Uzbek authorities have stepped up the use of harsh methods to block peaceful demonstrations and silence political activists prior to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s six-nation summit, which is currently underway in Tashkent.
In recent weeks, the Uzbek authorities have broken up peaceful demonstrations here, arbitrarily detained political activists and their children, and stopped picketers from reaching protest sites by preventing them from leaving their homes. Police have also conducted door-to-door “checks” at the homes of human rights defenders and activists, sometimes ordering them to the criminal investigation department for interrogation. In two cases, unidentified assailants have beaten activists in advance of planned protests; prior threats and pressure from the police suggest the attacks were politically motivated. This crackdown intensified as delegates to the summit began arriving in Tashkent last week.
At the summit on June 16 and 17, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s member states—China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—are discussing increased cooperation on security. According to the Uzbek Foreign Ministry, a key goal of the summit is to intensify the fight against the “three evils of terrorism, separatism and extremism, and drug-trafficking.”
“Ensuring protection for basic human rights, including freedom of speech and assembly, should be a key element toward promoting security in the region,” said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “It’s a commitment Uzbekistan has made under international law. The government should protect people’s right to speak out peacefully.”
Several activists have been warned by police not to demonstrate during the summit. One police officer told Gavkhar Aripova, a political activist and human rights defender, “not to embarrass the country in front of its guests.”
“Uzbekistan has an unfortunate record of stifling dissent, but it shouldn’t be embarrassed by the presence of protesters. Allowing peaceful opposition voices, and allowing protesters to use summits as opportunities to be heard, are signs of a healthy democracy,” Denber said.
There are few outlets for peaceful public expression of dissent in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan has no registered opposition political parties and only two registered independent human rights organizations. The government imposes strict limitations on the activities of unregistered groups. Freedom of the press is severely restricted, and public events are constrained by burdensome permit requirements.
Attacks on Activists
On June 13, two unidentified women beat and kicked Gavkhar Aripova, a human rights defender and a member of the political party Erk (Freedom). The attackers injured Aripova’s kidneys and broke her leg. Warnings and threats Aripova had received from police for her political activities suggest that the attacks were politically motivated. The day before she was attacked, Aripova had been in a police station, where, she said, an officer from the counterterrorism unit warned her, “If you picket tomorrow, we’ll break your legs.” This was not the first attack against Aripova. After she attempted to participate in the demonstration planned for June 1, she was surrounded by four women who punched her in the face asking her why she was “causing trouble” and why she spoke badly about the government.
Bakhodir Choriev, a farmer from Shakhrizabs in southern Uzbekistan, has been trying to stop government efforts to confiscate his farm cooperative. On May 21, unidentified individuals took Choriev from his car, bounded and hooded him, drove him to a remote location outside of Tashkent, where they severely beat him until he lost consciousness. Choriev previously had applied to the Tashkent mayor’s office for a permit to hold a political meeting on June 1 to call for the resignation of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. He reportedly received no reply to his requests for a permit, made on April 20, May 5 and May 20, although officials claim to have issued a rejection of the application. From May 10-21, Choriev conducted daily pickets outside the mayor’s office, demanding a reply to his permit application, sometimes wearing a T-shirt demanding the resignation of President Karimov.
After he was beaten, Choriev declared that he still intended to conduct the political meeting on June 1. In the days preceding the meeting, he received two threatening phone calls. An unknown caller told Choriev that the beating did not appear to have been “enough” and warned him that if he refused to cease his activities his pregnant wife and children would be killed.
On June 1, the morning of the planned meeting, police officers took Choriev’s nine-year-old son into custody and held him at the Khamza district police station for eight hours. Representatives from Human Rights Watch observed that Choriev’s apartment building was surrounded by plainclothes and uniformed officers as well as mahalla (neighborhood committee) representatives, who prevented Choriev and his family from leaving their apartment and Human Rights Watch representatives from approaching the building. Later, police forced Choriev and approximately 18 of his relatives, who had come to Tashkent to attend the meeting, onto a bus and drove them 70 km (40 miles) outside of Tashkent, where they reportedly interrogated them and confiscated their passports. Officials from the counterterrorism department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs confronted participants who arrived at the site of the planned meeting; the officials had a copy of a reply from the Tashkent mayor’s office denying the permit application.
On June 14, police confiscated a poster from Yuri Konoplyov, who frequently attempts to launch peaceful protests, and prevented him from leaving his home to take part in a demonstration in Tashkent to draw attention to human rights problems in Uzbekistan and urge Shanghai Cooperation Organization states to call on Uzbekistan to improve its human rights record. Later that morning, police took several activists into custody as they approached a metro station near Tashkent’s Intercontinental Hotel, where the demonstration had been planned. Five protesters and the 10-year-old child of one protester were taken to the Yunusobad District police station, where they were detained for several hours, questioned about their activities, warned not to demonstrate and released without charge.
In response to a question from Human Rights Watch, officers at the Yunusobad District police station denied holding any protesters in custody, even though a Human Rights Watch representative witnessed a protester being dragged into the station. Police refused to respond to any other requests for information.
That same day, Abdujalil Baimatov, a member of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan who had planned to participate in the same demonstration, was also taken into custody near the hotel and held at the Khamza District police station, where he was charged with minor “hooliganism.” He was only released the next day, on June 15, after a judge issued him an official warning on the charges. Police had previously warned him not to participate in demonstrations (see below).
On June 15, Elena Urlaveva, who had also been taken into custody the day before with the same five activists, was again detained and charged with disrespecting a police officer when she attempted to demand the release of Baimatov. She arrived at the court for her hearing on these charges with a small cut on her head and leg and scratches on her neck and arms, which were reportedly due to rough treatment by the police. Her trial has been postponed.
On June 8, police from the Khamza District police station separately detained Choriev and Baimatov on the morning of a planned demonstration and held them for several hours. Police threatened to bring criminal charges against Choriev and attempted to make him agree to stop his public political activities, telling him if he wants to complain he should do it in writing instead of expressing himself in public demonstrations.