Human Rights Watch (HRW) is urging the European Union (EU) to make clear that greater support for Central Asia is tied to “genuine” human rights reforms.

The EU should set consequences if Central Asian governments fail to meet more ambitious human rights goals, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on November 16.  

“Central Asian countries’ responses to this year’s crises would have been more effective if they had lived up to their pledges to respect rights,” Mr. Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

The statement said that Central Asian governments justified their moves to limit access to information and restrict freedom of expression by their efforts to slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), while economic hardship and inequalities increased in the region as a consequence of the pandemic.

According to HRW, recent political upheavals in Kyrgyzstan that led to the resignation of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov also put human rights at risk in the country.

The group said the EU should press the Kyrgyz authorities to hold a “genuinely independent inquiry” into the death of prominent human rights activist Azimjan Askarov in custody in July.   

The New York-based human rights watchdog noted that Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s promises for reforms have not brought meaningful improvements.  Peaceful protesters reportedly continue to be harassed or detained despite a new law on public assemblies.  The government decriminalized defamation, but many journalists continue to be harassed or attacked while doing their jobs, according to HRW.

In Uzbekistan, HRW said, there has been little concrete and systemic progress in the past year, despite such promises since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev assumed power in 2016.  There have reportedly been some concrete steps to improve the country’s human rights record, but people released from arbitrary detention are often denied legal rehabilitation, the criminal code retains deeply problematic provisions, and pledges to bring the nongovernmental organization (NGO) code in line with international standards remain unfulfilled. 

In Tajikistan, more than 150 political opponents, critics, or their lawyers remain imprisoned on politically motivated charges, while prison conditions remain “abysmal,” with activists reporting “widespread torture and ill-treatment” in detention, the watchdog said. 

It said critics in exile face attacks and abusive extradition requests, and their families and relatives at home are harassed and detained. Violence against women and girls remains a serious concern.

Calling Turkmenistan the “most repressive country” in the region, HRW said it was not possible to determine the exact number of people imprisoned on politically motivated grounds there.

The Turkmen government “tightly controls information in the face of major social and economic fallout, with shortages of subsidized food putting people’s well-being at risk,” HRW added.

The watchdog concludes that the EU should use its leverage to show that there will be political consequences if governments fail to translate their rhetoric for reforms into concrete actions.