This week, Charles Michel, President of the European Council will attend a high-level meeting with the heads of the Central Asian States, which will take place in the city of Cholpon-Ata in Kyrgyzstan. Ahead of Michel’s visit to the region, five NGOs sent him a joint letter, urging him to raise key human rights issues with the Central Asian leaders and to insist on concrete human rights progress as a condition for a further strengthening of the EU’s partnerships with the countries of the region.
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The signatories of the joint letter include International Partnership for Human Rights, Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Legal Prosperity Foundation, the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. The NGOs urged Michel, in particular, to stress the need for accountability for serious human rights violations related to last year’s crises in the region, when the authorities employed harsh measures to end mass protests and ensuing unrest in Kazakhstan, the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) in Tajikistan and the Republic of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan. To date, measures taken to this end have lacked independence, thoroughness and effectiveness.
The five signatories of the joint letter also asked Michel to raise concerns about recent initiatives aimed at stigmatising and restricting the activities of NGOs, especially foreign-funded ones in the Central Asian countries such as highly worrying draft legislation put forward by MPs in Kyrgyzstan this month. In addition, the five organisations urged Michel to call for an end to the persecution of activists, human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers who are critical of the authorities in the countries of the region, including in the following cases:
— The leader of the unregistered opposition Democratic Party, Zhanbolat Mamai, was recently convicted for his alleged role in the unrest seen during the January 2022 events in Kazakhstan. He was given a suspended six-year prison sentence and banned from conducting political, civic or social media activities during this period, thereby effectively preventing him from continuing his opposition campaigning.
— Together with others charged in the so-called Kempir-Abad case in Kyrgyzstan, human rights activist Rita Karasartova continues to be held in deplorable conditions in pre-trial detention despite the absence of any compelling grounds for keeping her behind bars. Those charged in this case were arrested in October 2022 after peacefully engaging against a government-negotiated border deal with Uzbekistan concerning a strategically important water reservoir.
— Journalist Bolot Temirov, known for his investigations into high-level corruption, was deported from Kyrgyzstan in November 2022 in violation of the constitutional prohibition on expelling citizens of the country.
— As part of a wider crackdown on dissenting voices seen following last year’s protests in Tajikistan’s GBAO, human rights defender Manuchehr Kholiknazarov was sentenced to 16 years in prison on charges initiated in retaliation for his efforts to assist victims of human rights violations and promote access to justice and the rule of law in this region.
— Human rights lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov, who is serving a 22-year prison sentence initiated in retaliation for his professional activities in Tajikistan, is facing new charges which could result in a further extension of his sentence.
— In late May 2023, Turkmenistani YouTube blogger Farhat Meimankulyiev (aka Durdyiev) was reportedly deported from Turkey to Turkmenistan after being detained at the request of Turkmenistani diplomats. Because of his criticism of the Turkmenistani authorities, the blogger is at serious risk of politically motivated arrest, imprisonment and torture in Turkmenistan.
— The UN Human Rights Committee recently called for the release of journalist Nurgeldy Khalykov, civil society activist Murat Dushemov and human rights defender Mansur Mingelov who are currently serving prison sentences on charges believed to be politically motivated in Turkmenistan.
— Earlier this year lawyer and journalist Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov was sentenced to 16 years in prison in Uzbekistan for allegedly playing a leading role in the July 2022 events in Karakalpakstan. Currently the Supreme Court is hearing his case on appeal with a decision expected to be issued soon.
— Also in Uzbekistan, blogger Otabek Sattoriy continues to serve a six-year prison sentence deemed unlawful by UN experts and was recently denied a transfer to less harsh prison conditions because of alleged violations of prison rules. Another blogger, Miraziz Bazarov was forcibly detained by law enforcement authorities in May 2023, held for several hours and reportedly pressured to delete online content under torture and threats of criminal charges for allegedly violating the terms of a restricted liberty sentence issued against him in 2022.
President Michel’s visit to Kyrgyzstan comes at a time of increasing EU interest and engagement in Central Asia given the changing geopolitical situation due to Russia’s war against Ukraine. Previously Michel visited Central Asia and held discussions with the region’s leaders in October 2022.