Uzbekistan: The EU should press for end to persecution of independent civil society voices
With a new round of EU-Uzbekistan human rights talks approaching, International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the International Human Rights Association (IHA) Fiery Hearts Club urge the EU to raise concerns about the unrelenting persecution of independent civil society actors as a matter of priority with its Uzbek counterparts.
The EU should challenge the Uzbek authorities to take meaningful steps to implement recommendations addressed to them on this topic during the recent UN Human Rights Council review of the country, said the two organizations.
“The EU should use its engagement with the Uzbek government to consistently speak out against intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and other critics of the regime and to press for concrete measures by this government to deliver on recommendations for how to change its repressive policies,” stressed Brigitte Dufour, IPHR Director.
The new round of EU-Uzbekistan human rights focused talks are scheduled to take place in Tashkent on 8 November and will be held under the EU’s Central Asia Strategy, which sets out that the EU will engage in a “structured, regular and results-oriented” human rights dialogue with each of the Central Asian governments. This strategy also establishes human rights as a key element of overall relations with the governments of the region, and the EU has committed itself to promoting human rights in all external policies, raising human rights issues vigorously in political interaction with third countries and systematically pursuing country-specific human rights priorities in relations with third countries. As part of this, the EU has undertaken to “make full use” of recommendations from the so-called Universal Periodic Review conducted under the auspices of the Human Rights Council. Uzbekistan was scrutinized under this mechanism earlier this year, resulting in a series of recommendations relating to freedom of expression, association, assembly and other fundamental rights. The Uzbek government formally accepted part of these recommendations and has said it is working on a national action plan for the implementation of the recommendations.
A joint briefing paper submitted by IPHR and the IHA Fiery Hearts Club to the EU ahead of its new talks with Uzbekistan highlights ongoing repression of independent human rights NGOs and independent human rights defenders, journalists and others who criticize authorities in this country. These policies entail e.g. non-transparent and discretionary procedures that allow for arbitrary denials of compulsory NGO registration, surveillance, house arrests, denial of exit visas for travel abroad, defamatory articles in regime-loyal media, summoning and questioning by police, dispersal of small-scale peaceful protests and prosecution and imprisonment on trumped-up charges of “hooliganism”, defamation, extortion, sexual harassment and other crimes. There are in particular serious concerns about the safety and well-being of the more than two dozen defenders, journalists and opposition figures who are currently imprisoned.
“I have been through the Uzbekistan prison experience myself and know all the dreadful details of it. Had it not been for concerted international pressure, I might still have been behind bars as well,” said Mutabar Tadjibayeva, president of the IHA Fiery Hearts Club who was arrested in Uzbekistan in October 2005 and sentenced to eight years in prison in March 2006 but released on a suspended sentence two years later. She now lives in exile in France. “The EU should urgently intervene on behalf of those who are held in prison on political grounds at this time,” continued Tadjibayeva.
As detailed in the briefing paper prepared by IPHR and Fiery Hearts Club, there have been a number of new cases of politically motivated prosecution of activists and journalists in Uzbekistan in the recent period. In reoccurring cases, obscure women have apparently been recruited for the purpose of discrediting and fabricating charges against critics of the regime. In one illustrative example, in December 2012, human rights activists Saida Kurbanova and Nuriniso Kholbaeva from the Djizzakh region were sentenced to 15 days’ detention on “hooliganism” charges in relation to an incident where they were attacked by an unknown woman. In another example, journalist Sergey Naumov was detained for 12 days in September 2013 on “hooliganism” charges brought against him for allegedly insulting and manhandling a woman who assaulted him in the street. His detention came at the onset of the annual cotton harvest, raising suspicion that it was particularly aimed at obstructing his coverage of the use of forced labour in this harvest, which he had been documenting. During last year’s cotton harvest, Uktam Pardaev, a human rights activist known for his efforts to monitor and assist victims of forced labor in the cotton sector, was locked up for 15 days on similar charges.
In another recent trend, activists have been charged because of complaints they have submitted to authorities. For example, Shuhrat Rustamov from the Human Rights Alliance is facing a criminal case on defamation and anti-constitutional activities in relation to complaints he has written to assist a farmer in seeking redress for injustices suffered at the hands of local authorities. In mid-October 2013, he was summoned to court in Tashkent, although he had not been properly informed about the charges against him and procedural documents had been drawn up without his knowledge.
In other recent cases, human rights defenders have been given prison sentences of several years following processes that bear the hallmarks of politically motivated trials. In September 2013, Bobomurod Razzakov from the Ezgulik human rights group was sentenced to four years in prison for trafficking after being threatened with “trouble” if he does not give up his human rights activities. The month before Turaboy Djurabaev, a citizen activist who has spoken out about corruption among local authorities was given a five-year sentence on extortion and fraud charges, which are some of the charges most frequently used to punish critics in Uzbekistan. In March 2013, it was reported that Chuyan Mamatkulov, a member of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU) who first became known in 2005 when he tried to sue President Karimov, had been convicted to 10 years in prison on numerous criminal charges.
A young member of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan, Gulnaza Juldaeshava was sentenced to seven years in prison on extortion charges in July 2012 in apparent retaliation for her efforts to expose the involvement of local officials in human trafficking. She was released in January 2013 under a general amnesty adopted on the occasion of the 20 years anniversary of Uzbekistan's Constitution. The same amnesty was applied to discontinue a criminal case against Gulshan Karayeva, head of the Kashkadarya HRSU regional branch who risked imprisonment on charges of “slandering” and “insulting” two neighbours that had been brought as part of a broader campaign of harassment targeting her and her family.
Hopes for the release of other imprisoned human rights defenders and journalists under the constitutional anniversary amnesty did not realize. Similarly to earlier amnesty acts, it did not apply to prisoners who have “systematically violated” the prison regime, even if they would otherwise meet the requirements for amnesty. Accusations of alleged violations of prison rules are frequently used to penalize those imprisoned on political grounds, thus preventing them from qualifying for amnesty, as well as to prolong their sentences when their terms are nearing an end. An egregious example of this is that of Murad Djuraev, an opposition member first imprisoned in 1995 whose sentence has been prolonged four times since 2004 on charges of “disobeying the legitimate orders of the prison administration.” One of the grounds cited for the charges against the ailing prisoner is that he “did not properly peel carrots” when working in the prison kitchen.
Those imprisoned on political grounds serve their sentences in harsh and dangerous conditions that endanger their health and many of them are known to have been subjected to ill-treatment and torture. Monitors from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have reportedly in several cases not been allowed to meet political prisoners held in facilities they have visited. In April this year, the ICRC announced that it would terminate all visits to detainees in Uzbekistan because it had been unable to operate in accordance with its standard working procedures in the country.
Among the prisoners whose cases are of urgent concern are Azam Farmonov, Abdurasul Khudoinazarov and Dilmurod Sayid. Azam Farmonov from the HRSU is serving a nine-year sentence handed down in 2006 in the Jaslyk prison, which is infamous for its terrible conditions and mistreatment of prisoners. The situation of Abdurasul Khudoinazarov, an Ezgulik activist imprisoned since 2006, has been of particular concern since he tried to commit suicide a few years ago in an apparent attempt to escape verbal and physical abuse. Journalist and human rights defender Dilmurod Sayid, who was given a 12.5 year sentence on extortion and forgery charges in 2009, has experienced deteriorating health in prison due to an acute form of tuberculosis.
Even human rights activists who have fled Uzbekistan due to persecution face intimidation and harassment because of their efforts to draw attention to human rights violations in their native country. Former prisoner of conscience Mutabar Tadjibayeva was the subject of a police investigation initiated by the Uzbek president’s daughter and then UN ambassador Gulnara Karimova this spring. Nadejda Atayeva, who heads the France-based Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, learned in July 2013 that she, her brother and father had been sentenced to prison in absentia in Uzbekistan on embezzlement charges dating back to a criminal case launched against her family in 2000. This case was the reason they fled Uzbekistan. Khasanboy Burkhanov, an advocate of disabled rights who fled Uzbekistan in 2012 has faced years of legal proceedings that he believes are related to his efforts to expose questionable decisions and practices involving government officials in relation to the national Association of Disabled People where he used to work.
For more detailed information and a set of recommendations to the EU for measures to request from the Uzbek authorities, see the full text of the briefing paper by IPHR and the IHA Fiery Hearts Club.
On the same topic, see also: Letter to Members of the European Parliament ahead of Uzbekistan visit