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SAMARKAND, Uzbekistan – On a tour of Central Asia, Secretary of State John Kerry is hoping to prod the former Soviet republics of the region toward greater democracy and respect for human rights even as they work to snuff out funding and recruiting by the Islamic State group that has spread to the region.
He meets with top officials from all five nations Sunday in the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Kerry began his five-day visit of the region in Kyrgyzstan on Saturday, where he met the president and foreign minister of a government that has been a bright spot for democracy in a largely autocratic area of the world. He praised recent parliamentary elections and expressed regret for the State Department's awarding of its annual Human Rights Award to an ethnic Uzbek journalist and activist serving a life sentence in prison for stirring up "ethnic hatred."
Azimzhan Askarov had devoted his life to documenting rights violations of Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan. The honor was meant to reflect Askarov's life work, Kerry stressed, not to offend the Kyrgyz government. It responded in July by lambasting the U.S. and dissolving a 22-year-old cooperation agreement with the United States.
But Kerry also sought more action from Kyrgyzstan to prevent its citizens from joining extremist groups abroad, noting their presence among the throng of foreign fighters who have sown chaos throughout the Middle East.
The one-day stop foreshadowed some of the competing interests the U.S. is balancing as it deepens ties in a region largely dominated by Russia's lasting cultural influence and China's increasing economic might. Kerry's discussions with all five Central Asian governments on Sunday will focus on security, economic and human rights issues. He'll then visit Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan — making him the first secretary of state to travel to all five countries on a single trip.
For now, U.S. officials say the Islamic State group's recruitment in country isn't significantly affecting them; some recruits are operating in Russia and others are showing up in Syria.
But that may change. And the entire region has been unnerved by the Islamic State group's recruitment of Gulmurod Khalimov, a senior police official in Tajikistan who posted a video online in May declaring his new allegiance and urging his former comrades to rise up against their authoritarian leaders.
Khalimov even had been trained at one point by the United States, and his radicalization was a "shock to everyone," according to a senior U.S. official, who briefed reporters on Kerry's plans on condition of anonymity. Crackdowns throughout the region in recent months largely reflect those fears, the official said.
The U.S. wants to improve security cooperation with each government but is bothered by what it sees as heavy-handed responses to perceived threats. In Taijikistan, for example, a nation that cracks down on men with long beards, the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party has now been banned. Elsewhere, already limited space for civil society may be narrowing.
In a letter to Kerry ahead of his trip, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top Democrat, highlighted the issue of political prisoners and cited an "erosion of the democratic process and respect for human rights across Central Asia."
Cardin said Uzbekistan may be holding thousands of such prisoners alone, but he listed the cases of opposition figures in each land who are jailed on charges ranging from illegal entry into the country, polygamy and violation of internal prison to questionable claims of corruption, hostage taking, terrorism and murder.