The Commission on Human Rights should adopt a resolution condemning the Uzbek government’s appalling human rights record. The resolution should call on the Uzbek authorities to undertake a number of urgent steps required to bring the country closer to internationally recognized human rights standards, including: implementing the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on torture; releasing jailed human rights defenders; registering independent human rights non-governmental organizations and opposition political parties; ceasing informal censorship of the media; and inviting the Special Representative on human rights defenders and the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers to visit Uzbekistan.
In the past few years, the Uzbek government has come under increased pressure from the international community to improve its human rights record. It has responded with positive but halting steps – extending a long-overdue invitation to the Special Rapporteur on torture to visit the country, and registering two independent human rights organizations, in March 2002 and March 2003 respectively. But these gestures have not translated into more systemic change and have been consistently undermined by other setbacks to human rights. As a result, Uzbekistan’s human rights record continues to fall well below acceptable standards. Persecution of human rights defenders. The Uzbek government persecutes human rights defenders and obstructs human rights work, in violation of its international commitments. Since May 2002, it has imprisoned at least eight human rights defenders and threatened and harassed numerous others. Authorities also steadfastly refuse to allow most independent human rights groups to register, restricting their operations and rendering them vulnerable to harassment and abuse.
On August 13, 2003, an Uzbek court sentenced Ruslan Sharipov – an independent human rights activist and journalist – to five and a half years in prison on homosexuality charges. This sentence was later reduced to four years on appeal. Sharipov had been a fearless critic of police corruption and human rights abuse in Uzbekistan. In a letter smuggled out of prison just weeks after his verdict, Sharipov described how the police had tortured him to force him to plead guilty.
On August 28, while preparing for Sharipov’s appeal, his public defender Surat Ikramov of the nongovernmental group Independent Group for Human Rights Defenders, was kidnapped by unknown men in black masks and camouflage uniforms, and severely beaten. He had been receiving anonymous threatening telephone calls every few days prior to the attack.
Uzbek authorities continue to pursue an attempt through the courts to have Elena Urlaeva, a member of the nongovernmental group Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, declared “legally incompetent.” Medical evidence presented in court in September and October claimed that she was “mentally unbalanced” because she made too many complaints to the authorities, some of which were unfounded. At the time of writing the case was on-going.
In a worrisome development, the Uzbek government has also begun imposing new, unjustifiably burdensome registration requirements on international nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch.
Unrelenting torture. Torture and ill-treatment in Uzbek prisons and police precincts remain widespread, and occur with near-total impunity. Since May 2003 alone, Human Rights Watch documented four new deaths in custody apparently due to torture. Torture allegations were raised by defendants and witnesses in seven trials that Human Rights Watch monitored from July to October 2003, involving forty-one men and women charged with non-violent offences connected to their practice of Islam outside of government controls. In all of these cases, the presiding judges ignored the allegations and proceeded to convict the defendants.
Only a handful of police officers and security agents have been brought to justice for torture-related deaths. No such cases were brought in 2003, however, and no thorough and independent investigations were carried out into the torture deaths that occurred in 2002 and 2003, despite extensive international attention and pressure on the government to undertake swift action. Countless reports of torture remain without remedy and no legal safeguards against torture have been introduced, despite persistent recommendations to that effect by international monitoring bodies, including the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture and the Committee against Torture. Uzbek courts, meanwhile, continue to accept as evidence confessions extracted under torture.
In September 2003, the Uzbek government drew up a draft National Action Plan to implement the recommendations of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture. Human Rights Watch and other representatives of the international community commenting on the draft noted that it emphasized seminars and conferences rather than concrete action, and that the schedule allowed for unjustifiable delays for many of the recommendations. A second draft contained the same flaws. A final version was due on November 15 but as of this writing had not yet been circulated by the authorities. The government’s approach to the National Action Plan raises doubts about its will to implement the necessary reforms.
Repressive campaign against independent Muslims. The government’s violent crackdown against independent Muslims, whom the government claims are “religious extremists,” continues unabated, with no progress on the sorely-needed legal reforms that would improve the climate for religious freedom. In the past year alone, Human Rights Watch gathered materials on the trials of hundreds of individuals on charges based on their religious practices and affiliations. Thousands of people remain imprisoned for their peaceful religious activities and we continue to document new arrests at an unrelenting pace.
Crackdown on political opposition and media freedom. Political opposition groups remain unregistered, and face harassment and arbitrary detention for gathering informally or discussing political issues. In recent months, the government increased persecution of members of the opposition Erk (“Freedom”) Democratic Party, as they tried to reactivate the party in preparation for parliamentary elections, scheduled for December 2004. In October 2003 and again in January 2004, the Ministry of Justice rejected registration applications from Birlik (“Unity”), another major opposition group. Violations of press freedoms continue despite the lifting in May 2002 of the official censorship policy.
The Commission on Human Rights should adopt a resolution calling for the Uzbek government to:
- Implement the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on torture. The Commission should call on the Uzbek government to expedite the process of implementing the recommendations issued by the Special Rapporteur on torture following his 2002 visit to Uzbekistan. Among the most urgent reforms required in this regard is introduction of habeas corpus (judicial review of detention). The authorities should be called on to ensure thorough and impartial investigations of claims of torture or ill-treatment, with particular attention to cases that resulted in death, and hold accountable those found responsible for abuse. The government should also be called on to make a declaration under Article 22 of the Convention against Torture recognizing the competence of the Committee against Torture to consider complaints filed by individuals alleging violations of the Convention.
- Release arbitrarily detained human rights defenders. The Commission should call for the immediate release of arbitrarily detained human rights defenders, including Ruslan Sharipov, pending an independent review of any charges or court orders against them. The Commission should call on the authorities to immediately end the persecution and harassment of human rights defenders, including by dropping the legal proceedings against Elena Urlaeva.
- Register civil society groups. The Commission should call for the lifting of restrictions on the operation of civil society groups and push for independent human rights organizations, such as the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, Mazlum, Committee of Legal Assistance to Prisoners, Mothers against the Death Penalty and Torture, and the Independent Group for Human Rights Defenders to be registered without any further delay. These groups all continue to operate “illegally” and remain vulnerable to harassment by authorities because of government restrictions on NGO registration. The government should be required to eliminate obstacles to the registration of international groups as well.
- Register political opposition parties such as Erk and Birlik and cease any harassment against opposition political activists.
- Ensure genuine media freedom, including by allowing papers closed since spring 2002, when censorship was officially lifted, to reopen; ending the practice of summoning newspaper editors to government offices to instruct them what articles they should allow to be printed; and investigating attacks on journalists and bringing to justice those found responsible.
- Reform the 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations to bring it into conformity with the recommendations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued following an analysis of the compatibility of this law with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by the OSCE Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion and Belief published in June 2003.
- Release from custody those convicted solely on the basis of religion-related charges (criminal code articles 216, 216-1, 216-2, 244-1 and 244-2), and cease the arrest of independent Muslims for their religious beliefs and practices.
- Issue invitations to key U.N. human rights mechanisms, including the Special Representative on human rights defenders, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to visit Uzbekistan.