By Marat Gurt
ASHGABAT (Reuters) - Continued crackdowns on human rights in Central Asia could backfire by encouraging extremist ideologies, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Saturday, winding up a visit to the volatile former Soviet region.
Ban chose Turkmenistan, viewed by human rights groups as one of the world's most despotic and isolated regimes, to deliver a passionate message to the resource-rich, mainly Muslim Central Asian region that borders Russia, China, Iran and Afghanistan.
The vast area once ruled by Moscow and comprising Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, has long faced criticism from the West and rights groups over its record on basic freedoms, ethnic minorities, judicial independence and its lack of accountable institutions.
Speaking to students in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, Ban said he was impressed by the region's economic growth since his last visit five years ago, but added: "I have also heard concerns about the deterioration of some aspects of human rights – a shrinking of democratic space."
The region's mainly authoritarian rulers, who cooperate militarily with Russia and the West, justify their tough methods by a need to prevent an advent of radical Islam and to parry security threats posed by the Taliban and Islamic State.
"Curbing freedoms may create an illusion of stability in the short-run. Things may seem calm on the surface," he told the audience in Ashgabat.
"There may not be protests on the streets. But the denial of free expression leads to a brewing underneath and ultimately a breeding ground for extremist ideologies."
Having earlier met Turkmenistan's autocratic President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Ban said in a statement that independent observers should be allowed access to places of detention.
In Turkmenistan, where Berdymukhamedov enjoys a flourishing personality cult, dozens of people, including former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov, have been forcibly disappeared after their arrest and in most cases closed trials, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
In Uzbekistan, the region's most populous nation with 30 million inhabitants, Ban urged President Islam Karimov on Friday to stop using forced labor in cotton fields and improve the treatment of prisoners.
On Thursday, he urged Kyrgyzstan to hold an impartial investigation into ethnic clashes that killed over 400 people five years ago and still divide the nation.
"The failure to respect human rights, build accountable institutions, promote political participation, and ensure opportunity for all creates gaps," Ban said in Ashgabat.
"The wider the gaps, the greater the openings for violent extremists. I see this phenomenon on the rise in the region and it troubles me greatly."
(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)