Jewish leaders are promising to raise questions about the human rights record of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev when they meet with him this week.
"Most countries are accused of human rights abuses, and it is an issue we will discuss while there," Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said of the group’s five-day trip to Kazakhstan.
He said that about 60 representatives of the Presidents’ Conference are on the trip, which would focus also on the efforts of Central Asian nations to fight terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.
Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asian Division of Human Rights Watch, said she welcomed the trip.
"The more that groups raise human rights issues with the top leadership, the better," she said. "I sincerely hope they do raise this issue and I am interested in hearing the response."
Nazarbayev’s record on human rights has "declined steadily" in recent years, Denber said.
"After a flowering period from 1991 [when he became president] until 1995, he and those around him took measures to limit political opposition and an independent media," she said. "And just before the presidential and parliamentary elections in 1999, there was a crackdown on political parties and on the newspapers."
Denber said there has been what she described as a "crisis in media freedom" and noted that a number of journalists have been attacked or charged with criminal libel. One was even charged with what Denber said were "suspect" rape charges; the journalist was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison.
"His arrest came just one day before he was to leave for America to talk about corruption" in Kazakhstan, Denber noted.
Avi Beker, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress and one of the trip’s participants, said their trip should not be interpreted as "giving carte blanche to the behavior of anybody."
"We are going to meet [Nazarbayev] and in the course of the meetings we will ask questions about his human rights record and the state of democracy in Kazakhstan," he said. "This is something we did in the days of the Cold War; we are not deterred in asking these questions."
The group is also expected to issue a declaration at the end of the meetings dealing with the topics covered, and to applaud the good relations Jews enjoy there and in a number of other Central Asian Muslim countries.
Government officials from at least a half-dozen Muslim countries from the former Soviet Union and Turkey are also slated to attend the gathering, along with Jewish leaders from 15 European and Asian countries.
Beker noted that the president of the umbrella Jewish organization that represents Jews in Asian nations is from Kazakhstan, which has a Jewish population of more than 20,000. He said Nazarbayev has a good record in terms of suppressing any kind of anti-Semitism and in "providing freedom of religion."
"This is a country that provides an interesting model for good relations between Muslims and Jews, and that is something we cannot dismiss at this time," Beker said. "One of the interesting paradoxes is that there are more attacks against Jews and anti-Semitic incidents in Western and liberal European democracies. And we don’t see the governments there enforcing the law when necessary."
Beker said there is a "close correlation between anti-Semitism and the anti-Americanism" of France, Germany and Belgium, which this week blocked NATO from sending defensive equipment to Turkey in the event of an Iraqi attack in reprisal for an American-led attack on Saddam Hussein.
He noted that there was recently a demonstration in France in which the protesters carried a huge poster that equated President George W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Adolf Hitler. It also equated the Jewish star with the Nazi swastika.
"This was done openly in the streets of Paris," Beker said.