‘War on Terror’ Cloaks Abuses in Central Asia

HELSINKI – To human rights activists, Turkmenistan is a "black hole" because little of its human rights violations is known to the outside world.

Things are not much better in neighboring Uzbekistan. Its 26 million people have only restricted political rights. Torture such as burning dissidents with hot water to extract information is common, activists say.

Torture is widely used in both these Central Asian countries to extract confessions and punish political dissidents, human rights activists from the region said at a seminar here this week this week.

"The war on terrorism is fought at the expense of human rights in Central Asia," Adolat Najimov, director of the Uzbek service for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty told the meeting.

The seminar was organized by Finnish Helsinki Committee that monitors human rights in the 55 member countries of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OCSE). The regional grouping set up under the United Nations charter includes several states from outside Europe. It defines itself as an instrument for early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management, and post-conflict rehabilitation in Europe.

Both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are OCSE members. But human rights groups say the OCSE is not sufficiently forceful against the worsening human rights situation in the two countries.

Western countries, particularly the United States, were strident in their criticism of human rights violations in the former Soviet bloc countries before Sept. 11, Najimov said. But since then there has been little criticism of human rights issues in these countries, she said.

"In so far as these countries are seen to be cooperating on the so-called war on terror, western governments have avoided taking a principled against human rights and other forms of political repression," said Peter Zalmajev from the International Human Rights League in the region.

Last month, British newspapers reported that former British ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray had been removed for publicly speaking out against human rights violations in Uzbekistan.

In April 2002, the UN special rapporteur on torture said that torture in Uzbekistan was "pervasive and persistent throughout the investigation process."

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are home to U.S. military bases considered vital for the United States to maintain its presence in the region. Both have vast natural gas and oil reserves.

Parliamentary elections are due in Uzbekistan next month, but Najimov said few expect them to be fair or free. Opposition parties have not been allowed to participate, she said. The official reason was that they had forged their membership.

Under some limited pressure, President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan was forced to remove draconian press laws when the United States withdrew $200 million in financial assistance last year, Zalmajev said. But journalists remained under strict self-censorship for fear of reprisals, he said.

In Turkmenistan "there is no government to speak of because the president personally controls everything, including the signing of admission documents for people to enter institutions of learning," he said.

President Saparmurat Niazov of Turkmenistan, who likes to be called Turkmenbashi (Leader of the Turkmens), has such a suffocating grip on his 5 million population that no form of opposition is allowed, said Zalmajev.

"To do so much as distribute a leaflet in the public is enough to get arrested in Turkmenistan," he added.

The ailing 76-year-old Niazov has declared himself leader for life, and Najimov says people can do nothing but wait until he passes from the political scene. But there is concern also over transfer of power after him, she said.

Zalmajev said the issue goes beyond the strategic position of the two countries in the war on terror. Following the creation of U.S. military bases in the region Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to revive Russian power, he said. "It has become a chess game because each wants to gain influence in the region.."

Soon after Uzbekistan was unusually criticized by the United States, President Karimov visited Moscow and was seen shaking hands with Putin in front of television cameras, said Zalmajev. "It was a silent message to U.S. President George Bush that you see, we also have other allies that we can turn to."

Washington will accept any regime in the region so long as there is political stability, he said. "The United States is not eager for a regime change because that brings uncertainty, and in any case it has its hands full in Iraq already."