Dear Foreign Minister,
We write in advance of the upcoming General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) review of European Union policy toward Uzbekistan, to urge you-as an absolute minimum-to uphold the EU's arms embargo as the only appropriate response to the Uzbek government's failure to remedy serious human rights concerns identified by the EU. We believe the EU owes it above all to those human rights defenders whom the Uzbek government continues to harass, intimidate, and imprison in retaliation for their civic activism, in direct defiance of the EU's calls to halt such abuses and release those wrongfully imprisoned.
The Uzbek government's human rights record remains atrocious in all areas covered by the human rights criteria formulated by EU foreign ministers in the various GAERC conclusions, most recently one year ago. Since the GAERC lifted the visa ban last October, the human rights situation has not improved, contrary to predictions by proponents of this move. Quite the opposite, the human rights situation has deteriorated further in the past year-with new attacks on and arrests of activists; continuing, credible reports of torture and ill-treatment of detainees; at least one suspicious death in custody; a compulsory relicensing of lawyers, which the government appears to be using to revoke the licenses of those who defend individuals persecuted on political grounds; and the ban on entry into the country and deportation of a Human Rights Watch research consultant in July, taking the government's obstruction of our work to a new level.
This profoundly negative trend speaks volumes about the Uzbek government's lack of political will to improve its rights record, but also about failed EU policy toward Tashkent.
As noted above, of top concern is the plight of the human rights defenders-currently numbering at least twelve-whom the Uzbek government continues to hold in prison for no reason other than their legitimate human rights work. They are: Solijon Abdurakhmanov, Azam Formonov, Nosim Isakov, Alisher Karamatov, Jamshid Karimov, Norboi Kholjigitov, Farkhad Mukhtarov, Habibulla Okpulatov, Abdurasul Khudainasarov, Yuldash Rasulov, Dilmurod Saidov, and Akzam Turgunov. Many other civic activists, independent journalists, and political dissidents have been also been imprisoned on politically-motivated charges, including the poet Yusuf Jumaev and the opposition leader Sanjar Umarov.
Authorities have arrested at least four activists just since the GAERC last considered Uzbekistan in October 2008, including human rights defender and independent journalist Dilmurod Saidov, arrested in February 2009 on trumped-up charges of extortion and forgery and sentenced on 30 July to 12.5 years in prison. Civil society activists remain the target of constant government surveillance, harassment, and threats.
The country remains closed to independent human rights monitors, including UN Special Rapporteurs who are unable to visit due to the Uzbek government's refusal to issue the required invitations. Currently no fewer than eight special procedures, including the Special Rapporteurs on torture, on human rights defenders, and on extrajudicial executions, have longstanding requests for invitations pending.
The government's approach overall to international institutions remains uncooperative, exemplified perhaps most starkly by its conduct during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in December 2008, when it flatly denied the existence of a number of well-documented human rights problems and rejected as "unacceptable because factually wrong" numerous recommendations that also form part of the EU's human rights demands, including that it should release imprisoned human rights defenders and end harassment and intimidation of civil society activists.
Torture and ill-treatment remain endemic to the criminal justice system and Human Rights Watch continues to receive numerous, credible reports of torture and ill-treatment, while judges routinely ignore such claims and refuse to investigate them. A number of these cases concern imprisoned activists whose treatment Human Rights Watch follows closely, including Yusuf Yumaev, Khusodbek Usmonov, and Alisher Karamatov. The much-touted habeas corpus law, which went into effect in January 2008, remains largely a formality and has done little to bolster the rights of defendants or prevent torture and ill-treatment in detention.
The Uzbek government continues to obstruct the work of human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch. For more than 15 months now, we have been unable to maintain a continuous presence in the country, following the authorities' move first to deny work accreditation and then outright ban entry to the country for our Uzbekistan researcher at the time. On 21 July, 2009, Uzbek authorities took their interference to a new level by denying entry into the country and deporting Human Rights Watch's research consultant upon her arrival at the airport in Tashkent.
Meanwhile, the European Union's position on human rights in Uzbekistan has remained disappointingly weak in the past 12 months. It has been largely silent in the face of Tashkent's deteriorating rights record, creating a disheartening impression of disengagement on concrete human rights challenges while furthering political and economic cooperation, all of which has only served to further embolden the Uzbek government and deeply demoralize and further undermine Uzbekistan's already embattled human rights community. The EU held its annual "human rights dialogue" with Uzbekistan in June 2009, followed by a high-level troika visit to Tashkent in late July and a Cooperation Council in Brussels in September, but failed to use these opportunities to convey publicly its concerns or expectations in the area of human rights. The content of these meetings, and their outcomes, remain obscure, bringing into doubt the EU's commitment to make the advancement of meaningful human rights progress an integral part of its Uzbekistan policy.
We understand a majority of EU member states are currently inclined to respond to Tashkent's intransigence not by reaffirming the EU's reform demands and insisting on immediate rights improvements, but by lifting the remaining sanctions - the purely symbolic arms embargo. Such an outcome would be detrimental to the cause of human rights in Uzbekistan. Lifting the arms embargo in the current situation would send the wrong signal to Tashkent and consolidate the already widely-felt sense that the EU has abandoned any credible attempt to achieve human rights progress through its Uzbekistan policy.
We urge you to seize the crucial opportunity of the upcoming GAERC review of EU policy toward Uzbekistan to express the EU's profound concern about the abysmal state of human rights in the country, and once again urge very specific steps to end abuses. The EU should reaffirm the human rights criteria it has already formulated for Uzbekistan in the various GAERC conclusions, making clear that these criteria are still valid and that their fulfillment constitutes a core objective of the EU's engagement with Tashkent.
The key steps the EU should urge the Uzbek government to take include the following:
- Immediately and unconditionally release all wrongfully imprisoned human rights defenders, journalists, members of the political opposition, and other activists held on politically motivated charges;
- End the crackdown on civil society and allow domestic and international human rights groups to operate without government interference, including by re-registering those that have been liquidated or otherwise forced to stop working in Uzbekistan, and issuing visas and accreditation for staff of international nongovernmental organizations;
- Take meaningful measures to end torture and ill-treatment and the accompanying culture of impunity, including by implementing in full the recommendations of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Committee Against Torture;
- Cease harassment of journalists and allow domestic and international media outlets, including those that have been forced to stop operating in Uzbekistan, to register and grant accreditation to international journalists;
- Allow unhindered access for independent monitors, including UN special procedures that have been unable to visit due to the government's refusal to issue the required invitations, and implement recommendations by independent monitoring bodies, including UN treaty bodies and special procedures.
Any further backtracking by the EU would be absurd given the growing discrepancy between the EU's human rights criteria and the worsening human rights reality on the ground. Furthermore, it would keep the EU on a trajectory of failed policy toward Tashkent at a time when the need to rethink and show resolve could not be more crucial.
The EU introduced sanctions four years ago in response to the Uzbek government's massacre of hundreds of mainly unarmed protestors. However, instead of standing firm in support of justice for the victims of Andijan and the policy objectives spelled out at the time, the EU has squandered every opportunity to use the sanctions to achieve concrete human rights progress. The arms embargo is all that remains and should be the least controversial to maintain. It is a purely symbolic measure, so preserving it requires nothing but a little bit of backbone.
Thank you for your urgent attention to this matter.
Holly Cartner Lotte Leicht
Director EU Director
Europe and Central Asia Division Human Rights Watch
EU Political Directors
Ambassadors to the EU's Political and Security Committee
EU Regional Directors for Eastern Europe and Central Asia
EU Council Working Party on Eastern Europe and Central Asia (COEST)
EU Council Working Party on Human Rights (COHOM)
EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Dr. Javier Solana
European Commissioner for External Relations, Ms. Benita Ferrero-Waldner
EU Special Representative for Central Asia, Mr. Pierre Morel
President of the European Parliament, Mr. Jerzy Buzek
Chair of the European Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights, Ms. Heidi Hautala
Chair of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr. Gabriele Albertini
Chair of the European Parliament's Delegation to the EU-Kazakhstan, EU-Kyrgyzstan and EU-Uzbekistan Parliamentary Cooperation Committees, and for relations with Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Mongolia, Mr. Paolo Bartolozzi