Testimony of Cassandra Cavanaugh
Joint Hearing with Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia: "Silencing Central Asia: the Voice of Dissidents"

Washington, 18 July 2001

Subcommittees on International Operations and Human Rights, and Middle East and South Asia, House Committee on International Relations

Wednesday, July 18, 2001

Hearing on "Silencing Central Asia: The Voice of Dissidents

Testimony of Dr. Cassandra Cavanaugh, Assistant Professor of History, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA, consultant and former Senior Researcher, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch

Thank you for giving Human Rights Watch the opportunity to testify before you. Since the late 1980s, Human Rights Watch has promoted the observance of international human rights norms in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. We maintained an office in Dushanbe, Tajikistan from 1994 to 2000, and in 1996 opened an office in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Our general assessment is that Central Asian governments have, in the past two to three years, completely reversed the small steps toward democracy which some of them made in the early 1990s, and that their ongoing violations of their citizensí rights threatenómore than any other factoróto destabilize further an already troubled region.

The term "dissident" in the title of this hearing is fitting. In a democratic society, people who dissent from government policies may seek real change. We tend not to call them dissidents because they have the opportunity not only to dissent, but also to group together and form opposition movements. But in the authoritarian states of Central Asia, individuals who directly criticize government policies, or accuse their governments of violating citizensí rights and attempt to hold them accountable, become dissidents, for effective opposition to the government is not tolerated. In some states people may openly discuss social problems to a limited degree, but the governments prevent discussion from translating into action; in other states, any mention of strife, poverty or injustice falls under the censorís pen.

Today I would like to discuss three aspects of the regionís mounting record of repressing dissidents that demonstrate most clearly how this repression paralyzes progress toward political and economic reform: the use of politicized justice and impunity for police brutality, the linkage between corruption and repression, and finally the particularly severe treatment of those who try to defend their fellow citizens against these rights

violations. In conclusion I would like to share with you some of the recommendations Human Rights Watch has made to the Bush administration on U.S. policy toward the Central Asian states in the hopes that the U.S. government will consistently use the enormous leverage at its disposal to bring about real democratic change in the region. I request that this memorandum, together with the written version of my testimony that I will summarize, be entered into the hearing record.

A Record of Repression

Central Asian governments have arrested and otherwise persecuted scholars and writers, journalists and editors, opposition political activists and even ordinary persons who dare to express critical views. Whether by banning public demonstrations and detaining their would-be participants, closing down critical newspapers or other media, jailing journalists and activists on politically-motivated charges or attacking them physically, all five governments in the region, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to silence the voice of dissent, the voice of opposition. It is difficult to conjure a more vivid and recent example of this harassment than what happened just two days ago, when security agents in Kazakhstan prevented Amirzhan Kossanov and Ermurat Bapi, two opposition party members who were to testify in this room today, from boarding their flight to Washington.

Political Justice

Without the rule of law, no person, whether a penniless pensioner who takes to the streets, or a powerful foreign investor, is safe from the arbitrary action of the government. Sadly, the Soviet practice of "telephone justice," when a local Communist Party boss could order any violation of the law with a simple phone call, has grown more, not less entrenched over the past ten years.

Leaders in the region use "telephone justice" to suppress dissent, manipulate elections, influence the outcome of trials, and the like. In Kazakhstan, the government used it to dismiss two city council members who were from the opposition Republican Peopleís Party and the Russian organization "Lad." Similar "telephone calls," or arbitrary interventions, have arranged the dismissal of dissidents or their family members from state employment or educational institutions, with no hope of redress. Dissidents may face criminal charges, whether clearly political in nature or based on non-political acts, and be jailed or forced into exile.

Politicized justice is not only a matter of the arbitrary actions of government officials; in many cases, dissent itself is criminalized in law. Because of this, the kinds of political charges filed against dissidents in Central Asia bear a startling uniformity. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have laws that criminalize "affronts to the honor and dignity" of the president or other government officials. In Kazakhstan, political activist Madel Ismailov served a year in a prison camp for this offense; the state has recently lodged this charge against other activists. Libel is a criminal offense. Those whose religious belief prompts them to dissent, or who are accused of membership in banned, peaceful Islamic organizations may be charged with inciting religious or national enmity.

The classic political offense is attempting to, or inciting others to overthrow the constitutional order. It is reminiscent of the notorious Article 58 of the Soviet Unionís criminal code, which punished so many dissidents for "anti-state activity." And it is used across the region against those who dissent, whether they are political activists or ordinary citizens.

In Uzbekistan, charges of anti-constitutional activity and illegal religious activity have been used to jail literally thousands whom the state suspects of disloyalty. Uzbekistan is a country where dissidence can have fatal consequences, thanks to the stateís tacit acceptance of police torture. In the past three years, at least sixteen religious prisoners died in custody in Uzbekistan. I would like to tell you about one of them, Emin Usmon, who died in March.

Emin Usmon was a well-known writer and commentator in Uzbekistan. Police detained him on February 11 this year, and accused him of religious radicalism. Persons close to Usmon maintain that it was his attempts to defend the rights of other persons so accused which angered the government. Early on the morning of March 1, police brought his body back to his family home, at the same time as fifty to sixty officers in uniform and plainclothes surrounded Usmonís neighborhood. Initially, police told the family that Mr. Usmon had committed suicide, a highly suspicious allegation, considering that Mr. Usmonís well-known religious beliefs would prevent him from contemplating such a step. However, the death certificate ultimately supplied to the family stated that he had died of a "brain tumor." No independent medical examination was allowed, nor was the family allowed to view the body as is customary. Nonetheless, one relative saw clearly a still-bleeding wound on the back of Mr. Usmonís head during the procedure of preparing the body for burial. Police officers demanded that the family bury the body immediately, and the cemetery was surrounded by police officers, who did not allow other relatives or neighbors to take part. Those who did were questioned by police and warned not to discuss what they had seen. The conflicting account provided by police as to the cause of death, the clandestine return of the body and burial, and the refusal by police to allow the family to view the body all indicate that the actual cause of Mr. Usmonís death was physical mistreatment while in custody.

I have no recent examples of the persecution of dissidents in Turkmenistan. This is not because the government has suddenly grown tolerant, but because with the jailing in 2000 of Nurberdi Nurmamedov, co-chair of the opposition movement Agzybirlik, Turkmenistan silenced its last voice of dissent. While Mr. Nurmamedov was released in December 2000, after swearing an oath of loyalty to Turkmen President Saparmurad Niyazov, he is under constant surveillance, and must know that his life and liberty, and that of his family, hang in the balance.

Repression and Corruption

By repressing dissidents, governments hope to stop the flow of information on the corruption that has become a hallmark of their rule. High levels of corruption are associated with low levels of development. The ability of the governed to speak out against abuses by those who govern them is the first principle of accountability and transparency in government, basic building blocks of both democracy and efficient economic markets.

You have heard of the case of Dodojon Atovullo, editor of Tajikistanís Charogi Ruz (Daylight), Tajikistanís most popular and long-lived opposition paper. Only thanks to intense international pressure did Russia decline to extradite him to Tajikistan, where he stands accused of all three classic political charges: insulting presidential honor and dignity, inciting religious and national enmity, and calling for the overthrow of the constitutional order. Mr. Atovullo had over the past few months published several stories, in his own and other papers, exposing the corruption of those at the highest levels of government, and their alleged involvement in the narcotics trade.

Other, lesser known whistleblowers have not fared so well. Police arrested Nomonjon Arkabaev, coordinator for the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR) in the southern town of Osh, in late June. Arkabaev had published an article in a local paper decrying local authoritiesí manipulation of the land privatization process to their own benefit. During a search of his home, police claimed to have found leaflets of the banned religious group, Hizb ut Tahrir (the Party of Liberation), which Arkabaevís supporters say were planted by the police. Arkabaev has been charged with calling for the overthrow of the constitutional order, and on July 3 announced a hunger strike to protest the trumped-up charges.

Attacking the Defenders

As the case of Nomonjon Arkabaev demonstrates, sometimes those who attempt to defend their fellow citizens face the most severe repression. The government of President Askar Akaev has for several years attempted to stamp out Arkabaevís organization, the KCHR, whose chairman, Ramazan Dyryldaev, was forced into exile in 2001.

Uzbekistan has not relented in its aggressive hostility toward defenders. Uzbek authorities released rights defender Mahbuba Kasymova after she served seventeen months in prison, but almost immediately began harassing her when she began engaging in human rights activism. Elena Urlaeva, an activist from the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, was locked in a psychiatric hospital and forced to undergo treatment. This is a chilling throwback to the Soviet era.

At times the results are tragic. On July 7, Uzbek police returned the body of Shovrik Ruzimurodov to his family, the second Uzbek dissident to die in police custody in the last four months. Ruzimurodov had been a deputy in Uzbekistanís Supreme Soviet, elected during the halcyon days of glasnost in the late 1980s, and had remained an outspoken opposition activist, despite having been arrested on political grounds in 1992 and 1998. In the last year, Ruzimurodov, a member of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, had done everything possible to provide international organizations with information on the plight of villagers displaced from their homes at gunpoint and unjustly accused of collaborating with Islamic rebels. Arrested on June 15, Ruzimurodov was not allowed any contact with his family, who were not even informed of his whereabouts until July 7, when they received the news from police that he was dead. As after the suspicious death of Emin Usmon, police forced the rapid burial of Ruzimurodov, and encircled his entire village to prevent outsiders from witnessing the evidence of their acts.

What can the U.S. do?

International policy-making toward the Central Asian states often focuses on factors seen to contribute to the regionís potential for conflict, such as drug trafficking, disputes over access to water, or the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Regional governments never tire of citing what they term the "threat of Islamic fundamentalism," and their international interlocutors, alarmed by the specter of the Taliban, often take these assertions at face value. Countries in such a difficult security environment, it is implied, should not have their policies examined too closely. The fact that this committee is holding this hearing shows that you reject this logic. These countriesí own policies toward their citizenry, more than any external threat, pose the main danger to regional stability. Repression aggravates social tensions. It widens the gulf between citizens and their governments, undermines economic reform, deters honest investment, and stunts the development of strong civil societies.

At times, U.S. policymakers have justified close relations with countries with poor human rights records due to important strategic interests. Often, such cooperation is accompanied by claims that abuser governments are "moving toward" compliance with human rights standards, or are making progress, however gradual. But the trends in the Central Asia region, as we have seen, are toward more repression, not less, and greater authoritarianism, not democracy. Therefore, we believe that U.S. policy toward the region should be reoriented to arrest the downward political trends.

U.S. policy during the past eight years has failed to address these problems effectively, largely because the message conveyed to these governments has been inconsistent. Rhetorical assertions of the importance of human rights and democratization as the key to developing full relations with the U.S. have been coupled with an assistance policy that conferred benefits on those states, without regard for their human rights performance. This approach has badly undercut the U.S. governmentís human rights message, providing virtually no incentives to curb abuse and pursue reform. Policy-makers, particularly in the areas of economic and security assistance, seemingly fail to consult the thorough and evenhanded reporting on human rights issued annually by the Department of State.

Assistance granted through the United States Export-Import Bank has done much to contradict the U.S. human rights message to the region. By FY 2000, Kazakhstan had received more than $60 million in Export-Import Bank financing, and Uzbekistan had received nearly $900 million. In May of this year, after three years of a brutal crackdown against peaceful Muslims, and just one month after rights defender Elena Urlaeva was locked away in a psychiatric hospital, the Export-Import Bank issued another two loans, totaling more than $50 million, the main beneficiary of which are enterprises controlled by the Uzbek government. Human Rights Watch welcomes the draft bill to create an office for human rights impact assessment within the Export-Import Bank, but we hope that until such an office is created, that there can be some effective oversight to ensure that no more U.S. taxpayer money is funneled to abuser governments without a thorough review.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, with its statutory requirement to assist only countries that are "committed to and applying the principles of multiparty democracy, pluralism and market economics," has enormous leverage to press for change. Yet, rather than draw explicit connections between investment decisions and countriesí adherence to these principles, the Bank has invested significant sums in abusive countries: $571.7 million in Uzbekistan; $149 million in Kyrgyzstan, and $500 million in Kazakhstan. And with the exception of Turkmenistan, where it pointed to the total lack of political reform, the Bank has cited only the lack of progress in macroeconomic reform as justification for any scale back of investment. Even as the Bank announced that its commitments to Uzbekistan would decrease this year because of that governmentís currency policy, the EBRD Board also voted to hold its 2003 annual meeting in Uzbekistanís capital, boosting that countryís political prestige.

The EBRDís praise of Kazakhstan despite ongoing persecution of opposition figures also casts doubt on its consistency in applying the principles of its charter. The country strategy approved in January 2001 cites Kazakhstanís cooperation with the post-election activities of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as proof of the governmentís good faith reform efforts, giving the government credit for talk rather than for change. In fact, Kazakhstanís opposition walked out of the OSCE-sponsored roundtables to protest the governmentís refusal to commit to real reform.

To stem this trend, Congress should instruct the U.S. representative to the Bank to incorporate full, up-to-date information on the human rights conditions in each co untry in the Bankís deliberations on strategy and individual lending projects. It should urge the administration to identify specific benchmarks for U.S. support for continued or enhanced lending by the international financial institutions.

Because regional governments often charge their peaceful, non-violent opponents with attempting to forcibly overthrow them, Human Rights Watch would like to caution against making military-security cooperation the centerpiece of bilateral relations with the states of Central Asia. An unconditional emphasis on anti-terrorism cooperation supports these governmentsí equation of ideas they disfavor with terrorism, and communicates that the U.S. considers the threats they face to be fundamentally external, rather than stemming from poor governance at home. It makes little sense to equip Central Asian governments to battle insurgents if at the same time those governments continue to pursue policies that may drive their own citizens to support the insurgencies, whether actively or passively. Where security assistance does go forward, for example under the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, it should be everywhere paired with a clear human rights message that the level, nature, and recipients of such assistance depend on human rights performance. We hope that Congress will urge the administration to develop a coordinated interagency strategy on security assistance in the region, to ensure that all the actors involved, including the Departments of Defense and Justice, the FBI and the CIA deliver the same, consistent message.

Finally, Congress must urge the administration to use all the policy tools at its disposal to secure improvements in Central Asia. A regrettably underused tool is the International Religious Freedom Act. In the next month, the Bush administration will determine which states it will name as countries of particular concern for religious freedom. The U.S. must take a consistent and principled approach to IRFA implementation. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan should be designated as countries of particular concern this year. A clear signal should also be sent to the governments of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan that repression of peaceful religious expression also risks their designation as countries of particular concern.


Not only our core national values, but also pragmatism demands that the U.S. press Central Asian governments to uphold their international obligations to protect free expression. Corruption will never be rooted out unless the activities of the powerful are exposed to the light of day, and until citizens have the ability to hold their own governments accountable. Human Rights Watch believes that a policy that fully and consistently integrates human rights concerns into all aspects of U.S. relations with these countries offers the best hope for concrete improvements and for effectively addressing the economic stagnation and political instability in the region. Thank you very much for your attention.