The ‘-stan’ guide J Lo should have read before she sang in Turkmenistan

It isn't just David Cameron who has been criticised this week for cosying up to a repressive dictator in a former Soviet state – Jennifer Lopez performed at an event in Turkmenistan on Saturday night. In a statemen, Lopez's publicist said: "Had there been knowledge of human rights issues any kind, Jennifer would not have attended." Here we present a handy guide to the "-stans" so no pop star need be caught out by accidentally singing happy birthday to a despotic ruler in this region ever again.

It really does say something about Kazakhstan's values that in trying to rehabilitate its image away from human rights abuses and the lasting legacy of Borat, the person they call in is Tony Blair. The former prime minister (in a deal rumoured to be worth $13-million a year) paved the way for Cameron's trade mission this week. I know, it's just so easy to forget the 15 people killed by security forces during a demonstration and the imprisonment of opposition party leaders when you're dazzled by all that lovely oil money. Cameron at least had the decency to look a bit sheepish in the photographs with Nazarbayev. Blair never looks sheepish. It remains to be seen whether the endorsement – "I would vote for him!" – from Nursultan Nazarbayev, the autocratic president, will be used on Conservative election posters.

Amnesty says: "Mass detentions followed [protests in 2011] and allegations of torture were credible. Independent media outlets have been branded 'extremists' and closed down."

On Saturday night, J Lo performed at an event hosted by the China National Petroleum Corp, and "graciously obliged", said her publicist, when a last-minute request came in to sing happy birthday to President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov.

It had been hoped that Berdimuhamedov would break with the personality cult regime of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who died suddenly in 2006. Niyazov erected a giant gold statue to himself that revolved so it was always facing the sun, changed the names of the months (naming one after his mother, and another after the title of his book), and built an ice palace in the desert.

Although Berdimuhamedov reversed some of Niyazov's decisions, such as re-opening internet cafes that had been shut down, media is still state-controlled and he presides over a country described by Human Rights Watch as "one of the world's most repressive".

Amnesty says: "Opposition figures, journalists and human rights defenders continued to suffer harassment by the state. Torture and other ill-treatment by security forces remained widespread. In February 2012, Berdimuhamedov was re-elected with 97.4% of the vote."

Last month, five pop stars were banned by the state from performing because they didn't sing songs that "praise the motherland". Strangely, even Gulnara Karimova, the socialite and non-banned pop star daughter of Uzbekistan's dictator Islam Karimov, doesn't sing songs about the "motherland". It's not clear whether Sting, who was paid more than £1-million to perform in a concert put on by Karimova in 2010, also sang songs praising Uzbekistan.

Recent news stories have focused on Uzbekistan's use of forced child labour and human trafficking, and forced sterilisations. Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Uzbekistan the sixth most censored country. Mindful of strategic borders with Afghanistan, the west has dropped sanctions and overlooked human rights abuses, including torture.

Amnesty says: "Human rights defenders and journalists continue to be harassed, beaten, prosecuted and detained. The use of torture and other ill-treatment is frequent."

Access to the internet and sites such as Facebook (described as a "hotbed of slander" by the state after reports of posts criticising the president) are regularly blocked and journalists are targeted. BBC reporter Urunboy Usmonov, who was arrested in 2011, complained of torture. As a leaked WikiLeaks cable from the US embassy in the country put it: "From the president down to the policeman on the street, government is characterised by cronyism and corruption. [President] Rahmon and his family control the country's major businesses, including the largest bank, and they play hardball to protect their business interests, no matter the cost to the economy writ large."

Amnesty says: "Torture and other ill-treatment remains widespread and impunity for perpetrators continues. Freedom of expression was still under attack, despite some liberalisation in the law."

Relatively speaking, the least troubling of the -stans, but by no means perfect. The journalist and human rights activist Azimjon Askarov is serving a life sentence on charges that are seen as politically motivated, and corruption is still a problem, but is improving. Kyrgystan's president was democratically elected – although there were questions raised over the election processes in which Almazbek Atambayev won, the head of the election observer mission sent by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said "we are cautiously optimistic about the future in Kyrgyzstan".

Amnesty says: "While arbitrary arrests of mainly ethnic Uzbeks appeared to have become less frequent in the past year, reports persisted of serious human rights violations."© Guardian News and Media 2013 

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