June 3, 2003
On May 14, the State Department certified that Uzbekistan made “substantial and continuing progress” in meeting its human rights and democracy commitments under the “Declaration on the Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework,” signed in March 2002. This certification is required to release U.S. assistance to the Uzbek government. While some events cited by the State Department to justify the certification were indeed positive, few met the test of substantial and continuing progress required by law. In many areas outlined below, progress was outweighed by significant setbacks for reform. Below we outline setbacks that have occurred since the August 26, 2002, State Department certification.
What the Department of State says: “The Government of Uzbekistan conducted an amnesty from December 2002 to March 2003. A number of prominent political prisoners were released under the amnesty including political activist Yuldash Rasulov and Komil Bekjonov, the brother of opposition party leader Muhammad Solikh who is living in exile outside of Uzbekistan. According to the Government, 923 prisoners arrested for crimes against the constitution (whom we consider political prisoners) have been released under the amnesty; some were reportedly prisoners of conscience. There were likely other political prisoners, held under other provisions of law, who were also released under the amnesty and about whom we have no information.”
The reality: The release of some political and religious prisoners, including the key cases cited by the State Department, is welcome. But the State Department’s assessment masks the ambiguous nature of the amnesty. The amnesty, which is an annual event in Uzbekistan, is useful to the Uzbek government because it temporarily relieves prison crowding while allowing authorities to maintain a façade of tolerance. It is used only under certain conditions, and applies to too few prisoners. Most important, it does not change the pattern of arbitrary arrests that led to the high number of prisoners in the first place.
About 60 more religious and political prisoners benefited from this year’s amnesty compared to amnesties of past years. Still, only a small proportion of political and religious prisoners were released, but their release was conditional. Amnesties require prisoners to “repent, ” and prison authorities are tasked with ensuring “repentance.” Prison authorities carry out this task arbitrarily and often use torture or ill treatment to punish prisoners who do not comply. Human Rights Watch has heard numerous such complaints from relatives of those not amnestied, as well as of letters sent by religious prisoners to Uzbek authorities asking for a review of their cases. When prisoners went on hunger strikes to protest the refusal of prison authorities to send these letters, they were beaten, moved to punishment cells, and sent to different prisons with harsher conditions.
The Uzbek government has provided no list naming the prisoners who have been released. Some of the amnestied prisoners, once released, faced continuing harassment or were rearrested. Moreover, the Russian human rights group Memorial estimates that 20 people per month continue to be arrested for religious or peaceful political activities in Tashkent and the Fergana Valley. According to case work documented by Human Rights Watch’s Tashkent office, 27 people were convicted and there were 19 new arrests for religious reasons from January through March 2003. As the State Department acknowledges, an estimated 6,000 estimated political and religious prisoners remain.
These policies of continued persecution followed by periodic amnesties send a message to the Uzbek people that remains unambiguous and unchanged: If you dissent, you will be arrested. Only obedience and repentance will keep you out of prison.
Benchmarks for substantial and continuing progress:
- Make public a list of those released under the amnesty;
- End arrests based on political or religious reasons; and
- Release unconditionally all who are imprisoned on charges based on nonviolent religious or political activity.
What the State Department says: “The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Theo van Boven, visited Uzbekistan from November 25 to December 6, 2002. According to the Special Rapporteur, he received adequate cooperation from the Government of Uzbekistan, although he had problems visiting two prisons. In March 2003, he released his report publicly, which concluded that torture in Uzbekistan is systemic. The visit is an indication that the Government of Uzbekistan has become more willing to discuss torture. We are discussing with the Government of Uzbekistan implementation of the recommendations of the Rapporteur and the Government of Uzbekistan has committed itself to fighting torture. In March 2003, an official of the Presidential Apparat issued the highest level public statement to date committing the Government of Uzbekistan to eradicating torture.
“As reported in the last determination, even before the Special Rapporteur’s visit, the Government of Uzbekistan had taken steps to combat torture. It convicted seven police officers last year for torturing, and one for planting evidence on suspects. On April 16, 2003, an Uzbek legal aid lawyer, Ildar Shayfiev, won a civil court case against two policemen who beat him last May and against an official complicit in pressing frivolous charges against him. This is the first confirmed successful civil suite against police in Uzbekistan.”
The reality: Contrary to the State Department’s assertion, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture van Boven has made clear he did not receive adequate cooperation from the government of Uzbekistan. Following his trip, he said that he was “seriously disturbed” by the government’s refusal to grant him access to a key prison in Tashkent. In April, 2003, he told the U.N. Human Rights Commission that “the mission’s terms of reference were not fully respected” by the Uzbek government. Mr. van Boven was allowed to visit Jaslyk prison, known for its harsh conditions, for only two hours. The two prisons the State Department says he was unable to visit are known for being the most notorious centers of torture and ill treatment in the country.
The government of Uzbekistan may be “discussing” the implementation of the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations, but it has yet to actually follow through on any. Acts that have not yet occurred should not be cited as examples of substantial and continuing progress. Moreover, the Uzbek government has rejected van Boven’s finding that torture is systematic; if the government cannot accept a frank assessment of the scope of the problem, it is hard to have faith in its commitment to reform.
President Karimov had been widely expected to condemn torture during a speech made on May 4 at the annual meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). He failed to do so. Condemnation of torture, then, as the State Department admits, remains limited to unnamed officials “of the Presidential Apparat” – again, hardly a sign of substantial progress.
The State Department also cites recent successes in the prosecution of torturers as a positive step. The convictions it cites, however, took place before the time period that its certification covers, and no trials have occurred since then. In the same time period, the authorities have investigated none of the torture cases Human Rights Watch has documented. The civil suit won by legal aid lawyer Ildar Shayfiev is a positive step because the officers involved admitted guilt, but it was won by “reconciliation” and no damages were paid. This case, if it is the only one that occurred from August 2002 to April 2003, is hardly an example of significant progress in holding police accountable for torture.
Meanwhile, as the State Department acknowledges, torture is systemic in Uzbekistan and will remain so until widespread changes are made by officials at the highest levels of government.
On May 15, the day after the State Department’s certification, Orif Ershanov, detained by the Uzbek National Security Service on suspicion of belonging to the banned Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), died in custody. Witnesses who saw the body told Human Rights Watch that it had heavy bruising to the arms, shoulders, upper chest, legs and soles of the feet. There were open wounds to one arm and his back. Several ribs were broken. Photographs obtained by Human Rights Watch confirmed these injuries. Witnesses also reported that there were indications that objects such as needles had been forced under the fingernails.
Human Rights Watch has gathered a number of other recent reports of torture. For example:
- In April and May, seven prisoners at Jaslyk were allegedly put into punishment cells, where they were beaten, deprived of food, and threatened with death;
- At this time, another prisoner was continuously raped by cell mates with the guards’ tacit approval. He was later forced to write that the rapes had not occurred and moved to the Tashkent prison hospital;
- Three men were detained by Tashkent police on charges of homosexual acts. One was held for ten days and beaten; and
- Since the end of August 2002, at least six prisoners died in custody from what appears to be the result of torture and ill-treatment.
Benchmarks for substantial and continuing progress:
- Implementation of key recommendations of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, including the introduction of habeas corpus, the provision of legal counsel to detainees within 24 hours of arrest, and an end to the use of confessions obtained through torture or without the presence of legal counsel in legal proceedings;
- Bringing criminal charges for acts of torture cited in the report of the Special Rapporteur; and
- Publication of the report or a summary of it in mainstream Uzbek media and official journals for law enforcement and judicial agencies.
Religious and Political Persecution:
What the State Department says: “It appears that the Government of Uzbekistan is taking a more subtle approach to fighting Islamic extremism. In addition to the amnesty, new sentences for Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) members are lighter. (Two years ago, a person convicted of membership in HT was usually sentenced to 12-19 years. Over the past year, average sentencing was 7-12 years.) In the months following November 2002, new arrests of HT members have come to a near standstill and the number of other politically motivated arrests is also declining. In 2002 an estimated 600 politically motivated arrests were made, compared to about 1,700 in 2001.”
Reality: Freedom of conscience is a fundamental right. It is difficult to understand how sentencing people to 7-12 years in prison for peacefully expressing their religious and political beliefs proves a more “subtle” approach to anything. Indeed, it is disturbing that the State Department would cite prison sentences of this length as an example of substantial progress towards respect for human rights, simply because average sentences were once even longer. This sends a terrible message to the government of Uzbekistan, and to persecuted dissidents in the country.
The decrease in the number of arrests may appear positive at face value. It could, however, be attributed to a number of other factors, such as the decreased number of Uzbeks willing to voice their political and religious beliefs due to fear of such arrests. Despite the more than 50 percent decrease in political arrests, the 600 recent arrests cited by the State Department nonetheless constitute approximately 10 percent of current political and religious prisoners. Each and every one of those arrests adds to the total of people unjustly prosecuted in Uzbekistan. Each is proof of the Uzbek government’s continued determination to imprison people for exercising their religious and political beliefs outside state controls. Each is a step in the wrong, not right, direction.
Benchmarks for substantial and continuing progress:
- End arbitrary arrests;
- Amend the 1998 religion law to decriminalize proselytism; and
- Decriminalize leafletting.
What the State Department says: “The Government of Uzbekistan has allowed a banned opposition movement, Birlik, to continue to hold regional congresses in preparation for registering as a political party in the upcoming year. Several congresses have been held since September 2002, most recently on April 20, 2003, in Kashkadaryo and on February 15, 2003, in Jizzak. Birlik is preparing for a national congress to be held in May.”
Reality: Meetings by Birlik Party activists are a positive sign. However, the government continues to deny Birlik the right to register as a legal political party. The party leader, Abdurahim Pulatov, is in exile and cannot return. Moreover, prominent Birlik member Pulat Akhunov, who had returned to Uzbekistan following President Karimov’s appeal to emigres last year, had to go back to Sweden recently after spending only two months in the country due to pressure from the authorities and threats of criminal charges against him. No other opposition political party has been able to conduct even the highly limited activities Birlik has, much less to operate legally.
What the State Department says: “The Government of Uzbekistan has also made some attempts to broaden religious education opportunities. Religious authorities have begun to occasionally visit schools to discuss Islam with the pupils. Former Mufti Mohammed Sodiq, who was out of favor with the Government of Uzbekistan and is still viewed with suspicion by many in the Government of Uzbekistan, has begun visiting outlying towns and cities to speak with youth and has been allowed to publish a book on Islam. Officials have gradually expended the officially approved list of Islamic literature to include additional works published in Arabic.”
Reality: Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm that religious authorities have been visiting schools. However, imams, Muslim religious leaders, have been sent to prisons, where they warned prisoners against the dangers of “extremism.” Prisoners who argued with the imams were sent to punishment cells.
Freedom of the Press and the Internet:
What the State Department says: “Following the abolition of pre-publication censorship, there has been an increase in critical reporting in the Uzbek media. Although there have been incidents of governmental harassment and arrests of reporters, the press has become more open, with new newspapers appearing and more real reporting taking place. For example, regional Uzbek television stations reported the full contents of Assistance Secretary Jones’ press conference on January 24, 2003, including criticisms about the Government of Uzbekistan’s human rights record. A national daily likewise reported Ambassador Herbst’s strong criticism of Uzbekistan’s human rights record in an April 17, 2003 speech.”
“In October 2002, the Government formally ended its official monopoly of the internet. In the past, all Internet service providers were required to route their connections through a state-run server, Uzpak. The end of the Uzpak monopoly should stimulate more competition in the Internet sector, making it easier for people to access sites on the internet, though the Government of Uzbekistan has not renounced the filtering of content. Access to some opposition and independent media websites remains blocked.”
Reality: Human Rights Watch is pleased that the government has made some gestures that loosened restrictions on freedom of the media, such as the airing of the unedited speech by Assistant Secretary Elizabeth Jones. Unfortunately, too few such incidents have occurred to demonstrate that “real” reporting is taking place. The state-controlled media continues to deliberately misquote or even fabricate statements by outside critics of the government. Journalists continue to be harassed, fired, beaten, and arrested. For example:
- On May 4, Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch’s executive director, spoke on a panel at the EBRD meeting. He strongly criticized Uzbekistan's poor human rights record and the Bank's failure to use maximum leverage to push for reform in advance of the meeting. However, the government-controlled Uzbek Radio Youth Channel in Tashkent misquoted Roth that day as saying: "The fact that the EBRD annual meeting is being held in Tashkent shows that international financial institutions, in particular the EBRD, highly rate the economic reforms in Uzbekistan. The forum will be another opportunity to draw the attention of other international institutions and donor countries to that country."
- The Uzbek media grossly misquoted comments by Claire Short, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Development, reacting to President Karimov’s speech to the EBRD meeting. Uzbek media reported that her speech, “stressed Uzbekistan's aspiration to move towards progress, regional integration, supremacy of the law, giving freedom to nongovernmental organizations and the government's accountability to people. This is pleasing.” According to reliable sources present at the time, she said nothing of the sort.
- An Uzbek television official was fired for airing unflattering footage of President Karimov during the EBRD meeting;
- The chief editor of the weekly independent newspaper Huriyat was fired in March from his position as chief editor and from his position as the head of the National Press Center. Prior to being fired, he had allowed an article about homeless children to be published. He had been reprimanded earlier for publishing an article that criticized the cotton industry. He is the third chief editor to be fired since 1997;
- On February 22, police in Tashkent detained Oleg Sarapulov, an assistant to an independent journalist who publishes his material on the Internet. They held him for two days without access to a lawyer or family and friends. Sarapulov told Human Rights Watch that police questioned him about two articles critical of the Uzbek government in his possession and accused him of distributing these to others. The articles, by U. Khaknazarov and found on CentrAsia website, have become well known in Tashkent since January for their critical commentary on the inner workings of the Uzbek government. Sarapulov also told Human Rights Watch that police planted Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets on him, and that he fears he may later face criminal charges.
- Lutfalla Mamasoliev, a correspondent for the “Voice of Uzbekistan,” was arrested in February for taking bribes. He believes that he has been targeted for criticizing the Hokim of the Samarkand province. He is currently free on bail;
- Majidum Abduraimov, a journalist who was imprisoned in 2001, remains in detention under poor conditions;
- Olim Toshev, a former journalist and member of a human rights nongovernmental organization, is facing charges that he believes are in retaliation for critical writing in the past. His trial began in April and is ongoing.
- The newspaper Vremya i My, closed down in March, partly due to financial problems, but also due to government pressure;
- Two stringers working for Radio Free Europe and Voice of America were beaten by men allegedly acting under orders of the Tashkent city police. The two journalists had been covering a women’s protest in Tashkent in March. Their recording equipment and taped interviews were taken by the attackers. Uniformed police officers standing nearby had looked on without attempting to stop the assault.
Benchmarks for substantial and continuing progress:
- Investigate attacks on journalists and bring to justice those found responsible;
- Reopen papers closed since Spring 2002, when censorship was allegedly “lifted;”
- End the practice of calling chief editors of newspapers into the office of the presidential administration to tell them what articles they should allow to be printed in their newspapers; and
- Open Internet access to websites run by political opposition parties and movements.
Human Rights and Civil Society Organizations:
What the State Department Says: “The Government of Uzbekistan registered Ezgulik, an independent human rights NGO, on March 19, 2003. This is the second independent Uzbek human rights NGO registered. None had been registered at the time of the Declaration.”
Reality: The registration of another human rights group provides more legal space for activists willing to express their opinions. Unfortunately, this is a right extended to too few groups. Many human rights organizations remain unregistered, which leaves their members open to prosecution, and the Uzbek government continues to persecute human rights defenders and obstruct human rights work. In the last year alone, six human rights defenders belonging to just one unregistered human rights group, the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU), have been imprisoned and numerous others have been subjected to police harassment, beatings, false charges, and even forced psychiatric detention. Four of those arrested in 2002 remain detained. In addition, human rights activists, including those who belong to registered groups, have been targeted with numerous incidents of harassment and abuse. For example:
- In September 2002, Jakhangir Shosalimov, a member of the International Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan was arrested after accompanying a journalist to interview a man who was a victim of police violence and witnessed a spontaneous marketplace demonstration that broke out after police beat this man and his pregnant wife. He was sentenced to fifteen days of detention for “breaching public order;”
- Abdulsalom Ergashev, a rights defender in the Fergana region, was unable to bring a group of fellow activists to Tashkent in November after his driver’s license and car registration papers were stolen. The circumstances of this theft are suspicious – Ergashev had left his vehicle for only several minutes, and the incident occurred immediately before his anticipated departure;
- In January 2002, Nikolai Mitrokhin, a researcher with the Russian human rights group Memorial, was deported from Uzbekistan. He was not told why he was deported, and was denied entry when he attempted to enter the country again, even though he did not need a visa. Mitrokhin had published an article about torture in Uzbekistan several months prior to this incident;
- Rights defender Olga Krasnova, who was campaigning on behalf of Elena Urlaeva (see below), was detained by police immediately before she was to meet Lorne Craner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. She was released later in the day, after the scheduled meeting. Krasnova and Urlaeva had both attended a protest in late August. Krasnova had been detained and beaten by local authorities for attending; and
- Elena Urlaeva, a member of the HRSU was arrested in late August for participating in a protest against rights abuses by the government. Urlaeva and another participant, Larissa Vdovina, after spending one day in police custody, were transferred to the locked ward of Tashkent’s main psychiatric hospital. Urlaeva had been institutionalized before after numerous warnings from authorities to end her human rights work. During her stay, Urlaeva was forcibly medicated. She was released in December, but authorities then filed suit to declare her legally incompetent. Her case is still pending. Police detained Vdovina on the way to a peaceful protest to be held in conjunction with the EBRD annual meeting in Tashkent on May 4, threatening to press charges and demanding that she not attend protests. She was released at 3:00 p.m. that day, after the protest had ended.
Benchmarks for substantial and continuing progress:
- Immediately release human rights defenders Jura Muradov, Musulmankul Khamraev, Norpulat Rajapov, and Tursunbai Utamuratov, pending an impartial review of the charges against them.
- Stop further targeting of human rights defenders for arrest and harassment;
- Register independent human rights organizations such as the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, Mazlum, the Committee of Legal Assistance to Prisoners, and Mothers Against the Death Penalty and Torture; and
- Grant an invitation to the U.N. Special Representative to the Secretary-General on human rights defenders to visit the country, as requested by that office.
What the State Department says: “Since September 2002, ABA/CEELI has been administering a human rights legal clinic at Tashkent State Law Institute. The students received four months of training in human rights conventions and laws as well as advocacy skills. They opened the clinic to the public in February 2003.”
USAID initiated a Civic Advocacy Support Program (CASP) in October 2002. This program will assist selected NGOs to undertake national-level advocacy campaigns on issues such as housing, health, economic opportunity, environment, and social issues. The goal of this program is to involve NGOs and the general public in a dialog with the government and parliament and for them to be able to advocate changes in laws and policies, and their implementation. Although the program has only just begun, NGOs have already begun to establish relationships with government officials and are advocating changes in laws and policies.”
“In October, Freedom House opened a resource center for human rights NGOs. The program supports human rights defenders through an integrated package of assistance of in-country training and technical assistance, financial, and technical support, and exposure to successful strategies used by human rights defenders in other countries. The National Human Rights Center of Uzbekistan and a Member of the Oliy Majlis (Parliament) have agreed to co-chair a series of roundtable with Freedom House. These roundtables will include representatives of government ministries, human rights organizations, and international organizations and embassies. The first roundtable will focus on the recommendations of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture.”
Reality: Assistance to various Uzbek non-governmental organizations and individuals who are in desperate need of financial and other support is always welcomed by Human Rights Watch. However, these efforts do not demonstrate that the Uzbek government, which merely needs to accept the presence of these programs, is making substantial and continuing progress in meeting human rights standards. The only true efforts for reform displayed in this example are those sponsored by foreign governments and agencies.
What the State Department Says: “The parliament will discuss the draft law “On public Foundations” during its April session; this draft, which was prepared with the assistance of the USAID-funded International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), is a significant improvement over earlier drafts and will bring Uzbekistan’s law much closer to international practices. ICNL is also working with the government on the draft laws “On Charitable Organizations” and “Guarantees and Support for Non-Governmental Activity.”
“The parliament will consider at its April session draft laws “On introducing changes and additions to the Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan” and “On elections to Iliy Majlis of the Republic of Uzbekistan.” These draft laws will implement the 2002 referendum calling for the creation of a bicameral parliament. Although the new parliament will be a full-time body, a significant improvement over the current part-time institution, it is too early to say whether it will be a step forward overall.”
Reality: As the State Department acknowledges, it is indeed “too early” to tell whether these measures will in any way improve respect for the rule of law in Uzbekistan. They are at present merely drafts and proposals and not implemented legislation. Reforms that have not yet been approved, much less implemented, should not be cited as “significant and continuing progress.”