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Freedom House, an advocacy group working to advance the worldwide expansion of political and economic freedom, on Wednesday issued a statement urging the Kyrgyz government to cease lawsuits against independent media.

"The recent pattern of lawsuits targeted at independent newspapers in Kyrgyzstan is particularly troubling," said the organisation's director, Jennifer Windsor, who recently had a meeting with Kyrgyz government officials. "The government must impose a moratorium on civil lawsuits against journalists and media outlets and move immediately to initiate new legislation to guarantee a free and independent press," she said.

Most political rights and civil liberties had been substantially restricted in Kyrgyzstan, particularly press freedom, the statement said. According to the group's Freedom of the Press 2003 survey, the country's press was rated as "Not Free". Press freedom has been on the decline recently as a result of government attempts to introduce new restrictions on independent media. President Askar Akayev's administration, increasingly impatient with critics of his government, has taken a number of steps to curb or control opposition media outlets.

Staying in Kyrgyzstan, media reports say the official number of drug addicts in the country has reached 5,611, a six-fold increase since 1993. However, local experts estimate the real number to be 10 to 15 times that figure. According to Bahtiar Mambetov, National Programme Officer for the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime in Kyrgyzstan, there are about 500 HIV/AIDS cases in the country, 80 percent of whom are injecting drug users.

In an effort to thwart the problem's spread, the Kyrgyz president on Tuesday signed a decree establishing a new agency under his direct control to deal with illicit drug trafficking.

In Turkmenistan, a dual citizenship row between Moscow and Ashgabat continued this week as Sunday's final deadline fast approaches for some 100,000 ethnic Russian citizens living in the country to decide which passport they want to keep, or they will automatically be considered Turkmen citizens only.

The war of words between the two governments escalated one step further on Thursday, when Russian parliamentary leaders threatened Turkmenistan with sanctions, a threat Ashgabat dismissed as "propaganda". Dmitry Rogozin, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, said they would consider a resolution on Friday urging Turkmenistan to drop its pressure on dual citizenship or face reprisals. "Russia must be ready to introduce sanctions against Turkmenistan," said Andrei Kokoshin, the head of the parliamentary committee for relations with former Soviet republics.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkmen counterpart, Saparmyrat Niyazov, in April signed a 25-year agreement on Russian purchases of Turkmen natural gas, a deal that has fuelled allegations in the Russian media that Putin had sold out ethnic Russians in Turkmenistan to meet his own country's growing energy needs.

Meanwhile in Tajikistan, an opposition leader urged President Emomali Rahmonov to call off an upcoming constitutional vote which is likely to extend his mandate. "The best solution would be to cancel the referendum," Khokim Mukhabatov, an exiled opposition leader living in Moscow, reportedly said. "If, however, the referendum goes ahead as planned, the amendments should not apply to the current president," he maintained.

The country is due to vote on a package of about 50 constitutional amendments this Sunday, including one that would allow the president to run for two seven-year terms, instead of one, as permitted under current rules.

On the issue of drugs, Tajikistan's permanent ambassador to the UN, Rashid Olimov, said his country had become the main shield against the flow of drugs from Afghanistan into the rest of Central Asia, Russia, Europe and America. Tajik law-enforcement bodies, jointly with Russian border guards, have seized more than 25 mt of narcotics since 1999, including 14 mt of heroin, worth some US $1 billion, Olimov asserted.

In Kazakhstan on Wednesday, President Nursultan Nazarbayev swore in the new government after the resignation of Imangali Tasmagambetov as prime minister last week after a clash with parliament over a key land reform bill. He was replaced by Daniyal Akhmetov, previously a northern regional governor.

One day later, the Kazakh parliament ratified a series of border agreements with Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Astana had agreed with Ashgabat to the borders laid out in 1932 under Soviet leader Josef Stalin's regime. While the agreement with Kyrgyzstan resolves frontiers running atop the Tien Shan mountain range, including the Khan Tengri peak and its intersects with China, the agreement with Uzbekistan clarifies a range of border crossings and settlements.

Also this week in Kazakhstan, the government agreed to increase membership payments to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), local media sources said. The funds to be paid by Kazakh authorities may be used within UNEP for the protection of migrant animal species, said to be a key factor influencing Kazakhstan into agreeing to increase its funding of UNEP, according to local media.

Moving to Uzbekistan, it was reported that Uzbek and Iranian officials signed six documents on bilateral political and economic cooperation in the presence of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and Uzbek President Islam Karimov in the Iranian capital, Tehran, on Tuesday.

One of the documents concerns the broadening cooperation on security, the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking and organised crime. Another - a memorandum on mutual understanding -defines conditions for the extradition of criminals.

According to the Russian news agency Novosti, Tashkent has adopted the main international agreements with regard to combating human trafficking following numerous incidents of trafficking in Uzbekistan. Additionally, a working group is being formed to begin work on a new bill on combating trafficking. Earlier this month, Uzbekistan, along with Kazakhstan, was listed in a US State Department report on some 15 countries which were not taking sufficiently effective steps against human trafficking.

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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