Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Hon. Steve Cohen
Commissioner - United States Commission on Security & Cooperation in Europe


Briefing: “Political Prisoners in Central Asia”

Tuesday, May 15

2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Rayburn House Office Building, room 2203

Statement by Congressman Steve Cohen

In several former Soviet states, despite the fact that all of them have accepted OSCE commitments, political prisoners remain a problem. The State Department’s annual human rights reports and those of many human rights organizations continue to document arrests of individuals for their political or religious beliefs.

In this statement, I would like to focus particularly on Uzbekistan. I had the honor of working to help free Dr. Sanjar Umarov and bring him to the U.S.. Dr. Umarov was the head of the opposition Sunshine movement. He was sentenced on politically motivated charges to 14 years in prison, where he was tortured repeatedly. Following significant pressure from the U.S. and others, he was finally amnestied in 2009.

Unfortunately, Dr. Umarov’s case is not unique in Uzbekistan. Human rights activists, journalists, and members of certain religious groups continue to fall victim to President Karimov’s restrictive laws and policies. NGOs estimate between 10 and 30 people are in prison for their human rights or political activism, while hundreds or even thousands are imprisoned for their alleged membership in certain religious groups. Strict laws against religious extremism are applied broadly, particularly against those suspected of Islamic extremism. Political prisoners, prisoners of conscience, and suspected extremists are allegedly treated worse than ordinary prisoners.

In 2003, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture visited Uzbekistan and concluded that torture in the judicial and penitentiary system was “systematic” and “widespread.” Nearly a decade later, the situation does not seem to have improved. Human Rights Watch recently issued a report, “No One Left to Witness,” which details recent cases of torture and mistreatment in custody and the continuing problems with the judicial process.

Citing U.S. national security interests, Secretary Clinton in January signed a temporary waiver on military assistance to Uzbekistan, which Congress had put in place because of Tashkent’s consistently poor record on human rights. Uzbekistan is certainly playing a strategic role in providing an overland supply route in and out of Afghanistan, but the U.S. must continue to raise difficult human rights issues at the same time as it develops its military cooperation with Uzbekistan.

And Uzbekistan is not the only Central Asian country of concern. In Turkmenistan, no political opposition or independent media is tolerated. In Tajikistan, a restrictive law on religion has put many in prison allegedly as extremists or terrorists. In Kazakhstan, political opposition figures have been prevented from registering or running in elections, and recently have been arrested for having had contacts with striking oil workers whose demonstrations last December were violently put down. In Kyrgyzstan, the situation is better, but unfair trials in the wake of the June 2010 ethnic violence have put ethnic Uzbeks and activists supporting them in prison for crimes they most likely did not commit.

No one should be in prison because of their political views or their religion. I look forward to hearing from our panelists.