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Testimony on Human Rights in Central Asia

Location: Washington, DC

TESTIMONY ON HUMAN RIGHTS IN CENTRAL ASIA -- (Extensions of Remarks - October 28, 2005)


Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I would like to submit the following testimony for the Record.

Good morning. It's a pleasure for me to speak before you today, the Middle East and Central Asia subcommittee. I want to commend the subcommittee for organizing this important hearing and for your work concerning the ongoing problems in Central Asia.

The peoples of Central Asia are largely Muslim, with a history of living under Russian rule for centuries. Despite our hopes and modest expectations that these nations would matriculate from dictatorships to democracies, from my vantage point as Co-Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the disappointing reality over the last fifteen years is that most are moving in the wrong direction. Moreover, in all countries of the region ``super-presidents'' dominate the political arena while their families, friends and favored few exploit the country's natural resources. Corruption among the elite is pervasive, as is cynicism among the populace. Legislatures and judiciaries have languished while the authorities maintain tight control of the most important media outlets.

Yet despite these similarities, the five countries of Central Asia run the gamut from the standpoint of democratization and human rights observance; I would like to offer quick character sketches of each and then suggest some policy options.

Kyrgyzstan represents one positive advance, as the only country in Central Asia where the head of state won his job in a fair contest. In last March's Tulip Revolution, opposition leaders mobilized popular resistance to yet another rigged election and ousted Askar Akaev. He was replaced by President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who won in a genuine landslide. Media outlets which were under pressure can now report freely on events. All this proves that Central Asians are ready for democracy. But Kyrgyzstan faces many problems. Parliament was elected in a rigged vote, and criminal elements are increasingly influential. A series of assassinations of parliamentarians has unsettled the Kyrgyz and their friends abroad. Moreover, leaders in nearby states have been disturbed by the precedent of ``people power'' in their neighborhood.

On the other hand, under the megalomaniac ``president for life'' Saparmurat Niyazov, gas-rich Turkmenistan is the last one-party state in the former Soviet bloc. No dissent or religious freedoms are allowed and all media glorify the ``great'' leader. Citizens must study Niyazov's Rukhnama--a pseudo bible-mishmash of history, folklore and anthropology which seeks to supplant traditional Turkmen sources of spirituality. No other institutions or individuals have been allowed to emerge. Not only are all human rights violated, none of the bases of modem statehood have been fostered, leaving Turkmenistan's people ill-prepared for the day when Niyazov inevitably leaves the scene.

Tajikistan is the only state in Central Asia where Muslim political parties are legal, an outcome of the bloody civil war fought between 1992 and 1997. The agreement ending those hostilities brought opposition parties into government, a major step forward for Central Asia. But lately President Imomali Rakhmonov has been concentrating power. In 2004, he orchestrated a referendum that will allow him to remain in office until 2020, if he wins next year's presidential election--he is preparing by clamping down on potential rivals. Two weeks ago an opposition figure was sentenced to 23 years in prison on charges many see as politically motivated. At the same time, Rakhmonov has been muzzling the media, with various independent newspapers closed down or under constant pressure.

In oil-rich Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbaev has been President since the late 1980s and is running for re-election in December. Opposition parties are registered but have no representatives in parliament. Independent and opposition newspapers are harassed or fined for libel. The new and regressive national security amendments limit religious freedoms by increasing registration requirements, banning unregistered religious groups, greatly curtailing missionary activity, and permitting the suspension of registration of a religious organization. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan wants to be Chairman of the OSCE in 2009, a consensus decision that will have to be made in 2006. While I would like to see a Central Asian country in that position, chairmanship of the OSCE must be earned. A grade of ``excellent'' from OSCE election monitors on the presidential contest in December is the minimum requirement. Many more improvements in human rights performance will be needed before U.S. backing for Kazakhstan's candidacy could be given in good conscience.

Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov has banned all opposition. Censorship remains in effect, torture is pervasive and thousands of people are in jail on political or religious grounds--Islamic observance is permitted only within state structures. Lagging economic reform has crimped business development and aggravated widespread poverty, all of which was recently documented by a very thorough Human Rights First report. Demonstrating the lows the regime will take to squash dissent, Uzbek authorities last week subjected one of the country's most prominent human rights defenders, Elena Urlaeva, to forcible psychiatric treatment, injecting her against her will with powerful psychotropic drugs.

Her troubles began when she was put under house arrest in May to prevent her protesting the violence in Andijon. Last May, armed men assaulted a prison in Andijon where local businessmen were being held for alleged Islamic radicalism. Troops responded the next day by shooting indiscriminately at large crowds. According to eyewitnesses, hundreds, perhaps thousands were killed. The U.S. Government, along with the OSCE, UN and European Union, has called for an independent investigation into Andijon. President Karimov has refused and state-run Uzbek media outlets have accused the U.S. of assisting with Islamic terrorists. The allegation would be funny if it weren't so chilling.

Andijon has been a watershed in Uzbekistan's post-independence history and in U.S.-Uzbek relations. As of today, our bilateral ties are in a deep freeze and Tashkent has demanded that our military base at K-2, which was supplying coalition forces in neighboring Afghanistan, be shut down.

As you can see, the countries of Central Asia have much in common but have different prospects of future development. I believe the United States can help move them in a positive direction, while balancing the priorities of security cooperation, energy supplies and democratization.

It is worth recalling President Bush's 2003 Whitehall Palace speech during his trip to the United Kingdom in which he acknowledged past mistakes in U.S. foreign policy: ``in the past, [we] have been willing to make a bargain; to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability ..... yet this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time, while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold.''

Considering this, U.S. policy must support those Central Asian governments which have made progress towards democratization, especially Kyrgyzstan. We must also use our influence to urge those in the middle to improve their performance and those on the extremes to begin moderating their behavior. If we are to defeat terrorism and instill democracy and human rights in this region, we must do more.

That is why I've introduced H.R. 3189, the Central Asia Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2005. If there is to be lasting success in fighting terrorism, the U.S. must break away from policies that back dictators who suppress and terrorize their own people, as repression will mostly likely breed future terrorism. The United States Government should therefore use every means at its disposal to move the countries of Central Asia to greater respect for democracy and human rights. U.S. engagement should support American values, promote long-term stability and security in the region, and ensure that all assistance programs support and reinforce these goals. In short, the bill facilitates engagement with those countries that want to engage.

In President Bush's second inaugural speech, he declared ``it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.'' My bill fulfills this policy directive by providing constructive foreign assistance to support democratization and human rights, while conditioning all non-humanitarian U.S. assistance to the individual governments of Central Asia, both economic and military, on whether each is making ``substantial, sustained and demonstrable progress'' towards democratization and full respect of human rights in keeping with their OSCE commitments.

The legislation would require that the President make an annual determination whether such progress is being made by examining five categories: democratization; free speech; freedom of religion; torture; and rule of law/trafficking in persons. If a country is not certified, economic and military assistance would be withheld in a graduated format. My bill provides greater flexibility to the President, as it allows the U.S. to express dissatisfaction in a significant way while not immediately ending all aid programs to the central governments in this strategic region of the world. The President is also provided with a national security waiver.

Notably, withheld money is not lost. The President is authorized to reallocate withheld funds to provide financial assistance (including the awarding of grants) to foreign and domestic individuals, NGOs, and entities that support democracy, the promotion of democracy and/or full respect of human rights.

The United States should use every means at its disposal to encourage democratization in Central Asia. Democracy in that part of the world will ultimately promote long-term stability and security in the region. That's the objective of my legislation. I hope the Members of the Middle East and Central Asia subcommittee will join me and cosponsor H.R. 3189.

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