Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: The Honorable Christopher H. Smith
Co-Chairman - The Helsinki Commission

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Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the latest in a series of hearings the Helsinki Commission has held on Central Asia -- in May 1999, we examined the political and human rights situation in Kazakstan; in October 1999 we turned our attention to Uzbekistan, and in March 2000 we held a hearing on Turkmenistan.

We have been planning for some time to hold this hearing on Kyrgyzstan, one of the less well known new states in Central Asia. Since September 11 and the commencement of U.S. military action in Afghanistan, even Americans unfamiliar with this region have learned more about the “stans” than they probably knew in the previous ten years of these countries’ independent existence.

Unfortunately, the trend lines in these states have been extremely discouraging. After a relatively brief period of hopefulness in the early 1990s, most analysts have concluded that Central Asia has become a “black hole” of human rights. “Super presidents” determined to remain in power indefinitely now dominate their political systems, resorting to any means necessary to eliminate political opponents, intimidate political opposition – where it is tolerated at all – and muzzle the press.

In that connection, since disappointment is a function of expectations, I think it would be fair to say that Kyrgyzstan, under the leadership of President Askar Akaev, is the most disappointing country in the former USSR. For years, Kyrgyzstan was considered the most democratic country in Central Asia. At one point, President Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott even called Akaev “the Thomas Jefferson of Central Asia.”

Today, nobody would use such language. Alas, Kyrgyzstan, after this promising beginning, has followed paths blazed by neighboring countries. Presidential and parliamentary elections have been rigged; after last year’s parliamentary election, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights openly questioned the results in the district where President Akaev’s leading rival, Felix Kulov, ran and concluded that the authorities had stolen his victory. OSCE Secretary General Jan Kubis said while visiting Bishkek after the second round that the election had been a “blemish” on the reputation of the government and the president.

Mr. Kulov was subsequently arrested for embezzlement and abusing his authority when he was Minister of Internal Affairs. After 5 months in jail, he was tried in a closed military court in August 2000. To everyone’s astonishment, he was acquitted. But the prosecutor appealed Kulov’s acquittal and in January 2001, Felix Kulov was convicted and sentenced to 7 years. He still sits in jail today and Amnesty International considers him a political prisoner.

Apart from the removal of potential rivals from the political arena, Kyrgyzstan’s authorities have carried out a severe crackdown on the media. In the last few years, almost all of the opposition and independent newspapers have been forced to close after losing lawsuits when officials who had been accused of corruption launched slander cases against media outlets, and judges – to nobody’s surprise – ruled in favor of the plaintiff.

This method is also employed both at the central and local levels: we are aware of several cases outside the capital city of Bishkek where journalists who had tried to investigate official corruption have been accused of some crime and incarcerated.

Nor have human rights groups been immune. The Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights has been targeted for years and its leader, Ramazan Dyryldaev, has been in forced exile since July 2000 for fear that he will be found guilty in a highly dubious criminal case.

These are serious concerns. But I am particularly worried about the possibility that in our understandable rush to cooperate with these regimes on combating international terrorism, we will overlook or de-emphasize human rights. True, the Bush administration has promised this won’t happen: National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice has said: “We are not going to stop talking about the things that matter to us -- human rights, religious freedom and so forth and so on. We're going to continue to press those things. We would not be America if we did not.”

But I’ve seen with China how the U.S. human rights agenda ends up taking a back seat to geopolitics and economics. I hope that won’t happen in Central Asia.

So I look forward to hearing from our witnesses and welcome their ideas about how best to match American rhetoric about human rights with concrete policies. I am especially interested in hearing from the Department of State how the cause for human rights has been advanced by the Secretary’s recent visit to the region and what the Department is planning to do now.