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In Kazakhstan this past week, hundreds of opposition party members, journalists and media rights activists demonstrated on Saturday, urging the president to veto a new media bill being considered by the upper house of parliament. Critics say the bill, already passed by parliament's lower house, limits media rights through stricter registration and licensing rules.

"The parliament has passed a frightening bill. They are trying to silence us with a law," Gulzhan Yergaliyeva, editor of the independent Soz newspaper, told about 800 people who rallied at a square on the outskirts of the country's commercial capital, Almaty. The lower house approved the bill in December. To become law it must pass the upper house and be signed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Kazakhstan's independent media have been under increased pressure in recent years. Journalists have faced beatings, intimidation and politically related lawsuits. The Central Asian nation saw limited democratic reforms after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But Nazarbayev has since tightened control.

On Monday, a court in Almaty rejected a landmark complaint of ballot-rigging at last autumn's municipal elections, a source in the plaintiff's legal team told AFP. The complaint to the civil court by Assylbek Kozhakhmetov, a leading member of the Democratic Choice opposition movement, foundered when the judge ruled out key video tape evidence.

Western officials fearful of future instability in ex-Soviet Central Asia see Kazakhstan as setting a crucial example to the region's other governments. Observers viewed Kozhakhmetov's case as potentially more robust than the few previous complaints about Kazakh elections to have reached court. But the judge ruled that it was impossible to establish the authenticity of tapes said by Kozhakhmetov to show multiple voting by over 150 people, most of them teachers employed by school directors heading electoral commissions, the source said.

Staying in the vast Central Asian republic, Astana this week, requested more foreign aid to the Semipalatinsk region, in the east of the country, which suffered from Soviet nuclear testing from 1949 till 1989. "Kazakhstan and the international community can resolve the problem of Semipalatinsk only through joint efforts," the Kazakh first deputy foreign minister, Kayrat Abuseitov, said, addressing a special conference in Almaty on Tuesday.

The UN Resident Representative in Kazakhstan, Fikret Akcura, who attended the conference, stressed that potential donors should "pay more attention" to the problem of Semipalatinsk. He noted that at present only Japan was actively involved in the implementation of the UN General Assembly's resolution on the Semipalatinsk region and is involved in the implementation of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for reviving the region that suffered from the operations of the nuclear test range.

In Tajikistan, booklets containing special instructions will be distributed to labour migrants at all airports and main railway stations of the country starting from 20 February this year, state radio announced on Monday. The booklets contain material on human rights and the laws of the states to which Tajik people usually migrate, including Russia and Kazakhstan.

The move was initiated by the Tajik Women-Lawyers' League and supported by the international Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute. The move should help educate Tajik labour migrants on legal issues, and is a step towards the recognition of their rights, activists say. Labour migrants from Tajikistan have been facing various difficulties and have been the subject of exploitation labour rights, due in part to their lack of legal awareness.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has allocated no-strings aid of over US $2 million to Uzbekistan as part of the "Healthy Family" project. Uzbek Health Minister Feruz Nazirov told ITAR-TASS on Monday that the no-strings aid would make it possible to improve the health of mothers and children. He said that health centres in the southern Surkhandarya and Kashkadarya regions had received anti-hepatitis vaccines and medicines. Nazirov said that a total of US $5 million had been allocated to Uzbekistan throughout the year as part of the "Healthy Family" project.

Washington presented 45 Russian-made trucks and other equipment worth a total of US $1.2 million to Uzbekistan's border guards under a US programme aimed at stopping nuclear weapons proliferation, the US Embassy in Tashkent announced Wednesday. There are concerns that radioactive material could be smuggled out of parts of the former Soviet Union and end up with terrorists or rogue states. Uzbekistan has received more than US $5 million in equipment and training under the programme, which started in April 2000. Uzbekistan became a partner of the United States in its war on terror after the 11 September attacks. Hundreds of US troops are deployed at an air base in southern Uzbekistan near the Afghan border.

Some 15,000 nurses and hospital staff in Turkmenistan will be sacked this month and many free medical services will be abolished, according to a presidential decree published on Wednesday. In a shock reform of the impoverished ex-Soviet state's free universal healthcare, only urgent medical attention will be paid for by the state after 1 March, the decree said. The sacked staff - about 15 percent of healthcare workers - are likely to be replaced by conscripted soldiers, health ministry officials said.

Turkmenistan's authoritarian President Saparmurat Niyazov frequently announces government purges and lightning reforms of the country's institutions. "(These measures) are aimed at economising budget resources, increasing a results-oriented approach among medical institutions and to guarantee the effective use of personnel," Niyazov's decree said. Areas losing funding include cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, neurology and dermatology departments along with sanitary and diagnostic services. Hospitals and clinics working in those fields will have to charge for their services, but they will not have to pay taxes for three years.

On Tuesday, a government-to-government agreement on construction and use of a bridge between Tajikistan and Afghanistan was signed in Dushanbe between Tajikistan represented by Abdujalol Salimov, minister of transport, and the Afghan Transitional Government, represented by Muhammad Dovud Panjsheri, Afghan ambassador to Tajikistan. The bridge between Tajikistan and Afghanistan across the Panj River will be 670 meters in length will be built in the area of Panji Poyon in Khatlon Province.

Washington is providing US $30-40 million for the project, which will help rehabilitate historic trade routes and promote the economic integration of the two countries as well as the wider region. Construction is due to start in early spring.

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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