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The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) launched their "AIDS epidemic update 2003" report this week, in which they warned of the rapid expansion of the disease in Central Asia. "The AIDS epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia shows no signs of abating. Some 230,000 people were infected with HIV in 2003, bringing the total number of people living with the virus to 1.5 million," the report said, adding that HIV continued to spread in Kazakhstan, while more recent epidemics were now evident in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The report said that persistently high levels of high-risk behaviour - specifically injecting drug use and, to a lesser extent, unsafe sex among young people - was fuelling the epidemic. Overall, up to 25 percent of injecting drug users are estimated to be under 20 years of age across Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, more than 70 percent of HIV-positive individuals are aged under 30. According to the AIDS update, the number of reported HIV infections in Central Asia have grown exponentially from 88 in 1995 to 5,458 in 2002. Uzbek media reported on 23 November that a UN-backed five-day seminar had been held in the capital, Tashkent, on preventing HIV/AIDS in the Uzbek army. "We have organised the event to monitor the health of our servicemen. The event, backed by a number of UN bodies, is aimed at preventing AIDS/HIV in the armed forces," Marufjon Madaminov, responsible for the project in the Uzbek armed forces, reportedly said, adding that following the seminar, the commanders attending it should brief their personnel on the skills they had gained at the seminar to heighten servicemen's awareness of the disease. It was reported on Monday that the regional office of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for Central Asia hosted a meeting dedicated to the transfer of computer equipment and software worth US $170,000 to the Uzbek national services dealing with fighting drug trafficking. The equipment was transferred within the framework of a UNODC regional project worth some $2 million. According to Tofik Murshudlu, UNODC’s regional adviser on law enforcement issues and head of the project, the equipment is aimed at helping in the establishment of a standard system on collection, analysis and exchange of information by law-enforcement bodies. On Tuesday, the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers awarded the jailed Uzbek journalist, Ruslan Sharipov, the 2004 Golden Pen of Freedom, and urged the government to release him. "The award recognises Mr Sharipov's outstanding defence and promotion of press freedom in the face of constant physical danger, prison and censorship," the group said in a statement. Sharipov, 25, who is openly gay, was sentenced in August to a four-year term after being found guilty of sodomy, which is illegal in Uzbekistan. Also on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticised Uzbekistan for failing to meet human rights benchmarks set by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) at its May summit in Tashkent. "More than halfway through the one-year deadline set by the EBRD, there is virtually no change on the ground," Rachel Denber, the acting executive director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia division, said in a statement. The Uzbek government had stepped up its persecution of political opposition figures and civil society activists, and continued its crackdown against independent Muslims, HRW said. Uzbekistan, a staunch US regional ally in the war on terrorism, has long been internationally criticised for its poor human rights record. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said that nearly 800 million people were now thought to go to bed hungry each night throughout the developing world, and another 34 million in former Soviet-dominated Eastern European and Central Asian countries, according to the FAO's latest "State of Food Insecurity in the World" report, released on Tuesday. In Kyrgyzstan, President Askar Akayev has urged the members of the Democratic Security Council to work for free and fair elections in 2005 in the country. "I think that we are starting the work to propagate this democratic code [at a] very timely [moment] ahead of elections in 2005," he said, adding that one year was not too long a time span to prepare the people so that the elections could be held in a transparent and honest atmosphere. Akayev had announced in July that he would not seek another term. The Kyrgyz constitution does not allow a person to hold the presidential post for more than two terms. In neighbouring Kazakhstan, over 500 cases of brucellosis had been reported in southern Kzyl-Orda Region, the Kazakh press reported on Tuesday. "A total of 523 people infected with brucellosis were registered in Kzyl-Orda Province. The main reason for so many cases of the disease is that insufficient veterinary and sanitary measures have been taken to prevent the disease among domestic cattle," the report said. According to the WHO, brucellosis is transmitted from animals to humans through contaminated and untreated milk and milk products or by direct contact with infected animals and animal carcasses. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Reporters sans frontieres (RSF), a Paris-based media NGO, said jointly on Tuesday that criminal libel and insult laws had become a major impediment to press freedom in many OSCE member states. "Such laws often force journalists to exercise self-censorship and to avoid investigating cases of corruption for fear of being prosecuted for libel," Freimut Duve, OSCE's representative on freedom of the media, said addressing experts, lawyers and victims of criminal libel prosecution at a meeting in Paris, organised by the OSCE and RSF. "It is urgent that we do something so that libel is not used to silence the media," RSF Secretary-General Robert Menard said. Alex Ivanko, an aide to Duve, said at least half a dozen former Soviet republics - especially Belarus and Kazakhstan - used criminal libel and insult laws to imprison journalists. It was reported on Tuesday that over 60 per cent of women suffer violence in Kazakhstan. According to the national commission for family and women's affairs under President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and an independent assessment made by public experts, 64 per cent of women in Kazakhstan are subjected to various forms of violence. However, only one in every 10 such victims resorted to justice, a Kazakh media outlet said. In that context, a regional seminar to discuss ways of eliminating gender violence against women was held in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe on Thursday. It was attended by representatives from the UN, the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute, and bodies representing the governments of the Central Asian countries, and discussed the adoption and strengthening of national legislation on the elimination of all kinds of violence against women in the Central Asian countries. According to some sources, 80 per cent of Tajik women have at least once been victims of violence during their lives, while in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan every week a woman dies at the hands of her husband or close relatives. The EU and Kazakhstan had discussed cooperation in trade, investments, energy and transport, justice, and law and order, the head of the EC's office in Kazakhstan, Alan Vaddams, said on Thursday. "We exchanged opinions [on] how we could cooperate in these sectors," he said, adding that they had discussed specific programmes the EU was planning to implement in Kazakhstan, namely programmes for supporting the country's application to membership of the World Trade Organisation, as well as for the activities of NGOs in developing democracy and human rights in the largest Central Asian nation. A high-ranking military delegation led by the first deputy director of the Russian Federal Security Service and head of the Russian Federal Border Guard Service (FBGS), Col-Gen Vladimir Pronichev, arrived in Tajikistan on Wednesday. The Tajik Khovar news agency said Pronichev would meet the country's leadership and senior power-wielding agency officials to discuss the current state of and prospects for cooperation between the two countries' border guards, and protection of the Tajik-Afghan border. The Russian ITAR-TASS news agency reported on the same day that this was the first visit by the commander of the FBGS to Tajikistan since an October statement by the Tajik State Border Protection Committee that "there should be a single owner on the [Tajik-Afghan] border - either Russians or us". Iran is expected to invest in the construction of a hydroelectric power plant in Tajikistan. Iranian Minister of Economy and Finance Tahmasb Mazaheri is to visit Dushanbe on Friday "to sign a memorandum of understanding on Iran's investment in the Sangtuda hydroelectric power plant and on economic cooperation between the two states in other sectors". Tajikistan needs a $482 million investment to complete the construction of the plant, which started in 1989 but was halted due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and to civil war in the country. Meanwhile, the RSF has urged the Turkmen authorities to stop harassing Saparmurat Ovezberdiev, a correspondent of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in the capital, Ashgabat. The group sent a letter to Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov on Wednesday, urging him to ensure that the correspondent was allowed to work freely as a journalist, without fear of physical or bureaucratic reprisals. Ovezberdiev had been physically harassed and illegally detained by police in the last few months, RSF said. Turkmenistan, the most reclusive of the Central Asian nations, has drawn strong international condemnation for a brutal crackdown following an alleged November 2002 assassination attempt on Niyazov.

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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