Incidents of government harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders in connection with the annual meeting
- Retribution against Akhmadjon Madmarov, a defender who spoke openly at the annual meeting about the persecution of his family, including the imprisonment and torture of his three sons and nephew, who are religious prisoners. Shortly after the annual meeting, about May 9, one of his sons, Abdullo, was placed in solitary confinement for five months, possibly in retaliation for his father’s critical statements at the meeting. On June 1, Madmarov attended, as an observer, a protest of women relatives of religious prisoners. On June 5, he was summoned to meet with a Margilan city prosecutor. When he arrived, he was told that the people in the room – local neighborhood committee (mahalla) officials, police, and prosecutors – formed a “commission” and the meeting was called to present him with an official warning letter, stating that he would be facing criminal charges if he attended any more protests. Madmarov was also among those interviewed by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture during his visit to Uzbekistan.
- Harassment of at least one member of the Mothers against the Death Penalty and Torture who spoke at the annual meeting. Several weeks after the annual meeting, anonymous callers began asking Dilobar Khudoiberganova why she participated in meetings and conferences. Just prior to the phone calls, the National Security Service had made inquiries with Khudoiberganova’s mahalla about her, and reportedly instructed the mahalla to foster a negative image in the community of her family. On June 10, a National Security Service officer phoned her father, threatening to arrest his son if Khudoiberganova continued her human rights activism.
- The detention of Larissa Vdovina, a defender on her way to a peaceful protest to be held across the road from the annual meeting venue. On May 4, police brought Vdovina to a local police station in Tashkent, where they searched and questioned her about the content of the placard that she had with her for the protest. They further threatened to press charges against her and demanded that she not attend protests. Vdovina was released at 3:00 p.m. that day, after the protest had ended.
- The house arrest of defenders to prevent them from attending the meeting. On May 5 and 6, officers from Shaikhantaur district police station prevented A.A., a registered participant in the EBRD meeting, from attending it. A.A. was among those women relatives of religious prisoners who had attempted to take part in a protest organized in front of the Constitutional Court on the day before the annual meeting opened. On the morning of May 5, officers contacted A.A.’s son and brother-in-law and told them to keep her at home for the rest of the EBRD meeting. They then stationed themselves in a car outside A.A.’s home, making sure she would not leave the house.
- Attempts to block defenders’ access to the meeting venue. In several instances defenders experienced difficulties passing through the security checkpoints set up at the entrance to the meeting venue. At least one defender reported that security officials would not allow her access to the building until they read, in full, the text of the speech that she was intending to present at the meeting.
- Questioning of defenders at the meeting venue: Several civil society representatives told Human Rights Watch that they were approached by National Security Service officers and other Uzbek government officials at the meeting venue itself, and questioned about who they were and why they were there.
- Surveillance and harassment of defenders outside the meeting venue. Several defenders reported being followed when leaving the meeting. Mahbuba Kasymova, Abduhashim Gaforov, Nigmatilla Nazaraliev, and Mutabar Tajibaeva reported being followed by men in cars and on foot throughout the duration of the meeting, and in some cases, up to several days after the meeting had ended. In several instances, the defenders approached the men who followed them, asking who they were and what they wanted, and the men willingly acknowledged that they worked for Uzbek law enforcement authorities. Atanazar Oripov, member of the outlawed political opposition party Erk, reported that the National Security Service called him at home one evening during the annual meeting, repeated what he had said at one of the annual meeting sessions, and told him that such statements were false.
- Surveillance of the offices of Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), a group that took part in the meeting and hosted an event on freedom of expression on May 3. Human Rights Watch noted that someone in a car was watching the offices of the IWPR several days after the annual meeting. The IWPR subsequently informed Human Rights Watch that surveillance of their office started at the beginning of the EBRD meeting in Tashkent and continued for several days after the meeting ended.
- Police harassment and questioning of relatives of human rights defenders attending the meeting. Police apparently on two occasions during the annual meeting questioned one defender’s close relatives, at their home, about unrelated incidents without adequately explaining the reason for the questioning.
In the weeks leading up to the meeting, police threatened at least one human rights defender not to be involved in protests and detained nine individuals in two separate incidents, on April 10 and 17, both in connection with planned protests in front of the Presidential Administration, beating at least one of them.
Police also went to great lengths to control the actions of relatives of religious prisoners to minimize exposure of human rights abuses these prisoners endure. They placed some relatives under house arrest, questioning them about where they were going each time they attempted to leave their homes. Other relatives received visits from National Security Service officers who demanded that they sign statements promising to stay at home and not to protest or make complaints about their imprisoned family members.
National Security Service officers also interfered with a protest organized by relatives of religious prisoners outside the Constitutional Court on May 3, surrounding the area and denying access to women wearing headscarves. Several of the women who had attempted to take part in the protest later received visits by law enforcement authorities, who questioned them about why they had been protesting.
The authorities combined threats with incentives to discourage relatives of religious prisoners from exposing the conditions their family members suffer in prison. On May 4, law enforcement authorities approached A.B. and warned her that it would be “very bad for her husband” if she were to attend any protests in the near future, and subsequently arranged an impromptu three-day permit for A.B. to visit her son, who is imprisoned on religious charges. The visit started on May 6, but was abruptly ended after only ten hours. When A.B. asked why she would not be allowed to stay for the full duration of the permit, the prison authorities answered, “The guests have left.”
In another incident, approximately fifty relatives of religious prisoners met with Rajab Kadirov, head of the prison administration under the Ministry of Internal Affairs (GUIN) on April 7, who assured them that he would see to it that conditions in prisons would improve in a month. On May 5, a group of relatives again went to the prison administration to discuss conditions in prisons, and were told to come back two days later. When they returned on May 7, Mr. Kadirov apparently shouted at them for coming. When the relatives pointed out to him that he had invited them to come back, he apparently answered, “That was then.”
Human rights developments since the annual meeting
The weeks since the Bank’s annual meeting have been marked by a series of serious setbacks to human rights. We have documented two new torture-related deaths; the arrests of two defenders for what appear to be politically-motivated reasons; and five trials in Tashkent alone against some twenty-three independent Muslims on religious charges; in four of the trials defendants made allegations of torture. Below is a more detailed description of these setbacks, organized according to the three human rights benchmarks set in the Bank’s country strategy for Uzbekistan.
1. Greater political openness and freedom of the media
Anyone who had a chance to read the heavily distorted coverage that the annual meeting received in local media would be left with no illusions about the state of media freedom in Uzbekistan. The following local newspaper summary of the implications of the Bank’s country strategy for Uzbekistan is illustrative: “On 4 March 2003, EBRD approved a new strategy for Uzbekistan, which foresees expansion of cooperation between the bank and the country.” Human Rights Watch itself became the target of false reporting when its executive director, Kenneth Roth, was quoted in Uzbek Radio Youth Channel on May 4 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.”
As was widely reported soon after the annual meeting, Akhmadjon Ibragimov, a producer for Uzbek state television, was fired for airing unflattering footage of people sleeping during President Karimov’s speech and of President Karimov himself during the opening session of the Board of Governors’ meeting. Two cameramen were also reprimanded for the same footage. Ibragimov has since been reinstated in his post, but only after an extensive international media and diplomatic outcry protesting his dismissal. On May 29, a letter signed by Ibragimov appeared on CentrAsia, an internet website with news from Central Asia, claiming that he was never fired and accusing journalists of sensationalism and publishing unconfirmed information. There are questions surrounding the circumstances under which the letter was written.
A journalist from state-owned Uzbek television Channel 4 was threatened with dismissal for taking part in a protest about the above incident. The journalist held her own placard at the protest urging the government to end censorship. Several days later her director demanded that she write a letter of resignation. When she refused, he threatened to fire her.
Another local journalist, Bobomurod Abdullaev, reported receiving email threats and learning about police and security service visits to his neighbors to question them about his activities after signing an open letter to the EBRD about human rights abuses in Uzbekistan.
Several journalists, arrested or convicted before the annual meeting, remain in prison or continue to face criminal proceedings. Olim Toshev, a former journalist and member of a human rights NGO, is facing charges that he believes are in retaliation for critical writing in the past. His trial began in April and is ongoing. Lutfalla Mamasoliev, a correspondent for Voice of Uzbekistan, was arrested in February for taking bribes, but is currently free on bail. He believes that he has been targeted for criticizing the hokim, or governor, of the Samarkand province. Majidum Abduraimov, a journalist who was imprisoned in 2001, remains in detention under reportedly poor conditions.
National Security Service agents warned the Hotel Ravshan not to allow the unregistered political party Erk to hold a conference on its premises, planned for June 15. Erk was ultimately able to arrange an alternative venue, but political opposition groups remain unregistered, and continue to risk harassment and arbitrary detention for gathering informally or discussing political issues.
2. Registration and free functioning of independent civil society groups
Despite the openly critical discussions during the Bank’s annual meeting focusing on the Uzbek government’s poor human rights record, the overall environment for civil society in Uzbekistan has not improved. On the contrary, the weeks since the meeting have seen the arrests of two human rights defenders, one of whom remains detained.
On May 26, police arrested Ruslan Sharipov, an independent human rights activist and journalist known for his critical articles on police corruption and human rights abuses. The same day, police also arrested Sharipov’s colleague, Oleg Sarapulov, and his partner, Azamat Mamankulov. Shortly after arresting Sharipov, police beat him and threatened to rape him.
Sarapulov and Mamankulov have both since been released, but Sharipov remains in detention and is being charged with having committed homosexual acts (article 120 of the criminal code). Police are reportedly also looking into allegations that Sharipov had sex with two male minors for money.
Sharipov’s longstanding history of criticizing government policy, coupled with past harassment against him and his colleagues, raise strong suspicions that the case against him is politically motivated. Sharipov himself believes the case is being fabricated in retribution for articles he wrote exposing police corruption.
Sharipov’s arrest brings to five the total number of detained human rights defenders in Uzbekistan: Jura Muradov, Musulmankul Khamraev, Norpulat Rajapov, and Tursunbai Utamuratov, all members of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU) and arrested in 2002, remain in prison.
Uzbek authorities continue their efforts to compel Elena Urlaeva, also of HRSU, to end her activism by attempting to have her declared “legally incompetent” by a court. Urlaeva was released in December from a locked ward of the main psychiatric hospital in Tashkent, where she was confined for four months, denied visits, and subjected to forced medication in retribution for her human rights activities.
Police officials have interfered with small protests organized by HRSU. At demonstrations in June, police ripped up placards that criticized President Karimov and warned demonstrators of the consequences of continuing such criticism.
All but two independent national human rights groups – the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan and Ezgulik, registered in March 2002 and March 2003 respectively – remain banned and vulnerable to harassment by the authorities.
3. Implementation of the recommendations of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture
Two new cases of deaths in custody have come to light since the Bank’s annual meeting, bringing to ten the total number of torture-related deaths in custody documented by Human Rights Watch in the past eighteen months.
Otamaza Gafarov died from torture at Chirchik prison in northern Uzbekistan on May 3, on the eve of the annual meeting. Family members who helped to wash his body told Human Rights Watch that they observed a large wound to his head that appeared to have been caused by a sharp object. There was also bruising to the back of his head. Gafarov’s rib cage, chest, and throat were also bruised, and his hands were scratched. When his family retrieved his battered body on May 5, prison authorities told them that he died of a heart attack, although one guard told the family that Gafaraov’s death “happened differently.” Gafarov was nearing the end of a seven-year prison sentence for what his family believes to be trumped-up charges of stealing state property. He was due to be released in September.
Orif Ershanov, a father of four, died in National Security Service custody in the southern city of Karshi on May 15. 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. Authorities, meanwhile, claimed that Ershanov had become sick while in National Security Service custody, and was taken to the hospital, where he died two days later.
No known investigations have been opened into these deaths, and calls from the international community to the Uzbek government to allow for an independent forensic examination of both bodies have so far yielded no results.
Human Rights Watch continues to receive credible allegations about torture of detainees. A prisoner at Jaslyk, one of the country’s most notorious facilities, told his wife that new prisoners arriving on May 17 were severely beaten during the intake process. Also, as noted above, four defendants convicted or currently on trial on religious charges made allegations in court that they had been tortured. In two of the cases, the judge questioned the alleged perpetrators, but it is unclear whether a thorough investigation will follow.
President Karimov failed to condemn torture in his speech during the opening session of the Board of Governors’ meeting – the only one reaching the Uzbek public undistorted. President Karimov was apparently more forthcoming in subsequent private discussions with Bank officials, and has agreed to invite the Special Rapporteur on Torture back to the country. While welcome, the real test of the Uzbek government’s commitment to combat torture and cooperate with the Special Rapporteur is in the implementation of his recommendations, rather than in agreeing to see him again. The Special Rapporteur’s recommendations are very clear on what needs to be done. More than three months since the report’s publication, however, Human Rights Watch is not aware of any progress by the Uzbek government in implementing any of them.