WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed concern about the erosion of the democratic process and respect for human rights across Central Asia in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.
In his letter, Senator Cardin wrote: “During your important visit to the region, I urge you to raise the issue of political prisoners and to emphasize our strong commitment to universally recognized democratic principles during your upcoming meetings with the region’s foreign ministers.”
The letter appears below.
Dear Secretary Kerry:
I am writing to express my concern about the erosion of the democratic process and respect for human rights across Central Asia, as evidenced by the continued detention of several opposition political leaders, religious freedom activists, human rights defenders and journalists throughout the region. During your important visit to the region, I urge you to raise the issue of political prisoners and to emphasize our strong commitment to universally recognized democratic principles during your upcoming meetings with the region’s foreign ministers.
The following cases represent only a small fraction of the thousands of politically motivated incarcerations throughout the region – NGOs estimate that there are thousands of political prisoners in Uzbekistan alone – but they are emblematic of broader systemic problems that should be directly addressed by the United States.
Kazakhstan: Vladimir Kozlov, former opposition party leader and journalist, has been imprisoned in Kazakhstan since 2012 under charges that appear to be politically motivated. Reputable human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, and PEN International, have raised questions regarding the lack of evidence to support the criminal charges levied against Mr. Kozlov. They have also documented serious procedural violations throughout the appeals process; however, Kazakhstan’s Supreme Court still refuses to hear Mr. Kozlov’s appeal.
Turkmenistan: Gulgeldy Annaniyazov, a former civil rights activist, was arrested in June 2008 and sentenced to 11 years in prison, convicted of having “entering Turkmenistan illegally.” He had previously received asylum in Norway after having served five years in a Turkmen prison for his role in a 1995 political demonstration. In August 2012, the government of Turkmenistan provided information about the number of family visits, food packages, and medical services received by Mr. Annaniyazov; however, as of October 2013, no further information on his whereabouts or physical condition is available.
Kyrgyzstan: In 2010, Mr. Azimjon Askarov was sentenced to life in prison on charges of conspiracy to murder, attempted hostage taking, and incitement to violence. The charges were levied against him only after he exposed corruption and legal abuses by law enforcement officials and prosecutors throughout the region. International human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as various news sources, have tied the charges and jail sentence to Mr. Askarov’s commitment to exposing corruption.
Tajikistan: Zaid Saidov, former Minister of Industry and businessman, was arrested for corruption and polygamy in May 2013 after establishing a new opposition political party. He was later sentenced to 26 years in prison in a trial widely deemed to fall short of international standards. Shuhrat Qudratov, one of Mr. Saidov’s defense attorneys and a deputy in the opposition Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, received a nine-year prison sentence on charges that appear to be politically motivated. On January 23, the chair of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a statement condemning Mr. Qudratov’s sentencing and raising concerns about charges brought against Mr. Saidov.
Uzbekistan: Muhammad Bekjanov, a journalist, was sentenced in 1999 to 15 years in prison on terrorism related charges. Mr. Bekjanov was due to be released in April 2013 under terms of the annual amnesty, but he was sentenced to an additional five years for alleged failure to follow prison procedures. According to some human rights groups, Mr. Bekjanov is one of the world’s longest-imprisoned journalists. Murod Juraev, a former Member of Parliament, was sentenced in 1994 for 12 years and is in very poor health. He had his sentence extended in 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2012, allegedly for violation of internal prison rules. Azam Farmonov, a rural development activist, was sentenced in 2006 to a term of nine years on alleged charges of extortion. His case was highlighted by the United Nations Committee against Torture in 2013.
These prisoners appear to have been convicted on questionable charges, denied proper judicial review, and face ongoing physical and psychological abuse. This represents an increasingly troubling pattern of repression that significantly impedes the ability of the United States to deepen bilateral relationships with these countries. As Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I am deeply committed to the plight of human rights defenders and political prisoners around the world. I strongly urge you to raise these important cases and advocate on behalf of all political prisoners held across the region.
Benjamin L. Cardin
United States Senator