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In Central Asia this week, AP reported that stories posted on the Internet claiming high-level corruption, and calling for Uzbek President Islam Karimov to resign, prompted rare public debate in the tightly controlled Central Asian nation.

The reports alleged high-level drugs dealing and claimed that the government had staged terrorist attacks. The reports appeared earlier this month on websites based in neighbouring Russia and Kazakhstan.

Despite Internet access being cut off, allegedly by the government, the reports became instantly popular - passed around by e-mail, in print or by word of mouth. International observers believe that media freedom in this most heavily populated Central Asian state has not improved following the lifting of official pre-publication censorship in May last year.

In the ongoing campaign against alleged Islamic militants, a court in Uzbekistan sentenced eight Uzbek citizens captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan over the past year to various prison terms. The men were tried in September and October 2002 on charges of terrorism, religious extremism and anti-constitutional activity, and sentenced to prison terms ranging between 15 and 18 years.

These militants were linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a banned radical opposition group. In 2000, the US government designated the IMU as a terrorist organisation; it was linked to Al-Qaeda and was considerably weakened during the anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan, with its former leader, Juma Namangani, reportedly killed there.

The Uzbek government blamed the group for several border incursions over the past few years and a series of bomb blasts in the capital, Tashkent, in 1999.

In neighbouring Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmonov carried out a major reshuffle over the weekend by firing two ministers, replacing the head of the county's legal system and dismissing numerous regional chiefs, AFP reported. Nusratullo Faizullov replaced Health Minister Alamkhon Akhmadov, while the communication minister Nurriddin Mukhiddinov was replaced by Said Zuvaidov.

Analysts believe the dismissals signal the start of a crackdown on corruption in the impoverished nation of six million. They further maintain that the changes reflect Rahmonov's concern to shore up his political position at the expense of opponents in the former Islamic opposition, with whom he has shared power since a 1997 peace treaty ended a five-year civil war.

Tajikistan is also promoting relations with the 15-member EU. With the EU's external affairs commissioner set to visit the country in February, President Rahmonov won French support for
improving bilateral relations and assistance last month after meeting President Jacques Chirac in Paris.

With the EU being an important source of bilateral aid to the mountainous Central Asian republic, Rahmonov will visit the Belgian capital, Brussels, for talks with EC President Romano Prodi.

In the run-up to Kyrgyzstan's constitutional referendum on 2 February, a team of legal experts have recommended that the government remove two clauses, which had drawn opposition anger, from a new draft, AP reported on Tuesday.

The team was set up under the orders of President Askar Akayev to review the clauses which would vest in the president the right of absolute veto on laws passed by parliament, as well as another clause which would block a citizen's right to appeal directly to the constitutional court.

Kyrgyzstan was praised in the mid-1990s as the most politically progressive country in Central Asia, but last year there were a number of bloody clashes between the government, opposition supporters and civic organisations, particularly in the south.

Meanwhile, the international media reported that a group of opposition parties in Kazakhstan had announced a new alliance to promote their candidates in upcoming local and parliamentary elections. The alliance was born following a new law on political parties last summer which raised minimum party membership from 3,000 to 50,000 - a condition, critics argue, which was aimed at neutralising the opposition.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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