“Terrorism is not a legitimate excuse to lock up political opponents,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in a speech at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan. (Brendan Smialowski/via AFP)

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Monday that repressive measures against political opponents in the name of fighting terrorism only breed more extremism — his most direct public remarks on human rights issues during a swing through Central Asian countries, among the most autocratic in the world.

Kerry made his comments ­during a foreign policy speech
at Nazarbayev University, an ­English-language school named after the authoritarian president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. According to the State Department’s human rights report on the country, the president holds control of the legislature, the judiciary, and the regional and local governments. Elections in Kazakhstan are neither free nor fair, and there are restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion and association.

Russia has expressed concern about spillover from the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan into the five nations of Central Asia, all former Soviet republics. More than 5,000 militants from Central Asia are suspected to have joined Islamic State militants fighting in Syria.

Kerry told an audience of several hundred university students that the threat of terrorism does not give authorities license to use violence and repression.

“Terrorism is not a legitimate excuse to lock up political opponents, diminish the rights of civil society or pin a false label on activists who are engaged in peaceful dissent,” he said. “Practices of this type are not only unjust but counterproductive; they play directly into the hands of terrorists. When the pathways to nonviolent change are closed, the road to extremism becomes more inviting. Given all the suffering we have witnessed in recent years, that is simply not acceptable.”

Kerry spent Monday in Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, which looks like a cross between Las Vegas and Brasilia. Nazarbayev built the capital in the snow-swept steppes of central Kazakhstan in 1997. Today it is filled with new high-rise government buildings that display multi-story videos on the facades. There are virtually no people on the streets, however, and many residents with money fly to the old capital, Almaty, on weekends.

State Department officials said Kerry’s remarks at Nazarbayev University reflect the message he is delivering privately to the leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. His public remarks, however, have been more cautious. On Sunday in Uzbekistan, Kerry spoke only of the need to discuss the “human dimension.”

On Tuesday, he is due to visit Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

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