“The Bank claims that the meeting was a success for openness,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “There were numerous nongovernmental organizations at the meeting, and this is to the Bank’s credit. But we also documented intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders and the political opposition, as well as false reporting on the meeting by the official Uzbek media.”
In the early morning of May 4, police detained a defender, Larissa Vdovina, on the way to a peaceful protest to be held across the road from the EBRD meeting. They took her to a local police station in Tashkent, where she was searched and questioned about the content of the placard that she had with her for the protest. Police threatened to press charges and demanded that she not attend protests. She was released at 3:00 p.m. that day, after the protest had ended.
Human rights defenders and other civic activists told Human Rights Watch that National Security Service officers and other officials approached them at the meeting and questioned them about who they were and why they were there. One defender reported that security officials would not allow her access to the conference venue until they read, in full, the texts of the speech that she was intending to present at one session. Another defender reported that each day when she left the meeting she was followed, and that the police twice questioned her close relatives, at their home, about unrelated incidents without adequately explaining the reason for the questioning.
A member of the outlawed political opposition said that the National Security Service called him at home, repeated what he had said at an EBRD meeting forum, and told him that such statements were not true.
“In a country as repressive as Uzbekistan, it was unrealistic to expect that openness would really be allowed,” said Andersen. “But the Bank chose Tashkent as its venue. Now it should monitor the human rights situation after the meeting and intervene on behalf of those facing persecution for speaking their minds at the meeting.”
Andersen said that as a first step, the Bank should firmly and publicly condemn these incidents of intimidation, already brought to its attention by Human Rights Watch, and make clear to Uzbek authorities that any repercussions against civil society representatives will not be tolerated.
Human Rights Watch said the official Uzbek media again proved incapable of honest reporting on human rights, distorting the words of a speaker criticizing Uzbekistan's human rights record.
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.
Uzbek Radio Youth Channel in Tashkent quoted 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."
“He said nothing of the sort,” said Andersen. “Predictably, the media have been used as a propaganda tool to make it look as though the international community approves of the repressive policies of this government.”
In its new country strategy for Uzbekistan, the Bank itself criticized Uzbek government policies, and set a one-year deadline for improvements in both the human rights and economic spheres, threatening to reduce investment if these improvements are not forthcoming. Meanwhile, a local newspaper, widely distributed at the EBRD meeting, summarized the implications of the strategy as follows: “On 4 March 2003, EBRD approved a new strategy for Uzbekistan, which foresees expansion of cooperation between the Bank and the country.”
High expectations were dashed when President Karimov failed to denounce torture in Uzbekistan in his speech, broadcast live on Uzbek television, to open the EBRD meeting. In the lead-up to the meeting, international press reports stated that the Bank and President Karimov had agreed that he would address the issue in his opening speech. Bank officials tried to salvage the situation by stating afterwards that President Karimov promised in private to take steps to implement reforms to end torture and that he would invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture back to the country. The Special Rapporteur last visited in December 2002.
“A public denunciation of torture by the president, broadcast on live television, would have sent a strong message to the people of Uzbekistan, and that would have been something new,” said Andersen. “A private promise, not even reported locally, is nothing new and easily broken. Karimov’s failure to deliver confirms our concern that the Bank’s leverage would be significantly diminished by the time the meeting took place.”
Human Rights Watch also said that the real test of the Uzbek government’s commitment to cooperating with the U.N. Special Rapporteur is in the implementation of the recommendations of his report rather than in agreeing to see the Special Rapporteur again.
“If the Bank wants to push for further access for U.N. to Uzbekistan, a good place to begin would be to get the U.N. Special Representative on human rights defenders into the country,” said Andersen.
The office of the Special Representative has long waited to gain access to the country.
To read more on human rights in Uzbekistan, please see: