprise Support Project (P126962), South Karakalpakstan Water Resource Management Improvement Project (P127764), and the Horticulture Development Project (P133703). Given the Uzbek government’s violations of national laws, international laws and the World Bank’s own project agreements, we strongly urge the World Bank to suspend disbursements until the government ends the use of forced labor in all project-affected areas.
The World Bank appropriately identified independent, third-party labor rights monitoring, a grievance redress system, and commitments to enforce laws prohibiting forced and child labor as needed mitigation measures for projects in Uzbekistan. These mitigation measures were cited to secure Bank Board approval of new projects and the Inspection Panel’s decision to not investigate links between forced labor and the RESP II project. Unfortunately, none of these measures have been fully implemented.
First, throughout 2015 the Uzbek government has forced farmers to fulfil production quotas and other citizens to fulfil cotton harvest quotas under threat of penalty, as detailed in Annex 1. This conduct violates Uzbek national laws and international conventions prohibiting forced labor. Officials assigned annual production quotas to farmers in the first quarter and enforced them, including with threats of imprisonment and seizure of crops. From April through August, officials forced thousands of citizens to weed cotton fields. Since September 8, the government has forced citizens to harvest cotton under threat of penalty nationwide. Under orders from district and regional officials, administrators have mobilized teachers, nurses, doctors and other public sector workers by threatening to fire them. Neighborhood associations (mahallas) have carried out orders from local officials and mobilized retirees and mothers by threatening to cut their pensions and child-care payments. Heads of universities and high-schools have mobilized students under threat of expulsion, including children in the Boz district of Andijan, Pakhtakor district of Jizzak, and Khazarasp district of Khorezm.
The Uzbek government’s enforcement of production quotas assigned to farmers and enforcement of field-work quotas assigned to citizens are the very definition of forced labor,i which, as the ILO Committee of Experts has explained, includes forms of coercion such as physical violence, psychological coercion and the loss of rights or privileges. ii Furthermore, the government uses forced labor to generate income from cotton sales, in violation of its commitment to not use forced labor for economic development.iii
Second, while the ILO is essential to support the application of labor conventions in Uzbekistan, it is incorrect to characterize the monitoring led by the ILO in partnership with the Uzbek government of state-led forced labor as “third-party.” Further, instead of cooperating with the ILO, the Uzbek government has taken extraordinary measures to cover up its use of forced labor.
Prior to the cotton harvest, officials required teachers and students to sign statements that they participate in the harvest “voluntarily” and instructed teachers to tell foreigners that they pick cotton voluntarily. The presence of Uzbek government representatives with ILO monitors reduces the likelihood that any citizen will report coercion to the ILO. Citizens reported that they have seen advertisements of a forced-labor complaint hotline but would never use it, because they fear retaliation by officials.
Police have repeatedly arrested, attacked, and intimidated citizens documenting forced labor, in violation of their rights, and undermining the ability of the ILO to obtain all information concerning forced labor. For example, police arrested Elena Urlaeva and subjected her to a body-cavity search on May 31. In August the prosecutor’s office threatened to press criminal charges against a human rights monitor in Karakalpakstan, under the criminal code article 244, Establishment, Direction of or Participation in Religious Extremist, Separatist, Fundamentalist or Other Banned Organizations, which carries up to 20 years imprisonment. Police arrested Elena Urlaeva with her family in Kuyichirchik district, Tashkent region on September 19, and police arrested and beat Mr. Tihonov in Angren city, Tashkent region on September 20. Police arrested Elena Urlaeva and Malohat Eshankulova on September 29 and ordered body-cavity searches of the two women during their 14-hours of detention. On October 20, police opened charges against Dmitry Tihonov, and the same day his home office was burned down, destroying his archive of evidence of forced labor, and additional materials stored were confiscated from a room in his house untouched by the fire. On November 16, police arrested Uktam Pardaev, confiscated his files, computer and camera, and presented him with charges that carry a penalty of up to five years in prison.
The Uzbek government’s continued use of forced labor and use of violence to suppress efforts to monitor labor rights in World Bank project areas demonstrate a lack of commitment to the agreements it signed with the World Bank. We urge the Bank to suspend all disbursements of finance to the Uzbek government under the RESP II, Karakalpakstan, and Horticulture projects until the government fulfils its commitments not to utilize forced or child labor on World Bank project affected areas. The World Bank should require the government to take the following steps toward this goal:
1. Instruct all government officials and citizens that act on behalf of the government to not use coercion to mobilize anyone to work, including farmers, children, students, public-sector workers, private-sector workers, pensioners, mothers and others receiving public welfare support, and the unemployed;
2. Initiate fair judicial processes that conform to international standards against government officials found to have forced citizens to pick cotton and hold accountable those found guilty with penalties that reflect the severity of the crime and serve as a deterrent for future crimes;
3. Allow independent journalists, human rights defenders, and other individuals and organizations to document and report concerns about the use of forced labor without fear of reprisals; and
4. Initiate a time-bound plan to reform root causes of forced labor in the agriculture sector, including:
a. Increase financial transparency in the agriculture sector, including by ensuring national budgets reviewed by the Oliy Majlis include expenditures and income in the agriculture sector, eliminating the Selkozfond, ensuring taxes paid in the sector go to the national budget, and replacing the dual system of credit and banking operations with a transparent system of banking that provides farmers’ access to cash and credit;
b. Abolish mandatory production quotas and grant farmers autonomous management of agricultural land;
c. Ensure the state-established procurement prices for cotton, wheat and silk reflect the costs of production, including costs of voluntary labor, and over time abolishing the state monopsony on cotton, wheat and silk purchasing;
d. De-monopolize agricultural input suppliers; and
e. Conduct a complete survey of the condition of agricultural land to create an updated inventory and use the results to guide the optimization of the tax system for participants in the chain of cotton production—cultivation, production, processing, and sale—to distribute the tax burden equitably along the chain.
We appreciate your attention to this matter and have appreciated our discussions with your staff regarding forced labor in Uzbekistan and World Bank programming over the last two years. We would like to meet with you to discuss our concerns further.
The Cotton Campaign:
Advocates for Public Interest Law
American Apparel & Footwear Association
Association for Human Rights in Central Asia
Bennett Freeman, Cotton Campaign Steering Committee Member and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Brian Campbell, Legal Adviser to the Cotton Campaign
Center for Reflection, Education and Action
Child Labor Coalition
Environmental Justice Foundation
The Eurasian Transition Group, e.V.
Fair World Project
Farmworker Association of Florida
Food Chain Workers Alliance
Human Rights Watch
International Labor Rights Forum
International Partnership for Human Rights
International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel,
Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations
Mercy Investment Services
National Consumers League
Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment
Open Society Foundations
Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific
Responsible Sourcing Network
Rotarian Action Group Against Child Slavery
Sisters of Charity Health System
Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia
Stop the Traffik
Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, Uniting Church in Australia
Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia
Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights
Warehouse Worker Resource Center
CC: World Bank Board of Executive Directors
Annex 1: Chronicle of Forced Labor 2015
i ILO Convention No. 29 concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour (Forced Labour Convention), adopted June 28, 1930, 39 U.N.T.S. 55, entered into force May 1, 1932, Article 2, stating “forced or compulsory labour shall mean all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”
ii ILO, “Giving Globalization a Human Face,” 2012, ILC.101/III/1B, http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/
groups/public/@ed_norm/@ relconf/documents/ meetingdocument/wcms_174846. pdf, at paragraph 270.
iii ILO Convention No. 105 concerning Abolition of Forced Labour, adopted June 25, 1957, entered into force, January 17, 1959, at Article 1b, stating “Each Member of the International Labour Organisation which ratifies this Convention undertakes to suppress and not to make use of any form of forced or compulsory labour…(b) as a method of mobilising and using labour for purposes of economic development
In recent days, some human rights activists and the media attributed a huge role in the release of a political prisoner, a former deputy of the Parliament of Uzbekistan Murad Djuraev, whom we congratulate on this long-awaited event, to the US Secretary of State John Kerry.
HRSU Ezgulik and journalists of Radio Liberty linked Murad Djuraev’s release from the jail to a visit of the US Secretary of State Mr. Kerry. I had a feeling of great injustice, because the date of his release was known as early as October 2015. An employee of the prison administration told Juraev’s wife to come and collect him on 12 November. However, he set a condition: to keep quiet about it. On a condition of great secrecy, human rights defenders learned about the date of Murat Djuraev’s release a month before the visit of John Kerry. I do not agree with those who called Murad Djuraev’s release a humanitarian act either.
Unfortunately, the former Member of Parliament Murat Djuraev had to spend 21 years in custody serving five terms of imprisonment, four of which were extended on absurd charges: "for pealing carrots not properly", "for wearing the wrong shoes in the barracks where the prisoners' slept” and so on.
It is worth mentioning that the public learned about John Kerry’s visit to the Central Asia only a few days before it actually took place. Moreover, it was announced only after numerous requests of human rights defenders. Uzbekistan has the largest number of political prisoners in the former Soviet region. Systematic defeat of the human rights movement and systemic persecution of independent journalists have been continuing since 2005. Therefore, members of the community of activists remaining free have a well-founded fear of arrests or compulsory treatment in a psychiatric clinic. In these circumstances, a small group of brave men and women continue to monitor human rights, despite the fact that the government officials organise arsons of their homes, frequently invade their private space and restrict their freedom of movement. Since 2004, the work of independent civil society activists in Uzbekistan cannot be legally funded.
Then Mr Kerry visited the country. We all were anticipating that it would give a chance to the release imprisoned civil society activists, that the Secretary of State would certainly raise the issue of accreditation of HRW. We also had no doubt that John Kerry would not leave the human rights activists and journalists without a moral support, that at least one of his assistants would meet with them.
However, Mr Kerry met only with the dictator Karimov behind closed doors. According to official Tashkent, a meeting with civil society activists took place in Samarkand. But who are these activists and what was discussed during this meeting is unknown. Does this mean that Secretary Kerry is now meeting the activists behind closed doors too?
During his visit, Mr Kerry treated Karimov with surprising sentimentality and did not publicly support the community of activists who are persecuted for their work. He did not mention the name of even a single Uzbek political prisoner. Following the meeting, the social networks and the media reported only enthusiastic statements of Mr Kerry about Samarkand and the results of negotiations with Mr Karimov. What has so impressed Secretary of State is unknown. One of the most shameful moments of the visit of John Kerry was when his security personnel pushed an American journalist Carol Morello who asked questions about human rights out of the room. All subsequent apologies of Mr Kerry’s assistants did not matter: we saw how the US Secretary of State, in the presence of the dictator who ordered to shoot his own people in Andijan, allowed to disrespect a reporter of a reputable American newspaper Washington Post.
Since May 2015, on the basis of regular requests of human rights organisations: Amnesty International, ACAT- France, IPHR, HRW, AHRCA, Freedom House, UGF, HRSU Ezgulik and many others, members of the Sub-Committee on Human Rights of the European Parliament and many diplomats of EU countries and the United States raised the issue before the Uzbek government about the case of Murad Djuraev. (Sorry if I left anyone out.) Monitoring of the case of Murad Djuraev has been constantly carried out for the last 4 years, starting with a visit of then EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton to Uzbekistan in 2012. At a meeting with human rights activists, she promised that she would continuously monitor the cases of prisoners: Murad Djuraev, Muhammad Bekjan, Isroil Holdarov, Azam Farmonov and others.
Since then, they received new sentences under Article 221 of the Criminal Code of Uzbekistan "Disobedience to Legitimate Orders of the Administration of Penal Institutions." However, Ms Ashton did not notice it.
At almost all meetings of the EU in the framework of the Dialogue on Human Rights, the issue of political prisoners was raised. Murad Juraev’s name has always been in this list, because he has broken all records in terms of imprisonment and the severity of conditions of detention.
He held out owing to his wife Holbike Djuraeva, who continued to support him over the years. After her visit to the colony, she would come to her friend Dilorom Iskhakova’s house. When Dilorom asked "How are you?" she broke down into tears and hysteria and they had to call an ambulance to calm her down. I once heard her bitter complaints over the telephone. Dilorom Iskhakov continued to support this family all these years. At the European Union and the United Nations meetings, she tearfully told about the fate of Murat Juraev and asked to save him. Alongside her, Jodgor Obid, Ismail Dadajanov, Muhammad Salikh, Talib Yakubov and Pulat Akhunov kept Murad Djuraev’s case constantly in the public view. Each of them wrote and spoke about him, because they knew him personally.
During these 21 years, Murad Djuraev has become a symbol of civil society. At the meetings within the framework of human rights dialogues, the diplomats mentioned his name with great caution, because the dictator Karimov declared him a personal enemy. The Secretary Kerry also decided not to mention Juraev’s name publicly. It is a shame, because any public mention of political prisoners gives moral support not only to them but also to those who are seeking their freedom.
The Committee for Human Rights, at it the 114th session of July 2015, repeatedly mentioned the names of Murad Djuraev, Muhammad Bekjan, Azam Farmonov, Dilmurad Saiyd, Fakhriddin Tillaev, Nuriddin Dzhumaniyazov and many others. And the members of the Uzbek delegation clearly felt that we all take a great interest in the fate of these people, because they continue to protect the fundamental principles of human rights and freedoms even if they are in prison.
Every day we receive disturbing reports from Uzbekistan about human rights defenders who are risking their lives in order to circulate the information that the Uzbek authorities want to hide from the international community. It is very important that the representatives of the democratic community pay them attention and give a moral support.
Murad Djuraev is already with his family. It will take a long time to restore his health. There are still many political prisoners remaining in custody. Among them, there are disabled, seriously ill and elderly people. Will their fate be discussed in November during the forthcoming dialogue on human rights in the European Union? After all, these dialogues have been held for many years, also without the participation of civil society activists and behind closed doors.
In fact, it is important that the public knows what issues are discussed during these meetings. Citizens of Uzbekistan have the right to know: whether the issue of resuming the mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Uzbekistan on program of visits to persons held in custody will be solved, whether the observations of the Committee against Torture are adhered to, when Uzbekistan will allow UN Special Rapporteurs, whether the restrictions on the supply of all forms of military assistance and sanctions against those involved in crimes against humanity will be imposed.
On 13 November, the US Department of State, in a brief press release, welcomed the release of Murat Juraev. Indeed, this is an important event in the history of the development of civil society in Uzbekistan. It is equally important that there is a US Senator called Benjamin Cardin. He has the time and desire to express his concerns about the fate of Uzbek political prisoners at every opportunity, without looking back at the dictator Islam Karimov.
Nadejda Atayeva,A citizen of Uzbekistan
Rights Groups Call on UN to Hold Tashkent Accountable for Arbitrary Detention
(Bishkek) – One of the world’s longest imprisoned peaceful political activists, Murod Juraev, was finally released from a jail in Uzbekistan on November 12, 2015, after 21 unjustified years behind bars, nine human rights groups said today. Juraev, a 63-year-old former member of parliament, had been imprisoned since September 18, 1994. His original nine-year sentence was extended by 12 years for alleged violations of prison rules; during this time, he was repeatedly tortured and became seriously ill.
The Uzbek authorities should thoroughly and meaningfully investigate credible allegations that Juraev was tortured; that his sentence was arbitrarily extended, which was approved by judges in hearings that violated fair trial principles; and that he was denied appropriate medical care in prison, the groups said. The government should allow him to resume his peaceful political activism. The Uzbek government should also immediately and unconditionally release the numerous other peaceful activists and human rights defenders who remain in prison following politically motivated, unfair trials.
“The last 21 years have been a living hell that Murod Juraev and his family should never have had to experience,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Uzbek authorities should see to it that those who are alleged to have tortured Juraev and arbitrarily extended his prison sentence are promptly investigated and brought to justice.”
The human rights groups are Amnesty International, Christians’ Action for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT-France), the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (AHRCA), Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
In November 2013, the United Nations Committee Against Torture – a body of 10 independent experts that monitors governments’ implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – found that Juraev and numerous other peaceful activists and human rights defenders were arbitrarily imprisoned in retaliation for their work and criticism of the government. The committee expressed concern that many wrongfully held activists have been subjected to torture or other forms of ill-treatment.
Juraev was a member of parliament from 1991 to 1992, a prominent member of the Erk opposition party, and served as the mayor of Mubarak, in Kashkadarya province. Juraev drew President Islam Karimov’s personal ire by being the first official to dissolve a city committee of the Communist Party after the fall of the Soviet Union.
On September 18, 1994, he was detained in Kazakhstan and forcibly returned to Uzbekistan. He was beaten during his arrest. He suffered multiple concussions and a broken rib, but it is unclear whether these injuries were from the beating or from a car accident following his arrest. On May 31, 1995, Juraev was convicted in a case in which a number of members of the banned Erk party were accused of plotting to overthrow the government. A court sentenced him on various charges to 12 years in prison, later reduced to nine years on appeal. He was held in prison 64/45 in Almalyk, Tashkent province.
Prison authorities arbitrarily extended Juraev’s sentence in 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2012 for “violations of prison rules.” On each occasion the extension came just before the end of his sentence. Juraev’s alleged violations of prison rules included “incorrectly peeling carrots” in the prison kitchen and “non-removal of shoes when entering the barracks.”
“Uzbek authorities repeatedly punish a wide variety of prisoners they see as potential government critics by arbitrarily extending their prison terms on often absurd grounds,” said Brigitte Dufour, director of International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR). “This leads to the intolerable situation where prisoners are sentenced to de facto life imprisonment for political reasons.”
Juraev is badly in need of medical attention. In 2011, ACAT-France reported that he had been severely tortured in prison, that he had become extremely thin, and that he had contracted tuberculosis. Juraev’s wife met with him in October 2013 and told a rights activist that he had lost all of his teeth, had trouble eating, suffered from constant headaches and stomach pain, and was experiencing periodic numbness in his right arm. During a November 2014 meeting with Human Rights Watch, she said Juraev had become a “skeleton.”
In spite of his poor health and severe back pain, prison authorities subjected Juraev to daily heavy labor, forcing him to work in a brick factory. The prison warden repeatedly told him that his was a “special case,” that he had been marked as a repeat offender, and that it was dangerous for other inmates even to communicate with him.
“Juraev’s treatment at the hands of the Uzbek authorities violates core human rights standards, and he deserves justice,” Maisy Weicherding, Amnesty International researcher on Central Asia, said. “The Uzbek government regularly points to its progress in reforming its criminal justice system, but these claims ring hollow unless the allegations in this case are effectively investigated.”
Among its other recommendations, the UN Committee Against Torture called on Uzbekistan as a matter of urgency to carry out “prompt, impartial, and effective investigations into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment and prosecute and punish all those responsible” and to “ensure that high-level officials in the executive branch publicly and unambiguously condemn torture in all its forms, directing this especially to police and prison staff.”
Uzbekistan’s international partners, including the United States and the European Union, should use every means of influence at their disposal and reiterate their calls to Tashkent to address its human rights record, including by releasing all those whose detention is unlawful and arbitrary under international standards, the rights groups said. One place to begin is at the UN Human Rights Council, where members can express serious concern with Uzbekistan’s systematic refusal to cooperate with UN experts on human rights and its continuous flouting of its human rights obligations.
Members of the UN Human Rights Council should underscore their concern about human rights violations in Uzbekistan and the government’s continued refusal to allow visits from 13 of these UN monitors, including the special rapporteur on torture. The council should establish a dedicated, country-specific position to ensure sustained scrutiny and reporting on the human rights situation in Uzbekistan.
“Juraev’s family and local activists had the courage to campaign for his freedom for many years at great personal risk,” said Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. “It is now of the utmost importance for Uzbekistan’s international partners to be willing to do the same to prevent the ongoing arbitrary detention of many people who have been punished simply for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.”
Among prisoners whose sentences have been extended on politically motivated grounds for alleged violations of prison rules are: Muhammad Bekjanov, former editor-in-chief of the banned Erk political opposition party newspaper, who has spent 16 years in prison and whose sentence has been extended twice for disobeying prison rules; Yusuf Ruzimurodov, a journalist who was tried alongside Muhammad Bekjanov in 1999 and received an additional sentence in May 2014, though it was not clear for how long; and Azam Farmonov, a human rights activist arrested in 2006 and convicted of extortion after an unfair trial without a lawyer present. He was repeatedly tortured and ill-treated in Jaslyk prison 64/71. His prison term ended in April, but a former detainee told Farmonov’s wife on May 21, 2015, that her husband’s term had been extended by an additional five years.
“Uzbekistan should immediately and unconditionally release and ensure the rehabilitation of all those who are detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression,” said Jeremie Beja, Asia-Central Asia-Russia desk manager at ACAT.
Dear Secretary of State
We are writing to you on the eve of the joint meeting in Samarkand with foreign Ministers from the five Central Asian countries in the new format of dialogues between USA and Central Asia “C5+1”.
We would like to bring to your attention that the Uzbekistani authorities have begun to equate the work of human rights defenders and independent journalists with anti-state activities. In a democratic community freedom of expression is an integral part of the social process. However, in Uzbekistan activists who defend human rights principles and freedoms are blacklisted by the Uzbek security services.
We are especially concerned about the fate of imprisoned human rights defenders Nuraddin Dzhumaniyazov who suffers from severe diabetes and Isroil Holdarov, who is disabled. Both men are over 60 years old and no information about their whereabouts or state of health has been available for over a year now.
Imprisoned journalists Muhammad Bekhjanov, Dilmurad Saiydov and Salijon Abdurakhmanov are in extremely poor health. All three were imprisoned on politically motivated charges in retaliation for their work as independent journalists.
Former member of Parliament Murad Dzhuraev has spent 21 years in prison now, and his prison sentence has been arbitrarily extended four times.
None of the above prisoners who are in prison on politically motivated grounds have been treated humanely, nor has any act of amnesty been issued in relation to them. Over 40 civil society activists are in prison at the present time on falsified charges.
Since 2004 it has been extremely difficult to carry out independent monitoring of implementation of human rights obligations in Uzbekistan. In 2011 the accreditation of the international organization “Human Rights Watch” was rescinded by the Uzbekistani authorities and for the last six years its staff has been refused visas to visit the country.
For the last 14 years the 13 thematic special rapporteurs of the United Nations have been unable to visit Uzbekistan. There are no effective mechanisms for protection and investigation of allegations of torture or other ill-treatment, even in courts.
We would therefore like to express our trust and respect to you and the US government and ask you to take any available opportunity to draw attention to the fate of imprisoned civil society activists in Uzbekistan. We request you also to urge the government of Uzbekistan to resolve the issue of accreditation for Human Rights Watch and allow independent international observers into the country. You can be sure that your actions will provide valuable moral support to human rights activists and encourage them to continue their socially useful activities.
President of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia - AHRCA
Central Asia: US Secretary of State should speak up in support of region’s hard-pressed civil society during visit
29 October 2015. In the next few days, US Secretary of State John Kerry will visit the five Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Our organizations -- Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Nota Bene, Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia and International Partnership for Human Rights -- urge him to use his visit to prominently raise human rights concerns with the Central Asian governments and to speak up in support of the region’s hard-pressed civil society.
During his visit, Kerry will hold bilateral and multilateral talks with senior government officials from the Central Asian countries, including at a meeting with the foreign ministers of all five countries in the city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan.
Kerry’s visit comes at a time when civil society in Central Asia is under more pressure than ever. In the context of political developments in the wider region and the current economic downturn, the Central Asian authorities have exploited concerns about national security and stability to step up rhetoric and tighten measures against civil society actors who criticize government policies and advocate for human rights, justice and rule of law.
It is imperative that the Secretary of State uses his visit to condemn this alarming trend and to express strong support for civil society groups and activists at risk in the region.
These are some key concerns that we urge Kerry to raise with his Central Asian counterparts:
While existing legislation sets out strict requirements regarding the operation and funding of NGOs in the Central Asian countries, new restrictive provisions on the funding of NGOs have recently been initiated in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Draft legislation currently pending in Kazakhstan’s Senate may result in that a non-independent body is granted monopoly over the allocation of grants to NGOs, including grants from foreign donors. A Russia-inspired “foreign agents” bill that passed the first reading in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament this summer could be used to stigmatize and obstruct the work of basically any foreign-funded NGO. There are also
concerns that new legislation adopted in Tajikistan in August 2015, which requires NGOs to report all funds received from foreign sources to the government prior to using them, may be used to restrict NGOs’ access to funding in violation of international standards. NGOs have made active efforts to influence and improve these legislative initiatives in the three countries, but their suggestions have been largely disregarded.
Government regulations in force in Uzbekistan set out onerous requirements with respect to obtaining and using foreign grants, which effectively bar access to such funding for NGOs. According to Turkmenistani legislation, foreign grants received by NGOs must be registered with the government and are subject to close scrutiny.
In the current climate, Central Asian NGOs and their leaders have increasingly been singled out for negative and discrediting statements by government representatives, public figures and public media who have accused them of promoting ”foreign” interests and values and of undermining national security, stability and reputation.
NGOs that work on “sensitive” issues such as human rights have also been denied registration and closed down on various pretexts in the region. Several human rights NGOs are currently at the threat of closure in Tajikistan because of the alleged failure to comply with administrative and technical requirements. If adopted, the new NGO legislation under consideration in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan could lead to closures of human rights NGOs in these countries. In Uzbekistan, it is practically impossible for independent human rights NGOs to obtain mandatory registration, as a result of which such groups are forced to work without legal status. Independent Turkmenistani human rights groups can only operate underground or in exile. Numerous NGO activists from these two countries have had to flee abroad because of the repressive climate, and there are reasons to fear that this may be a growing trend across the region.
In the recent period, new cases of intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders, civic activists, lawyers and other outspoken individuals have been reported in all the Central Asian countries. Cases where such individuals have been arrested, charged and imprisoned in retaliation for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly and other fundamental rights are of particular concern. Recent worrying examples include the arrest of civil society activists Ermek Narymbaev and Serikzhan Mambetalin in Kazakhstan in October 2015, the arrest of lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov in Tajikistan in September 2015, and the reported three-year prison sentence handed down to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Saparmamed Nepeskuliev in Turkmenistan in August 2015.
Some human rights defenders and dissidents imprisoned after unfair trials in the region have been behind bars for years already. There are serious concerns about the health and well-being of these individuals, including among others Azimjan Askarov, who continues to serve a life sentence in in Kyrgyzstan, and Azam Farmonov, who in April this year was given an additional five-year sentence in Uzbekistan instead of being released after serving out a 9-year sentence.
More information about current concerns regarding the situation of civil society in Central Asia is detailed in a briefing paper, which was issued by our organizations on 22 October 2015.
According to a press statementissued by the US Department of State, US Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Central Asia after attending Syria talks in Vienna on 29-30 October 2015. He will travel to Bishkek, Samarkand, Astana, Dushanbe and Ashgabat on his tour to the region, which is scheduled to end on 3 November 2015.