Twelve years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, governments in the five states continued to jail opponents and suppress the media.
The following report charts the major human rights developments in 2003, drawing on reports from IWPR journalists in the region… [Refer to http://www.iwpr.net/centasia_index1.html for information on Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan]
Kyrgyzstan remains perhaps the most open society in Central Asia. The government's decision in 2003 to officially ban torture was generally welcomed as an encouraging development. But overall, little has changed since the mid-Nineties - the government continues to interfere with the independent media, and international observers say a number of prisoners have been convicted for political rather than criminal offences.
International observers welcomed the mid-November announcement that President Askar Akaev had signed a ban on the use of torture. Police and officials face criminal charges and up to 10 years in prison if they are convicted of violating the new rules. (Reported in Kyrgyz Torture Ban)
The announcement followed the release of an OSCE report earlier in November naming Kyrgyzstan as one of the former Soviet states that had failed to fulfil an international obligation to prohibit torture.
Rights activists say torture - including beatings, electric shocks, suffocation, hanging suspects upside down, injecting them with needles and pulling their nails out - has been routinely used in Kyrgyzstan in recent years.
In April 2003 Kyrgyz opposition leader Felix Kulov was transferred to a low-security prison having spent nearly 1000 days in solitary confinement. (Kulov Out of Solitary).
Kulov, who was formerly Kyrgyzstan's vice president, interior minister and chief of the National Security Service, was sentenced to seven years in prison in January 2001 for abuse of power. This sentence was subsequently increased to ten years after he was found guilty of the further charge of embezzlement.
Kulov's supporters have always maintained that the charges against him are fabricated and politically motivated. Human rights organizations expressed suspicion about the fact that he was arrested just over a month after resigning from government in February 2000 in order to run in that year's presidential election.
A February 2 referendum saw 76 per cent of Kyrgyz voters behind governmental changes proposed by the president - including reducing the bicameral parliament to a single chamber - and 79 per cent saying Akaev should remain in office until his mandate expires in December 2005, according to Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Committee.
Opposition figures expressed concern that the approved changes could reduce parliament to a purely consultative body and concentrate power in the hands of the president. (These concerns were noted in Parliament Under Threat and Fury Over New Constitution)
The Public Headquarters for Observing the Conduct of the Referendum, PHOCR, a monitoring committee organized by civil activists, opposition leaders and NGOs, also cast doubt over the reported 86.6 per cent turnout. (Opposition Slams Referendum) PHOCR members suggested the real figure was less than the 50 per cent required to validate the vote, and claimed to have testimony from a number of people who had been forced to vote. Observers from Kyrgyzstan's allies such as Armenia, Russia and Belarus declared the referendum fair.
Lawsuits from officials, and increasingly private individuals, continued to cripple Kyrgyz newspapers throughout 2003, with many observers expressing concern that such legal proceedings were merely a covert way for the authorities to shut down outspoken publications (Sued and Stifled: Kyrgyzstan's Media).
The newspaper Moya Stolitsa-Novosti folded after being ordered to pay almost 100,000 US dollars in damages to various government officials. Kyrgyz human rights ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir uulu wrote to the Supreme Court arguing that the rulings against the newspaper seemed "unobjective and unfair" and should be reassessed. But his recommendation was ignored.
Moya Stolitsa-Novosti, which faced 37 lawsuits in its year and a half of existence, was one of three newspapers with independent views and a significant readership which have faced harassment. Another, Asaba, passed into the hands of pro-government businessman in 2000 after facing legal actions from a number of high-level officials. The third, Delo No, is currently entangled in a lengthy law case.
On September 13 the Kyrgyz government announced the formation of a body to deal with such disputes within the media, with the president's press secretary Abdil Segizbaev arguing that the high number of lawsuits against journalists and newspapers were damaging the image of the country. But participants at a conference held in Bishkek on September 17-18 criticized the way the new council had been put together, arguing that the process had been secretive and undemocratic. (Kyrgyz Media Council "Flawed")
The opening of an independent printing house on November 14 received a warmer welcome and was seen by many as an encouraging sign for Kyrgyzstan's media (Fuller report in Boost for Media Freedom).
The 800,000 US dollar venture, set up by Freedom House and sponsored by the United States, broke the monopoly previously held by the state-controlled Uchkun printing press, which was accused of regularly refusing to print material viewed unfavorably by the government.
But the management of one paper, Delo No., soon announced that rates offered by the new business were unreasonably high and returned to using the Uchkun printing house (Kyrgyz Free Press Comes at a Price).
IWPR's Reporting Central Asia, April 20, 2004