In 1992, the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU) was founded and in 1996 two offshoots, born of dissent within the group, were created: the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan (IHROU) and the Committee for the Protection of the Rights of the Individual (CPRI).1 To this day, the government has refused to register HRSU or IHROU. CPRI, however, gained registration almost immediately, raising suspicions that it enjoyed government patronage. The vast majority of local human rights workers in Uzbekistan are now or were at one point affiliated with one of the country's two major opposition movements: the Erk (Freedom or Will) Party and the Birlik (Unity) Popular Movement.2 Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the government tolerated these organizations; beginning in 1992, opposition political leaders were jailed, "disappeared," blacklisted, or forced to flee Uzbekistan. The party structures largely disintegrated and organized political activity lapsed. Witnesses to government injusticeand often themselves victims of human rights abuses during this period, many political activists began to organize around the cause of human rights.
HRSU claims some 350 members nation-wide, with twenty-five or thirty who actively investigate human rights abuses. Its representatives gather testimony from victims of human rights abuses and their families and collect supporting documentation. HRSU disseminates semi-regular information bulletins and longer reports. Recent work by the organization has included the preparation of several extensive lists of people the group believes were imprisoned on politically motivated charges and a report on the torture of detainees and convicted prisoners. It is particularly active in advocating for the rights of individual victims of rights violations. The group's members write to local officials on behalf of complainants, and arrange and attend meetings between a complainant or family member and relevant government officials to press for attention to a specific case.
The leadership of HRSU is regularly called upon by Western diplomats and international organizations, including the OSCE, to brief visiting delegations and officials on the situation in Uzbekistan.
The other major human rights group in Uzbekistan, IHROU, has produced substantial documentation on the government's crackdown since 1997 on religious Muslims who were independent of state-sponsored Islamic institutions. Through interviews with victims and their families and analysis of documentary evidence, such as court decisions and official results of police investigations, the group's members have compiled detailed case information on politically motivated arrests and other human rights violations against independent Muslims. IHROU representatives have monitored scores of trials of persons affiliated with the political opposition or independent Islam and reported upon the proceedings and due process violations that occurred.
Prior to the confiscation of the organization's computer, the group regularly sent out electronic bulletins updating interested intergovernmental organizations and international rights groups on the status of human rights protection in Uzbekistan. These reports drew on research conducted by the ninety active members the organization claims to have throughout the country. The IHROU disseminated information on topics including politically motivated arrests, torture, and religious discrimination. Recent publications authored by the organization's chairman include a pamphlet entitled "Information against Disinformation."
IHROU's representatives are routinely called upon to brief visiting experts and foreign delegations on the quality and degree of rights protection in the country.
Activists' continued links with opposition politics often blur the government's motives for harassing them. The members of the most prominent rights organizations in Uzbekistan operate with an agenda to create the conditions in which opposition political parties could function freely and legitimately. Thus, rights defenders' affiliations with independent parties and political dissidents, as well as their demonstrated commitment to creating the conditions for a genuine multiparty system and open political arena, make them natural targets for authorities who mistrust and fear such opposition. However, as documented below, those carrying out the recent attacks on members of local rights organizations have made it clear that it is these persons' human rights activities per se that the authorities find objectionable.
In the government's 1999 campaign against rights defenders, Uzbek law enforcement came down hardest on members of the two unregistered human rights groups. These groups' members were actively involved in documenting arbitrary arrests, torture, and unfair trials that took place during the brutal and extensive police crackdown following the February 1999 bombings. In the absence of an independent media that could report suchabuses, these men and women served as an essential link to the international community and foreign press, reporting on the kinds and scope of human rights abuses taking place in Uzbekistan.3
Rights workers also serve as advocates for victims with government authorities. Many victims of human rights abuses are not familiar with government agencies, and do not know where to turn or to whom to appeal when an injustice takes place. Local human rights defenders help them by attending and monitoring trials, and by submitting their appeals to government agencies such as the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ombudsman's office, the Office of the President, the procuracy, and the National Center for Human Rights. They sometimes accompany victims to meetings at these offices to press for attention to their cases.1 CPRI was renamed the Uzbek Section of the Frankfurt, Germany-based International Society for Human Rights (ISHR) in November 1999. As of March 2000, the group's registration under the new name was pending. 2 The Birlik Popular Movement was founded in 1989 and the Birlik Party, which grew out of the Movement, was established shortly thereafter, in 1990. The Erk Party was established in 1990. 3 The Uzbek media do not regularly report on human rights violations in the country. Some representatives of foreign media outlets, however, frequently report on political arrests, religious persecution, and related human rights issues. The BBC World Service has been particularly active in reporting on the government's treatment of political and religious suspects in recent trials. On one occasion, however, police prevented one of the outlet's Uzbek national employees from attending such a trial, and threatened him with arrest when he persisted. The BBC reported the incident to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which issued an apology for the police misconduct and assured the BBC that its representatives would not be harassed again in the course of their duties. Human Rights Watch interview with Louise Hidalgo, BBC London Correspondent, Tashkent July 1999; and Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, Tashkent, July 1999.