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Weekly news wrap

Press freedom in Central Asia was again under the spotlight this week in two of the five former Soviet Republics. Reporters Without Borders on Tuesday voiced their concern over judicial harassment of the Kazakh opposition newspaper SolDat and its editor Ermurat Bapi after the newspaper was ordered to pay some US $350,000 for alleged tax evasion.

In neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Freedom House expressed deep concern over an increase in attacks against human-rights defenders and independent media, culminating with the arrival of its executive director to the country's capital, Bishkek, on Thursday. Recent press freedom violations include numerous lawsuits against newspapers filed by the government officials.

The watchdog group, working to advance political and economic freedom in the world, has called for an immediate investigation of reported assaults on activists, as well as legislative changes to ensure a free and independent press.

Staying in Kyrgyzstan, that country's Premier Nikolai Tanaev on Tuesday met US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Lynn Pascoe and asked for Washington's assistance in averting natural disasters like landslides and avalanches that have plagued the mountainous nation in recent months.

Meanwhile, World Bank officials visited southern Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday, the Kyrgyz news agency Kabar reported. "Shengman Zhang, the managing director of the World Bank for Central Asia, said that the aid strategy to the country would include agriculture, the processing of agricultural goods, industry, power engineering, the development of the small enterprises, the attraction of investments and the elimination of bureaucratic barriers," the report said.

In Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous state, Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed concern over torture in the country, following the recent death of Otamaza Gafarov in prison, contradicting US claims that the country was making progress on human rights.

"Another prisoner tortured to death in Uzbekistan is not progress - it is more of the same,"", said Elizabeth Andersen, the executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of HRW. "This is the 10th torture-related death in custody we've documented in the past year and a half. The State Department's claims of human rights progress simply do not reflect reality."

Mikhail Ardzinov, Head of the Independent Human Rights Organisation of Uzbekistan, told IRIN that it was the third torture-related death in the country's penitentiary system in the first five months of this year.

Also in Uzbekistan, the authorities had instituted 23 criminal proceedings in the past 18 months against 20 citizens who allegedly smuggled 30 people abroad for physical and sexual exploitation, the Uzbek Vecherniy Tashkent newspaper said on Monday.

"A group of people were detained in 2002, and seven of them were made answerable for organising the trafficking of Uzbek citizens to Sweden," Sergey Shinyayev, a deputy chief of the interior ministry's investigation department, said at an international conference in the capital, Tashkent. He noted, however, that currently there was no specific article in the Criminal Code defining the punishment for human trafficking.

Amid the dual nationality row with Turkmenistan, Russia plans to send envoys to protect its citizens there. Russia slammed as illegal the country's plans to withdraw from a 1993 agreement on dual citizenship for Russians living there, noting it would send diplomats to the capital, Ashgabat to defend their interests.

An estimated 100,000 people hold dual citizenship in the impoverished but gas-rich Central Asian state, of a total population of between five million and six million.

Meanwhile, it was reported on Tuesday that Kazakhstan had again become a fully fledged member of the World Health Organisation (WHO). "The 56th session of the World Health Assembly has reinstated Kazakhstan's right to vote in the WHO," a press release of the Kazakh health ministry says. Kazakhstan was deprived of its right in 1996 for arrears of fees to WHO totalling some $4.5 million, the press release said.

Reflecting their environmental concerns, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had decided to establish a joint water and energy consortium, Bazarbai Mambetov, the Kyrgyz deputy prime minister, said on Thursday.

"We made this decision in order to implement a common policy on water management and reimbursing the expenses on hydro-energy and water-management facilities", Mambetov said.

Most of the dams and hydropower stations are located in these two impoverished, but water-rich Central Asian nations.

Also in Tajikistan, health experts expressed serious concern over the incidence of TB in some parts of the country. A report compiled by them indicated a rise in the incidence of TB in the northern Khujand Province, Deutsche Welle reported on Wednesday, adding that the number of cases there had increased by 26 percent since 1998.

On the issue of security, the Kyrgyz intelligence agency said on Wednesday that the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was behind two bombing attacks in Kyrgystan, reinforcing claims that the group remained a threat despite being weakened by the US-led anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan.

A December explosion in a Bishkek market that killed seven people and injured more than 50, and a 8 May petrol station explosion in the southern Osh region that killed one person "were master-minded and put into action by members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan", the National Security Service said in a statement.

The US State Department warned last month that the IMU - which it has designated as a terrorist group - had been increasingly active in Central Asia and might be planning to target Americans or US interests in Kyrgyzstan. The State Department also recently issued a similar warning for Uzbekistan. The IMU is blamed for incursions in Kyrgyzstan and neighbouring Uzbekistan in 1999 and 2000.

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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