Human rights organisations have urged Uzbek authorities to immediately release three arrested journalists, and for Tajikistan to allow access to a banned opposition website.
Ruslan Sharipov, a journalist who leads an independent civil rights group that focuses on protecting media freedom, and two members of his group, Oleg Sarapulov and Azamat Mamankulov, were detained on Monday in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. Sharipov was charged with sex abuse and homosexuality, a criminal offence in Uzbekistan.
The international NGO defending press freedom worldwide, Reporters Without Borders (RWB), told IRIN that there was a distinct possibility the arrests were politically motivated given Sharipov's history of critical writing about government policies, and past harassment against him and his colleagues. "There have been problems in the past and we think he was targeted," Caroline Giraud, a RWB researcher, said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) appeared equally convinced that the arrests were political. "That the authorities would charge him with committing homosexual acts, violating his fundamental rights to non-discrimination and privacy, makes it doubly egregious," said Elizabeth Andersen, the group's Europe and Central Asian division director, in a statement. Homosexuality is common in Uzbekistan, but is still a social taboo. Despite being a criminal offence, cases of criminal prosecution for homosexuality are rare.
RIB has also called on the Tajik authorities to stop blocking access to a news website, tajikistantimes.ru, which is run by an opposition journalist, Dododjon Atovulloev, from outside the country. Internet users inside Tajikistan have been unable to access the site since 24 April. Launched on 1 March, the site carries reports that are very critical of the government.
"In view of the prior harassment of Atovulloev for several years because of his publications, and the obstacles to the emergence of independent news media put in place by the authorities, we have every reason to believe that tajikistantimes.ru is being deliberately blocked, that is to say, censored, in order to deny Tajik Internet users free access to critical reporting," RWB secretary-general Robert Ménard said in a letter to President Emomali Rahmonov.
The calls came a day after Amnesty International (AI) reported torture and serious rights abuses across Central Asia, and said the human rights situation in Uzbekistan, a key US ally in the "war on terror", was dire. Turkmenistan saw "a new wave of repression" following an armed attack on President Saparmyrat Niyazov in November, the AI report said, adding that a trial of opposition leaders after the attack was grossly unfair, and credible reports of torture continued.
Serious rights abuses were also noted in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, with AI saying that at least two detainees had died in suspicious circumstances in Kazakhstan, while executions continued there in large numbers.
Uzbekistan and the other four former Soviet states in the region, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan - were quick to offer assistance to the United States after the 11 September attacks in the US.
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