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Repression Spreads In Central Asia

(Washington, DC--February 14, 2001) In the name of stability, Central Asian governments are increasingly violating the human rights of their own citizens, but these actions are having the unintended effect of undermining the national security of all five countries in the region, a Human Rights Watch specialist told an RFE/RL briefing today.

Speaking at RFE/RL's Washington office, Cassandra Cavanaugh, who tracks human rights conditions in post-Soviet Central Asia, said that governmental crackdowns against opponents over the last year have become a far greater threat to the stability and security of these countries than the one posed by the Islamist Taliban movement in Afghanistan.

Focusing primarily on Uzbekistan, which she has visited frequently, Cavanaugh said that the "escalation of repression" involved the forced displacement of people from their home villages, the indiscriminate use of mines along borders, the organization of "hate rallies" against "enemies of the people," and widespread torture of political prisoners.

The campaign against "enemies of the people," she said, was especially disturbing because it recalls the worst years of Stalin's repressions in the 1930s. She said that it was "rare" to find a state in the modern world as committed to the use of terror in its attempts to intimidate its population as Uzbekistan now does.

But, Cavanaugh continued, this government campaign may now be backfiring on its authors. It is alienating many in the population, leading them to think about leaving or joining the opposition. It has also caused many of the victims of torture to be willing to speak about what has happened to them, something she described as a mark of desperation.

Cavanaugh said that Uzbekistan's approach has had a broader impact in the region. Uzbek government actions have forced people to flee to the neighboring countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and Uzbek officials have often crossed these countries' borders in pursuit. Tashkent's apparent ability to engage in such actions with relative impunity internationally, she said, has only encouraged other governments in the region to try the same approach.

Cavanaugh said that the frequent failure of Western governments to speak out against these abuses is simultaneously leading some officials in Central Asia to think they can get away with such actions and causing many of the ordinary citizens in the region to think that the West is against them just as Islamist ideologues argue. If that opinion becomes widespread, she said, it could presage greater hostility between that region and the West in the future.