Human Rights Defenders Imprisoned as Attack on Civil Society Intensifies
Two Uzbek human rights defenders were sentenced to lengthy prison terms and another was arrested last week, the latest moves in the government’s year-long crackdown on civil society, Human Rights Watch said today.
On June 15, an Uzbek court sentenced Azam Farmonov and Alisher Karamatov, two members of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU) from Syrdaryo province, to nine years in prison. On June 16, another HRSU member from Kashkadaria province, Yadgar Turlibekov, was arrested.
Farmonov and Karamatov were arrested on April 29 and charged with extortion (under article 165 of the Uzbek Criminal Code) in what appears to be a politically motivated effort to stop their human rights work. Farmonov and Karamatov are accused of blackmailing two men, and Farmonov is also accused of illegally running a printing business in his home.
“The Uzbek authorities are again trying to silence dissent by prosecuting human rights defenders,” said Holly Cartner, director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch.
The Yangier City Court tried the two men without the presence of a legal counsel of their choice or their public defender. The authorities in Yangier, about 200 kilometers southwest of the capital Tashkent, did not inform the men’s families about the opening of the trial.
An Uzbek police official quoted in May in Regnum, a Russian language news agency, denied that the arrest of the two men was related to their human rights work. Human Rights Watch said that it was part of a pattern of the Uzbek authorities’ use of criminal charges to silence or punish human rights defenders.
Azam Farmonov, human rights defender sentenced to 9 years in prison on June 15, 2006 © 2006 Human Rights Watch
“The Uzbek government has a long record of harassing human rights organizations that has intensified since the Andijan massacre,” said Cartner. “In some cases, the government presses charges directly related to defenders’ human rights work, and in others it accuses them of extortion or financial misdeeds.”
The sentencing of Farmonov and Karamatov brings to at least 11 the number of human rights defenders known to have been convicted in Uzbekistan in 2006.
Tolib Yakubov, who is the chair of HRSU and Farmonov’s father-in-law, told Human Rights Watch that he had registered as a public defender for the two men on June 6 and spoke to them on June 7 in Havast prison. Both men told Yakubov that law enforcement agents had subjected them to beatings and other abuse to force them to sign blank papers and write testimony which was dictated to them.
Yadgar Turlibekov, human rights defender arrested on June 16, 2006 © 2006 Human Rights Watch
“We are deeply concerned about Farmonov and Karamatov’s safety in custody,” said Cartner. “Torture and ill-treatment are widespread in Uzbekistan. The allegations brought by these two men should be thoroughly investigated.”
On June 12, Erkin Khidirbaev, the chair of the Yangier City Court ordered Yakubov to appear in court, even though he had only four days to read the case materials and had not finished reading them. Yakubov refused to take part in the trial without adequate preparation. When Yakubov and several female relatives of Farmonov and Karamotov met with diplomats in Tashkent to inform them about the alleged torture and the procedural violations, they were followed by government agents in plainclothes. Outside of one embassy, the women were approached by nearly 20 men who said they were from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and asked to see their passports. Farmonov’s mother, an elderly woman, fainted.
Yadgar Turlibekov is preliminarily charged with encroachment on the president of Uzbekistan (article 158) and is currently being held in the Karshi City Department of Internal Affairs. Turlibekov, 69, is an independent journalist and rights defender who for years has monitored human rights conditions for farmers, market traders and independent Muslims who practice their faith outside state-sanctioned religious institutions.
Moreover, in recent weeks authorities in Andijan arrested Ilkhom Zainabitdinov, the son of Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, a human rights defender who was sentenced in January to seven years of imprisonment on charges brought as a direct result of his human rights work and in particular for speaking out about the Andijan massacre.
According to a statement by Col. Alisher Sharipov on the government-run website UzReport.com, Ilkhom Zainabitdinov was charged with forgery and sale of banknotes, excise stamps and securities (article 176 of the criminal code), and with forging documents, stamps and letterheads (article 228).