TAJIKISTAN LIFTS FACEBOOK BLOCK  Social networking site was among
several blocked following article predicting president’s removal.  By
Lola Olimova


released human rights activist describes conditions on the inside, and
the reasons why the authorities prefer repression to other options.
By Saule Mukhametrakhimova


ENJOYING MULTICULTURAL ALMATY  Kazakstan’s former capital has become a
magnet for ambitious young Central Asians, attracted not just by
opportunities but also by welcoming environment.  By Dina Tokbaeva

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Social networking site was among several blocked following article
predicting president’s removal.

By Lola Olimova

Tajikistan has restored access to Facebook after criticism from the
Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, over its
clampdown on news and social networking sites.

Internet users were blocked from Facebook on March 3, shortly after
members discussed an online article called “Tajikistan on the Eve of
Revolution” predicting that President Imomali Rahmon, in power since
1992, would be forced from office before next year’s presidential

News website Zvezda.ru, which published the article, was blocked the
previous day, and three other Russian-language news sites
Centrasia.ru, Tjknews.com and Maxala.org were also blocked on March 3.

The OSCE’s media freedom representative, Dunja Mijatovic, wrote to
Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi on March 5 expressing hope that
access would be restored without delay.

“This is the first time access to social media has been denied, and I
hope that this worrying development will not create a precedent,”
Mijatovic said in a statement. “Despite occasional blocking of certain
websites in Tajikistan, internet has remained largely free.”

Parvina Ibodova, head of the Association of Internet Providers in
Tajikistan, AIPT The authorities lifted the Facebook ban four days
later, on March 9, just before Rahmon met with local journalists to
mark the centenary of the Tajik press.

“There was a verbal order [by telephone] from the communications
agency to lift the ban on Facebook, but not for the other websites,”
she told IWPR, adding that this order had not yet been put in writing.

Observers say Tajik officials are wary of the power of the internet,
especially following revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East
and election protests in Russia last year, in which social networking
sites played a galvanising role.

Though under than ten per cent of Tajikistan’s 7.5 million people are
online, social networks are snowballing. Last year saw the number
Facebook users more than double from 10,000 to over 27,000, according
to Internetworldstats.com.

State communications officials initially told internet providers to
block the sites because of “routine technical maintenance”, local
media reported.

The AIPT had expressed concern about the shutdown, and warned in a
statement that it risked damaging Tajikistan’s international image.

The Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders said the
shutdown was “as inacceptable as it is absurd”, while Freedom House in
the US condemned the move, adding that Tajikistan’s media situation
“remains dire”.

The Facebook shutdown coincided with a visit by tax inspectors to a
number of media companies.

Zebo Tajibaeva, acting director of the Asia Plus news agency, said the
inspection took journalists by surprise. She suspects the visit may
have been prompted to media criticism of a draft tax law.

“Planned inspections are usually conducted over a long period of time
but this time there were raids on all newspapers on the same day,” she
said. “What’s more, we never had to reply to questions in writing
before. It was like an interrogation by the police.”

Khurshed Atovulloev, editor-in-chief of the Faraj newspaper, said tax
inspectors visited his offices as well.

While the Tajik authorities may have hoped to stem dissent, media
analysts are sceptical that blocking websites actually works.

More than one million Tajik citizens work in Russia and can avoid
internet bans, while people with mobile internet access in Tajikistan
were still able to access Facebook during the shutdown.

Technology expert Asomuddin Atoev said blocking web access would do
little to keep sensitive information from the public, but could
undermine the communications industry.

“There are many ways for [internet] users to circumvent the ban,” he
said. “It isn’t justifiable from either a technological or a legal
point of view.”

Tajikistan is not the only Central Asian state to censor the internet.
Neighboring Uzbekistan has blocked the websites of the BBC, Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle,
Eurasianet.org, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Ferghana.ru, Uznews.net and
Russian human rights group Memorial, as well as IWPR. Most recently,
Uzbek-language pages on Wikipedia were blocked in the country.

Turkmenistan has one of world’s most repressive media environments and
also blocks many websites, while its security service closely monitors
internet traffic. Kazakstan, too, has blocked opposition sites.

Lola Olimova is IWPR’s Tajikistan editor.



Recently released human rights activist describes conditions on the
inside, and the reasons why the authorities prefer repression to other

By Saule Mukhametrakhimova

A leading human rights defender in Kazakstan, Yevgeny Zhovtis, has
spoken of his experiences in prison, which lead him to conclude that
there is no political will to reform the penal system.

As the political elite jockeys for power ahead of the anticipated
departure of 71-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbaev, repression is
still the main response to all sorts of dissent, he said.

Zhovtis, director of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of
Law and one of the country’s most prominent advocates of civil rights,
was freed on February 17 from a prison colony in the town of Oskemen
(Ust Kamenogorsk) in north-eastern Kazakstan, after serving
two-and-a-half years of a four-year conviction for manslaughter.

He was found guilty of dangerous driving leading to a fatality in
2009, at the end of a trial lasting just two days in which prosecutors
argued that the accident was technically avoidable. His lawyers raised
questions about procedural violations which they believed deprived him
of key legal rights and rendered the conviction unsafe.

That, and the fact that Zhovtis had already agreed an out-of-court
financial settlement with the victim’s family, meaning that criminal
proceedings could have been dropped, strengthened concerns that the
authorities pressed for a conviction in order to sideline an outspoken
critic of their human rights record.

The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch described the
proceedings as a “choreographed political trial”.

In an interview for IWPR, Zhovtis spoke about his own prison
experience, the way the penitentiary system is managed and the
political situation he found on his release.

IWPR: How would you describe the current state of the prisons?

Yevgeny Zhovtis: After two and a half years, I have a very negative
view of the system. It’s a system that is fundamentally incapable of
correcting or rehabilitating anyone.

It could be described as a breeding-ground for hatred of men in
uniform. Within several days, anyone – even a well-balanced, quiet
person with a positive outlook – will turn into an aggressive, angry
individual who hates the police.

As well as maintaining order by force, the system is geared towards
demeaning human dignity. There’s a complete lack of any kind of human
relationship or trust between prisoners and warders.

The warders are mostly uneducated, underpaid and frustrated with their
working conditions and long hours. They work from seven in the morning
to seven in the evening, plus at least half days on Saturdays. If they
work a 24-hour shift, they often return to the job after only two or
one days off, although by law they should have three days before their
next shift.

If the prison is on high alert, as is often the case, staff have to
work all weekend and all public holidays.

It’s a military-style system with its superiors and subordinates and
loutish, abusive behaviour.

IWPR: Is it possible to change this system in any way?

Zhovtis: The punitive, repressive system we inherited from the Soviet
Union cannot be reformed unless there is a radical rethink of the aims
and objectives of the penitentiary and criminal justice systems. As
long as criminal law is repressive in nature, the justice system is
accusatory, and the main way of dealing with crime is by locking
people up rather than considering alternative forms of punishment, it
is hard to see things changing for the better.

Almost all detention facilities in Kazakstan were built during the
Soviet era. Conditions, revolving around the unit-based holding
structure [in barracks rather than cells], are far from civilised.

The entire system needs to be overhauled, but to do this there needs
to be a clearly-articulated political will, which is currently

IWPR: Much has happened in Kazakstan since you were imprisoned in
2009. How would you describe the situation now?

Zhovtis: It’s a tense political situation because of Janaozen [where
14 demonstrators were killed when police opened fire on December 16],
and because of the arrests of opposition politicians and civil society
activists. [See Clampdown on Dissent in Kazakstan
http://iwpr.net/report-news/clampdown-dissent-kazakstan .]

Most of the tensions, however, stem from the intensifying struggle
between factions in the ruling elite which are gearing up for the
moment when President Nazarbaev’s successor is nominated. This
struggle will determine the political and economic direction that
Kazakstan will take.

Against this backdrop of rising political tensions, the authorities
are naturally relying on force to control the situation. Respect for
human rights will inevitably fall by the wayside.

IWPR: With a growing number of political prisoners, what have the
authorities achieved by putting critics behind bars?

Zhovtis: They are pursuing several related aims, in my opinion. First,
they are clearing the political arena of opposition members and
dissident leaders, in anticipation of the power struggle that will
come when the president is weakened or leaves office.

Second, they want to intimidate the opposition, activists, journalists
and the population as a whole because of the rising mood of protest,
particularly as a second wave of economic crisis may be on its way.

Third, they are also seeking to strengthen the state’s policing
capacity so as to wield maximum social control to avert unexpected
developments similar to those we’ve seen in the Arab world.

IWPR: What is your view of western governments’ efforts to stop
Kazakstan persecuting its critics?

Zhovtis: These western campaigns have unfortunately not achieved any
positive results. They have sometimes been counterproductive, as the
Kazak government has been able to portray them as external
interference in our domestic affairs, and to accuse the international
community of double standards. The authorities have exploited these
arguments in a society still dominated by Soviet ideology and
anti-western views.

The government has the support of Russia and other partners in the
Collective Security Treaty Organisation [regional security bloc], and
the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation [a similar grouping that also
includes China]. With support like that, the government’s rhetoric has
gone down well with the domestic public.

How effective can the West’s support [for democracy] be when there are
also geopolitical considerations like the war on terror and its
economic ties with this resource-rich country? Factors like that
affect decision-making by western leaders. They may have contributed
to the decision to award Kazakstan the chairmanship of the
Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010, at the
same time as the government was pressuring the opposition.

IWPR: What sustained you while you were in prison?

Zhovtis: The knowledge that I was in the right, my stubbornness, the
support of family, friends, colleagues and many other people inside
and outside the country. In many cases, I was supported by people I
didn’t know and had never met.

IWPR: In a statement after your release, you said that before
returning to work you needed time to restore your health. Will you
return to lead the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law?

Zhovtis: I haven't yet decided what exactly I will do next. I have a
number of ideas, which will become clearer once I return to work in

Interview conducted by Saule Mukhametrakhimova, IWPR Central Asia editor.



Kazakstan’s former capital has become a magnet for ambitious young
Central Asians, attracted not just by opportunities but also by
welcoming environment.

By Dina Tokbaeva

Kazakstan’s financial centre Almaty is a regional hub that attracts
high-calibre professionals from across Central Asia. The city offers
them better job prospects and cultural and ethnic diversity.

Almaty is flanked by snowcapped mountains and apple orchards, and
unlike other parts of Kazakstan, it is blessed with a mild continental

The traditional mix of Russians, Koreans and Uighurs who have lived
alongside Kazaks here for generations has been augmented by the Tajik,
Uzbek and Kyrgyz labour migrants who have arrived in the years since
Kazakstan became independent in 1991. More recently, small Chinese and
Indian communities have emerged here.

The city is popular with western nationals, as well. Many of the
international organisations and news services working in Central Asia
such as Reuters, AP and the BBC have their regional offices here.

The city is just three hours drive away from Bishkek, the capital of
Kyrgyzstan, where I live. Things have certainly changed in Almaty
since I was last here 15 years ago.

I used to feel at home here, as Almaty and Bishkek share the same kind
of Soviet architecture - big squares, long straight streets and 20th
century buildings. The two cities used to look almost identical – but
not any more.

The construction work of Kazakstan’s oil boom has left Almaty
sprawling in all directions. Modern office buildings, shopping
centres, cafes and restaurants have sprung up on the once green
foothills of Koktobe on the city’s southeastern outskirts. At the
other end of town, buildings have proliferated on what were once

But there is something I do recognise from the past, something that
not all of Central Asia’s cities have been able to keep alive – the
spirit of unity. In a way, it invokes nostalgia for Soviet times, when
people used to travel freely and frequently to neighbouring republics
to see relatives and friends.

These days, it is the younger generation of educated people from all
across Central Asia who come to Almaty in search of better-paid,
prestigious jobs. Market reforms and oil wealth mean Kazakstan has the
most prosperous economy in the region.

Many people who come to Almaty find it comforting that, as in the old
days, Russian is still widely used. The multicultural environment
means that new arrivals are not made to feel like outsiders.

Among these incomers is my colleague Almaz Rysaliev, IWPR’s editor for
Kazakstan who has lived in Almaty for the last six years. He settled
here after marrying a Kazak woman. He says it helped that Kyrgyz and
Kazaks have such similar cultures, but adds that mixed marriages
between the various ethnic groups here are common.

Although Almaty, Kazakstan’s largest city with some 1.5 million
people, lost its status as national capital in 1997 – that honour
moved to Astana, some 1,260 km away in the centre of the country - it
retains its position as a centre of culture and business.

It also feels safe, and people are open. In Bishkek, many people
prefer to use official taxis to get around, whereas in Almaty, people
feel secure enough to flag down any car on the street – although it’s
worth agreeing a price before getting in to avoid being overcharged.

Many highly skilled professionals from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and
Tajikistan work at senior management level in Almaty companies. People
from Kyrgyzstan, in particular, are keen to find work here, and
Almaty’s attractive power has even been blamed for the collapse of a
Kyrgyz government programme to lure medical graduates to work in rural

My best experience in Almaty has to be taking part in last year’s
informal gathering of young IT specialists, online journalists and
bloggers. The annual BarCamp Central Asia events – sponsored by IT and
mobile phone companies and held in different cities across the region
– are intended to encourage the exchange of ideas and networking. As
well as people from the Central Asia republics, there are also
participants from Europe and the United States.

Unlike other BarCamp meetings in the region, the ones held in Almaty
are always well attended, which makes them more interesting as well.

It was good to see how people from Kyrgyzstan who lived through the
ethnic violence of June 2010 were able to put aside their differences
once they were on neutral ground. It did not matter whether you were a
Kyrgyz or Uzbek – everyone was happy to take part in lively debates.
And in between sessions, groups got together to sing traditional songs
while others listened, or cooked national dishes for everyone to

The global financial crisis has reduced the numbers of Central Asians
heading to Almaty, but the city has not lost its appeal. Its inviting
atmosphere – which fortunately comes not from market forces but from
the openness and friendliness of its residents – has stayed the same.

Dina Tokbaeva is IWPR regional editor in Bishkek.

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REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA provides the international community with a
unique insiders' perspective on the region. Using our network of local
journalists, the service publishes news and analysis from across
Central Asia on a weekly basis.

The service forms part of IWPR's Central Asia Project based in Almaty,
Bishkek, Tashkent and London, which supports media development and
encourages better local and international understanding of the region.

IWPR's Reporting Central Asia is supported by the UK Community Fund.
The service is published online in English and Russian.

The opinions expressed in Reporting Central Asia are those of the
authors and do not necessarily represent those of the publication or
of IWPR.

REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA: Editor-in-Chief: Anthony Borden; Senior Editor
and Acting Managing Editor: John MacLeod; Central Asia Programme
Director: Abakhon Sultonnazarov; Central Asia Editor: Saule

Borden; Head of Programmes: Sam Compton.

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