DUSHANBE, Tajikistan (AFP) - UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on Tuesday began a five-day trip to ex-Soviet Central Asia with a visit to Tajikistan, as advocacy groups pressed him to raise rights concerns with the region's governments.
Ban, who last visited the region in 2010, attended a high-level international conference on water in the Tajik capital Dushanbe. He will then spend a day each in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan before rounding off his trip in Turkmenistan on June 13.
Referring to the region's "alarming" rights record, Human Rights Watch on Tuesday demanded Ban put discussions about fundamental freedoms at the forefront of his discussions with the leaders of the five countries.
"With so much suffering from government repression in Central Asia, human rights deserve a prominent place in the secretary-general's agenda," said Veronica Szente Goldston, the organisation's Europe and Central Asia advocacy director.
"Ban should press for concrete steps to end abuses, such as releasing people wrongfully behind bars, allowing rights groups and journalists to do their work, and ending impunity for torture."
All of Central Asia's governments are strongly authoritarian except Kyrgyzstan, which has nonetheless been criticised by advocacy organisations for considering draft laws discriminating against civic groups and sexual minorities.
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan regularly feature on the "worst of the worst" list of human rights offenders drawn up by rights NGO Freedom House.
Speaking on his arrival in Tajikistan in comments carried by the UN's official radio station, Ban confirmed rights would be on the agenda of his meetings with leaders in the five states, in addition to a "multitude of cross-border problems" including water use and the trafficking of Afghan opiates throughout the region.