Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on U.S. President Joe Biden to “put human rights at the center” when he meets the leaders of five Central Asian later on September 19 amid a renewed focus on the region sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The upcoming meeting, slated to take place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, will be the first by a U.S. president with all five Central Asian presidents.
Both the United States and the European Union have been urging Central Asian governments to resist efforts by Moscow to use trade routes through the region to evade sanctions imposed on Moscow because of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
But HRW said in a statement on September 18 that “Biden should not allow this to eclipse urgent human rights concerns.”
“Biden should ask for explicit steps to end politically motivated prosecutions, suppression of free speech, and impunity for torture and police brutality,” said Iskra Kirova, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at HRW.
The meeting comes six months after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his first visit to Central Asia, where ties with Moscow have remained strong despite its invasion of Ukraine.
HRW called on the United States to use the meeting to insist on independent investigations of the human rights abuses and seek progress in reforms, citing concrete cases in the five countries, all once part of the Soviet Union.
Kazakhstan has been criticized for a crackdown on protests in January 2022 that killed at least 238 people and hundreds of people alleged ill-treatment and torture in detention in the aftermath of the violence.
In Kyrgyzstan, the government has initiated a series of repressive laws and measures restricting the operations of media and civil society. HRW also mentioned the court decision to deport prominent investigative journalist Bolot Temirov to Russa, saying that it “sent a chilling message to dissenting voices in the country.”
Rights groups have criticized Tajikistan for repressing peaceful gatherings in the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan, using “trumped-up” charges against human rights defenders and journalists in retaliation for their professional activities, and disbanding many of the country’s civil society organizations.
HRW noted that in Uzbekistan, legislative reforms have stalled, while restrictions on media and politically motivated prosecutions of bloggers and journalists have increased and that in Turkmenistan, one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world, authorities keep behind bars journalist and activists on politically motivated charges.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan were among 32 countries that abstained from voting on a UN resolution calling for an immediate end to Russia’s war and the removal of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory in February 2023. Turkmenistan did not vote at all.
In recent month concerns among Western countries are growing that Russia uses countries in Central Asia to bypass the sanctions imposed in response to its invasion of Ukraine.
An RFE/RL investigation published in June revealed how sanctioned Western electronics make their way to Russia via Kyrgyz and Kazakh firms — some set up shortly after the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine — and end up in the hands of companies that have supplied the Russian defense industry.
In July, the United States imposed new sanctions targeting 18 individuals and more than 120 entities based in Russia and Kyrgyzstan in a move aimed at inhibiting Moscow’s access to products and technology that support its war efforts.