Greetings, and welcome to Freedom Now’s first Eurasia Newsletter! Periodically, we’ll share with you the most important and recent human rights and democracy developments in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The focus will be on policy-relevant updates on political prisoners, reform efforts, assistance and bilateral relations, and more. We will also share regular updates on Afghanistan such as human rights developments on the ground and evacuation efforts.

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Freedom Now Releases New Report – Oppression by Design

Last week, Freedom Now released Oppression by Design: Authoritarian Governance and Obstacles to Human Rights Reform in Eurasia. The report identifies patterns of repression exploited and promoted by five Eurasian governments (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), and highlights the synchronization of repression among authoritarian leaders in the Eurasia region and beyond. The five regional patterns identified in the report are: restricting speech and silencing dissent, limiting public demonstrations, stifling independent groups and organizations, retaliating against dissidents, their families, and lawyers, and controlling the courts. These policies are shaped by Eurasian countries’ complicated relations with China, Russia, Turkey, the EU, and the U.S., each of which is pursuing its own goals in the region. The end result is that democracy and respect for the rule of law are largely absent in Eurasia, to the detriment of the millions of people living in the region.

Read Oppression by Design: Authoritarian Governance and Obstacles to Human Rights Reform in Eurasia for more on authoritarianism, the role of major powers, and recommendations.

Protests and Unrest in Kazakhstan

Peaceful protests against economic inequality and the autocratic kleptocracy established by former president Nursultan Nazarbayev proliferated across the country in early January 2022. While the demonstrations began as protests against an abrupt increase in fuel prices, they transformed into nationwide protests with slogans such as “Old man, get out!” On January 5, the peaceful protesters were overcome by bands of young men who appeared on the streets of Almaty (Kazakhstan’s largest city) and began attacking government and commercial buildings. The government cracked down hard as President Tokayev ordered security forces to “shoot to kill without warning.” Roughly 2,000 peacekeepers were deployed from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to protect government buildings, the first time the military alliance intervened in the affairs of ones of its members.

Telecommunications inside the country were blocked during the protests, making it difficult for international observers to gather information. As the chaos settled down, it became clear that legitimate peaceful protests were hijacked by violent marauders supported by unknown forces. Claims by Tokayev that Kazakhstan was assaulted by 20,000 “terrorists” have not been backed up by evidence. Officially, the government reported approximately 10,000 arrests and 225 deaths. Local civil society organizations catalogued dozens of arrests of human rights activists, journalists, and trade union members, some of whom were previously imprisoned by the government on fabricated charges. Reports continue to come out of abuse by law enforcement, including detentions, beatings, and torture of peaceful protesters exercising their constitutional rights. While Tokayev announced economic and political reforms, the latter to be announced only in September 2022, his rhetoric lumping together peaceful protesters and hooligans as terrorists and extremists, and claims that the media and civil society fed the violence portend further tightening of political and social life in Kazakhstan’s future.

Human Rights Developments in Afghanistan

Since the Taliban’s seizure of power, the human rights situation in Afghanistan has predictably deteriorated. According to a recent UN updatemore than 100 members of marginalized ethnic groups, human rights defenders, ex- government and military officials, and journalists have been killed by the Taliban since August. The UN has documented 59 cases of detention and torture of journalists and human rights defenders. On January 19, four women’s rights activists were detained by the Taliban and their whereabouts are unknown. The goal of the Taliban’s campaign is clear: eliminating individuals who worked to promote human rights and an open society in Afghanistan over the past 20 years or continue to do so.

While the U.S. has evacuated nearly 1,000 citizens and green card holders, and more than 74,000 Afghans, approximately 62,000 people, including those who served alongside the U.S. and some U.S. citizens, are still seeking to escape. Among them are around 33,000 Afghans who have completed vetting requirements for the Special Immigration Visa and are qualified to enter the U.S. Over 30,000 other Afghans have applied for Humanitarian Parole to enter the U.S., though many are unable to satisfy the highly exclusionary and overly burdensome requirements established by the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Over 100 organizations recently urged the U.S. government to adopt new policies to ease the process for applying and receiving humanitarian parole. Those left behind need to be brought to safety urgently. The U.S., alongside the international community, should continue to support the people of Afghanistan and ensure that a dignified and inclusive peace is in place, the gains made during the past 20 years are not lost, and that the Taliban authorities are held accountable for their violations of human rights.

Central Asia and Afghanistan

Eurasian governments’ responses to developments in Afghanistan have varied depending on their foreign policy priorities and own domestic situations. Aggressively courting the Taliban are Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which is desperately seeking alternative export routes for its natural gas supplies. Turkmenistan hopes to restart development of a pipeline to India and Pakistan via Afghanistan. Meanwhile Tajikistan is most sour on the Taliban largely out of concern for members of the ethnic Tajik community in Afghanistan, who, while making up about 30% of the population, have been largely shut out of the Taliban’s power structures. No Eurasian country has welcomed those fleeing Afghanistan, largely viewing them as potential threats to domestic security. The government of Tajikistan said in July 2021 it could host up to 100,000 refugees, though, poor and bereft of resources, it has allowed only hundreds to enter. Recently the government deported some of those who fled Afghanistan in contravention of the UN refugee agency’s global non-return advisory for Afghanistan.

Endangered Lawyers in Eurasia

January 24 was Day of the Endangered Lawyer, an unfortunately common occurrence in Eurasia. Lawyers in the region are often persecuted for representing their clients (such as political prisoners) with threats ranging from lengthy prison sentences (22 years in one case in Tajikistan) to harassment and poisoning of a family pet (in Kazakhstan). Eurasian governments pursue other ways to prevent independent lawyers from being able to work at all, such as limitations on bar admission and bogus disciplinary sanctions against those who maintain their independence. As a result, the number of lawyers has decreased so significantly in some Eurasian countries that there is virtually no available independent legal support, especially for those charged in politically sensitive cases. Read Oppression by Design for more on threats to lawyers in AzerbaijanKazakhstan, and Tajikistan.

Political Persecution and Imprisonment in Eurasia

Eurasian governments continue to abuse and imprison people who have committed no crime but instead exercised internationally-protected human rights. A few updates from the past quarter:

  • The authorities in Azerbaijan, emboldened by their success in last year’s war against Armenia, have employed shockingly brutal tactics in recent months according to activists. In one instance opposition leader and former political prisoner Tofig Yagublu was beaten so badly at a December rally his eyes were swollen shut.
  • December 16 marked the 10-year anniversary of the Zhanaozen massacre in Kazakhstan. At least 16 people were killed, and possibly many more, when police fired into a crowd of striking oil workers who were demanding better pay and conditions. In the past decade, Kazakhstan has failed to improve labor conditions and continues to persecute individuals who call for reform, such as Erzhan Elshibayev, an activist arrested in Zhanaozen in March 2019 and sentenced to five years for attempting to organize peaceful rallies.
  • Turkmenistan has increasingly relied on transnational repression to silence critics. During a protest at the Turkmen embassy in Istanbul in August 2021, witnesses reported beatings of protestors by government-supported thugs. In another case in October 2021, Turkmen human rights activist Azat Isakov disappeared in Moscow and reemerged two days later in Turkmenistan. Isakov routinely posted videos online criticizing the Turkmen government.

What’s Coming Up

  • The UN’s Human Rights Council is slated to select a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan at its March 2022 meeting. In a letter to Human Rights Council members, more than 120 Afghan civil society members and organizations urged Council members to select a candidate with a deep understanding of human rights in the Afghanistan with the capacity to build and maintain direct contact with those most impacted by the Taliban’s atrocities and work closely with Afghan civil society to monitor and report on the human rights situation in the country.