The Uzbek government should fully investigate the kidnapping and severe beating of a human rights defender in Tashkent, Human Rights Watch said today.

Surat Ikramov, of the Independent Group for Human Rights Defenders, was abducted and assaulted on the morning of August 28 as he returned from meeting with a judge about a court date for appealing the conviction of Ruslan Sharipov, an imprisoned journalist and human rights defender. Ikramov told Human Rights Watch that he had been receiving anonymous threatening telephone calls every few days prior to the attack.

“Ikramov has been a fearless critic of the Uzbek government,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “His reports let the world know about human rights abuses in Uzbekistan. We suspect that there may be more to this incident than mere criminal thuggery.”

At about 10:30 a.m. on August 28, Ikramov was driving his car, when a man flagged him down and asked for a lift. When he pulled over, four men in black masks and camouflaged uniforms opened the doors of Ikramov’s car, placed a plastic bag on his head, tied his arms and legs, and put him in their car. The men beat Ikramov in the back of the car and repeatedly restricted his air supply by tightening a belt around his neck to close the plastic bag over his head.

The men drove Ikramov to the outskirts of Tashkent, where they demanded money from him, continued the beating, and then left him by the Chirchik River. Ikramov lost consciousness and only in the early evening was able to get help. Medical staff who later examined him confirmed that Ikramov had two broken ribs and a concussion.

Ikramov had been actively working as public defender for Sharipov, who was recently sentenced to five and a half years in prison for homosexuality and sexual relations with minors. Ikramov argued that the charges were trumped up and the trial unfair, and had organized protests in support of Sharipov. He was helping to organize a peaceful protest outside of parliament, scheduled for August 29, the day before he was attacked. He had also been actively defending Muslims persecuted by the authorities for practicing Islam outside of government-controlled institutions.

“The Uzbek government has a duty to investigate this brutal attack,” said Denber. “The international community should press the Uzbek government to ensure that the investigation is thorough and impartial, and should assess carefully the results of the investigation.”

Human Rights Watch has documented increased persecution of defenders and government critics in the weeks leading up to Uzbekistan’s September 1 Independence Day celebrations. On August 20, a group of women beat the organizer of a protest in Fergana city, Mutabar Tajibaeva, and the other participants in the protest. Tajibaeva has been hospitalized for a week for treatment of her injuries. She was demanding the resignation of a regional prosecutor and other officials, and believes that the authorities organized her beating.

On August 26, police detained Oleg Sarapulov, Ruslan Sharipov’s assistant, along with a friend, after they went to the police station to recover their mobile telephones that had been stolen. Police questioned them in an intimidating manner about alleged sexual activity for money and threatened to press charges against them. Prior to this, they had received anonymous threats over the telephone that they would suffer the same fate as Ruslan Sharipov.

On August 28, the Andijan Province Court pressed criminal defamation charges against a human rights defender, Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, in relation to an article that he wrote on police corruption.

On the morning of August 29, police came to the homes of several people intending to attend the protest that Surat Ikramov had been helping to organize outside the parliament that day and effectively put them under house arrest by preventing them from leaving their homes for the day. Others who managed to get to the area near the parliament were detained, put in buses, driven away, and later released. One activist, Elena Urlaeva, was on her way to the protest when people who later said they were from the National Security Service stopped her car and forcefully dragged her from it, kicking her. They detained her for several hours and later released her.