Weekly news wrap

International condemnation over the imprisonment of Kazakh journalist Sergei Duvanov continued this week. On Thursday, the European Parliament called on Astana to free the journalist, jailed on disputed rape charges, and urged the Central Asian state to respect human rights, international news agencies reported.

Duvanov, a prominent 50-year-old editor of a human rights bulletin and critic of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, was found guilty last month of raping a 14-year-old girl. The opposition said the charges were part of a government crackdown on independent media.

"In the wake of the dubious circumstances surrounding the arrest and sentencing...(of) Sergei Duvanov, MEPs [Members of the European Parliament] adopted a resolution calling for his immediate release and the launching of an independent investigation," parliament said in a statement after the vote.

An AP report quoting Kyrgyz security officials said on Wednesday that the banned Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir had become more active in the south of this former Soviet republic, a region that has proven a flashpoint for tension in the past.

Security service spokeswoman Chinara Asanova said several Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists had been detained in southern districts recently while distributing anti-government leaflets. "We are actively investigating this as we believe the printing of leaflets is being done in a centralised manner," Asanova said.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a secretive organisation that aims to unite all Muslims under a caliphate ruled by Islamic Shariah law, emerged in the Middle East and spread to former Soviet Central Asia in the 1990s. Although the group claims not to advocate violence, Hizb-ut-Tahrir faces its harshest persecution in neighboring Uzbekistan, where thousands of alleged members have been jailed.

Also in Kyrgyzstan, the UN’s cultural and scientific organisation UNESCO confirmed its readiness this week to finance to the tune of US $700,000 the restoration of a Buddhist temple dating back to the Middle Ages that was discovered during excavations near the village of Krasnaya Rechka in Kyrgyzstan’s northern Chuy Region.

Meanwhile in Kazakhstan, state media announced this week that according to government statistics, there had been a major drop in new HIV/AIDS cases in the northern Pavlodar region. There were 439 new HIV cases registered in the region in 2001. This dropped to 173 in 2002, the report said.

Doctors at the centre believe that the reduction comes as a result of the active syringe exchange points, which exchanged 99,000 syringes in 2001 and 550,000 in 2002. HIV/AIDS is a rapidly expanding problem in Central Asia's largest state and observers say official figures do not accurately reflect the extent of the epidemic.

A Tajik newspaper report from late January, highlighting a potential nuclear environmental threat, was made available on BBC Monitoring this week. Vecherniy Dushanbe reported that about 100 mt of radioactive waste was being stored in 12 tailing dumps in the northern Soghd Region. The waste reportedly does not meet appropriate safety rules and is situated in the immediate proximity of residential areas.

Tajikistan needs some US $15 million to rehabilitate the dumps. The first Soviet nuclear bomb was made from Tajik uranium. A tailing dump, a place where radioactive ore waste is thrown, is situated 100 m from the district hospital on the edge of a busy road linking the regional centre, Khujand, with Bobojon Ghafurov District.

An intergovernmental agreement on supplies of gas from Turkmenistan to Russia is set to be signed soon, Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller told journalists in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, on Monday. It is planned that from 2005 Russia will import 10 billion cubic meters of gas from the energy-rich state and increase this volume to 20 bcm by 2008, over and above volumes already agreed.