A new report published by four NGOs surveys recent developments in the areas of freedom of expression; freedom of association and assembly; and non-discrimination and access to justice in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. It details growing concerns about restrictions on media, the political opposition and civil society, as well as violations of the rights of minorities and other vulnerable groups at a time when the Central Asian governments are stepping up efforts to ensure stability, unity and “moral” cohesion in society. (See more in summary below). The report is based on monitoring carried out by Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Nota Bene (Tajikistan) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights in their respective countries in May-August 2015. International Partnership for Human Rights (Belgium) has worked with these three organizations on the preparation of the report within the framework of a joint project.
Summary of developments covered by the report, in each of the three Central Asian countries:
Following the closure of a number of opposition and independent media outlets in the last few years, the online portal Nakanune.kz is now threatened by closure after being ordered by court to pay some 75 000 EUR in moral damages in a defamation case. A criminal case opened against a presidential election nominee over a book he attempted to publish more than 20 years ago reinforced concerns about the misuse of a Criminal Code provision on “inciting national discord” to stifle free expression.
A government official stated that proxies used to circumvent internet censorship and access blocked sites are unlawful and that the government is working on tracking them down.
The report published by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association following his Kazakhstan mission earlier this year highlights key concerns regarding current legislation and policies in this area and provides important recommendations. Kazakhstan’s government said it disagrees with many of the findings and recommendations.
There were new cases where the implementation of restrictive legislation on holding assemblies resulted in violations of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. A well-known civil society activist was twice locked up in this context. The implications of the problematic approach of authorities was also illustrated by the case of an 80-year-old, disabled and bed-ridden Almaty resident, who was only allowed to hold a hunger strike in her home following a protracted legal battle.
Trade activists sounded alarm that hundreds of trade unions were at the risk of closure because they had not obtained re-registration when the 1-year deadline set out by the new Trade Union Law expired in July 2015. This law, which entered into force last year, requires mandatory affiliation to regional, branch or federal trade unions. The opposition Communist Party was closed down by court in early August 2015 for allegedly failing to meet the requirement for the number of members needed for the registration of political parties.
Draft legislation that proposes the introduction of a new grant-making mechanism for NGOs was submitted to the parliament in late June 2015. The government has responded to civil society concerns about this draft legislation by indicating that it will not apply to NGO grants from foreign and international sources. Civil society has called for ensuring that it is also worded so as to strictly limit its scope to state grants.
As previously, there were concerns about the treatment in prison of individuals convicted on charges believed to be politically motivated in unfair trials, including opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, human rights defender Vadim Kuramshin and poet and dissident Aron Atabek.
KIBHR, IPHR and partners raised attention to two cases involving violations of the rights of lawyers. Lawyer Bulat Baytyakov was convicted of defaming a judge over appeals filed in a labour dispute in court, while lawyer Snezhanna Kim faced intimidation and interference when meeting with a client held in detention.
In May 2015, Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Council found draft legislation that risked banning so-called propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations unconstitutional. NGOs had campaigned against this draft legislation in the context of Almaty’s bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics, the draft host agreement for which requires compliance with the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. In the end, Almaty lost the bid to Beijing.
KIBHR continued to report concerns about forced evictions of low-income individuals and families who are unable to repay mortgage loans and have no alternative housing. The UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing expressed serious concerns regarding such evictions after a Kazakhstan visit in 2010.
The problematic media situation in Tajikistan was highlighted by Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press survey, where Tajikistan was ranked 179th out of 199 countries. According to new regulations signed by the president in June 2015, all information about official events will be channelled through the Khovar state information agency, thus restricting access to such information by other media.
There were new reports of arbitrary and indiscriminate blocking of websites. In particular, a number of media and social media sites were blocked after a controversial video message appeared online in May 2015 where a former high-ranking police officer announced joining the Islamic State.
New legislation signed by the president in August 2015 requires public associations to report all funds received from foreign sources for inclusion in a special government register. While the final version speaks about “notifying” the government, the provisions remain vaguely worded and do not provide any details on the notification procedure. This aspect was left to government instructions currently being drafted. The new legislation has been criticized by civil society and UN human rights representatives for threatening to restrict the work of NGOs in violation of international human rights standards.
A series of inspections of the activities of NGOs have recently been carried out by law enforcement authorities, without any official explanation as to why these inspections are being conducted or how NGOs have been selected. Among those targeted by inspections are several well-known human rights NGOs, and there are concerns that inspections may be aimed at intimidating and silencing outspoken groups. In a development of serious concern, the Tax Committee has brought a lawsuit against Nota Bene, requesting it to be liquidated for allegedly using gaps in the legislation when registering in 2009. Nota Bene is challenging the lawsuit in court.
The opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which fell out from the parliament in the March 2015 elections, continued to report facing harassment. In late August 2015, it was warned by the Ministry of Justice that its activities are “illegal” and it now faces closure. There are concerns that opposition activists detained abroad on extradition requests issued by the Tajikistani authorities may face torture and ill-treatment if returned.
Tajikistan’s Russia ambassador criticized the authorities of this country for lack of attention to violations of the rights of labour migrants, in a situation where the vulnerability of migrants has increased due to the economic downturn and stricter migration rules. Earlier this year, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights called on the Tajikistani authorities to step up efforts to protect labour migrants.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom included Tajikistan among 17 countries of particular concern in its 2015 annual report. Following earlier reports of law enforcement raids against retailers selling “inappropriate” Muslim clothing and cases of forced shaving of bearded Muslim men, reports surfaced about the sale of fake official licenses to wear a hijab or spot a beard. A criminal case was opened.
NGOs received numerous complaints from disabled people who were pressured to resign or dismissed from state institutions because they receive disability pension, in violation of their equal right to work. Plans by the authorities to introduce compulsory medical testing for future spouses gave rise to concerns about possible discriminatory treatment of individuals with a “problematic” medical record, such as HIV-infected people.
The personality cult surrounding Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov was further promoted through the unveiling of a new, golden statue of him in Ashgabat and the continued mass mobilization of citizens to greet and praise him. On 5 August 2015, three people died after being forced to wait for some 7 hours for the president to arrive to a stadium opening without access to water, food or toilet facilities.
Turkmenistan was again given a bottom ranking in Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom of the Press Index, and several recent cases illustrate the ongoing harassment of individuals who are considered “inconvenient” by the authorities. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Osmankuly Hallyev resigned this summer citing unprecedented pressure and Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, who works for the same service, went missing in July. It later turned out that he was held on charges of possessing “narcotics” and recently he was reportedly sentenced to three years in prison. Horse-breeding expert Geldy Kyarizov, who fell out of favour with the government years ago, was prevented from travelling abroad with his family in August and the same month well-known civil society activist Natalia Shabunts had her satellite dishes arbitrarily removed. Authorities also continued a broader campaign of forcibly dismantling satellite dishes, thereby restricting access to alternative information.
The country’s first-ever Law on Assemblies entered into force on 1 July 2015. While the stated purpose of this law is to protect the right to hold assemblies, it imposes a number of problematic restrictions on this right and there are concerns that it may be used to obstruct the organization of spontaneous, peaceful protests.
Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) reported about new arbitrary measures taken by local authorities infringing the rights of citizens. Such measures included: forcible removal not only of private satellite dishes but also air conditioners in the name of promoting “urban development”; visits to schools and other public institutions to enforce “moral standards”; and requiring practicing foreign-graduated doctors to quit working and go back to studying, despite the lack of qualified professionals to replace them. There were new concerns that housing was demolished in and outside Ashgabat without safeguarding the rights of citizens affected by such measures, including by ensuring that they are promptly granted adequate alternative accommodation.
According to TIHR’s information, since February this year, several hundred people have been detained in a counter-terrorism campaign carried out by the government. There are concerns that individuals may have been targeted and arbitrarily apprehended simply for being affiliated with so-called non-traditional Islamic groups, even if they do not endorse violence in any way. With reference to concerns about the situation at Turkmenistan’s southern border, security services have reportedly held “preventive talks” with Balochi, Persian and Afghan community leaders, demanding that they report the names of community members who maintain “close contacts” with people in Iran and Afghanistan.