U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday repeatedly criticized Kyrgyzstan for human rights problems, a strong rebuke to the country once regarded as former Soviet Central Asia's "island of democracy."
Ban's chiding came on the second day of a trip through the five countries of the region, a journey aimed at drawing attention to the strategic importance of the troubled region that borders Russia, Afghanistan, China and Iran.
When the countries became independent after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan quickly gained a reputation for being comparatively progressive, in contrast to the autocratic rule that took root in most of the other Central Asian republics. But after Kurmanbek Bakiyev became president when his predecessor was driven out in a popular uprising, media freedom declined and opposition activists complained of rising pressure.
"For the United Nations, the protection of human rights is a bedrock principle if a country is to prosper," Ban said in a speech to the Kyrgyz parliament.
"Quite frankly, ladies and gentlemen, recent events have been troubling, including the past few days. I repeat: all human rights must be protected, including free speech and freedom of the media," he said.
Ban did not give specifics, but his mention of events in past days apparently referred to the seizure of computers at an independent newspaper, allegedly for using pirated software.
Ban earlier said he made similar comments in a meeting with Bakiyev, who did not make statements to the media afterward.
Ban said he encouraged Bakiyev to increase measures for developing the country's health, fighting against widespread corruption and strengthening the rule of law.
"I also urged the president to orient his policies to promote the democratic achievements of Kyrgyzstan, including its free press," he said, combining criticism with an appeal to Kyrgyz pride in their international image.
As Ban was about to deliver his speech, about 50 police intercepted a small protest group outside, blocking their entrance to the building. A dozen human rights activists held banners aloft calling for freedom of speech and human rights to be observed. Police dispersed the group, which vowed to continue the rally elsewhere. No arrests were made.
Continued U.N. involvement in economic development in Kyrgyzstan could be vital to the country's struggle against the poverty that fuels dissatisfaction and that many fear could turn its people toward Islamic extremism. Islamist sentiment is seen as being strong in the country's south.
Kyrgyzstan has few natural resources other than gold and spectacular mountain scenery that could be the foundation of a substantial tourist industry. U.N. programs now under way include development of small businesses and local self-help groups.
Ban's trip began in Turkmenistan, where U.N. officials said he made some progress on rights issues with officials of the authoritarian government. President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov is gradually eroding the all-encompassing cult of personality of his predecessor, but the gas-rich country remains a single-party state widely criticized for rights violations.
On Sunday, Ban travels to Uzbekistan, likely to be the most tense stop of the trip, coming less than two weeks after the U.N. Human Rights Committee sharply criticized the country. In particular, the committee called for a more thorough investigation of the brutal suppression of a 2005 uprising in the city of Andijan.
Ban then continues to Tajikistan, still struggling to overcome the devastation of a five-year civil war against Islamists in the 1990s and to fight the surge of Afghan opium that penetrates its porous border en route to European addicts.
The trip concludes in Kazakhstan, where media and activist groups operate with some freedom. But President Nursultan Nazarbayev's party holds all the seats in the elected lower house of parliament, and critics doubt the country's commitment to reform.
Associated Press writer Leila Saralayeva contributed to this report.