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Uzbek authorities should immediately release a prominent human rights defender detained in Andijan, Human Rights Watch said today. The defender, Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, has been in custody since May 21. While the charges against him are unknown, Zainabitdinov’s detention appears to be linked to his having spoken out about recent demonstrations in Andijan and the government’s use of force.

The arrest raises serious concerns about a growing crackdown against activists and others in the wake of events in Andijan.

A government-appointed lawyer who visited Saidjahon Zainabitdinov’s family yesterday confirmed that the human rights defender is in government custody. Zainabitditnov is the chairman of the Andijan human rights group Apelliatsia (“Appeal”).

“We are extremely concerned for Saidjahon Zainabitdinov’s safety,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Uzbek government should release him immediately pending an independent review of any charges against him.”

The Uzbek government has a long-standing record of torture, ill-treatment and serious procedural violations against detainees as well as harsh treatment of human rights activists and political opponents.

Zainabitdinov’s family had not had any news of his whereabouts for nearly three days since he went missing on May 21 after a brief trip to Osh, in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Earlier on Monday, a relative had received a call from Zainabitdinov telling his family not to worry because he was “still in Osh.” However, the lawyer who visited the family on Monday after this call confirmed that Zainabitdinov had been arrested on Saturday and is being held in the provincial branch of the Uzbek Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Zainabitdinov’s apparent phone call to his relative raises concerns that he may have been forced to make the call by authorities to prevent his family from knowing his true whereabouts.

Zainabitdinov was present in Andijan during the protests and apparently witnessed the government’s use of violence to disperse demonstrators. Many news reports following the events have quoted Zainabitdinov’s description of the events as well as the human rights, political and economic context in Uzbekistan.

“The government is trying to silence activists through this arbitrary arrest and intimidation,” Cartner said. “The international community must call on the Uzbek government to ensure the safety of Zainabitdinov and other human rights activists who could be subject to repercussions.”

Zainabitdinov had closely followed the cases of people in the region accused of “religious extremism” for their apparent affiliation with Akramia. Akramia refers to the religious teachings of Andijan resident Akram Yuldashev, who was sentenced to 17 years’ imprisonment in 1999 on charges of anti-constitutional activity. Yuldashev called on Muslims to live according to Islamic principles and to donate portions of their income to help needy Muslim families. Zainatbidinov had also worked actively on the case of the 23 businessmen accused of “extremism” whose trial and conviction appeared to have sparked the larger demonstrations in Andijan on May 13.

In December, Zainabitdinov, together with Uzbek law enforcement officials, participated in a study tour to the United States funded by the U.S. embassy in Tashkent. A focus of the trip was cooperation between law enforcement and nongovernmental organizations.

Zainabitdinov’s detention is part of an emerging government crackdown on human rights defenders. According to a report from the Andijan province branch of the human rights group Ezgulik (“Goodness”), authorities last week beat and harassed two Ezgulik members as they conducted independent research on the events in Andijan. Ulugbek Bakirov and Fazliddin Gafurov were on their way to interview witnesses of the Andijan demonstrations and relatives of those killed when they were stopped by three men in plainclothes who followed them in a car without a license plate.

According to Ezgulik, the men got out of the car and asked Bakirov and Gafurov where they were going. One of the men grabbed Bakirov and began hitting him. Gafurov intervened and was also beaten by the men, reportedly suffering a concussion and an injury to his left shoulder.

Authorities in other regions are also cracking down on human rights defenders to silence human rights activities. On Monday, authorities in Jizzakh province summoned several human rights activists for meetings with the prosecutor’s office.

Bakhtior Hamroev, a member of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU), told Human Rights Watch that he received a telephone call from Boltak Usmanov, the Jizzakh city prosecutor, at 9:30 p.m. Monday evening to report to the prosecutor’s office immediately. Hamroev refused to appear without an official summons. At 11:30 p.m. a local police officer appeared at Homroev’s home with a summons for him to appear at the prosecutor’s office at 7:00 a.m. Tuesday morning. The summons does not list a reason for the meeting.

Hamroev also said that activists from other human rights organizations had received orders for similar meetings. Earlier on Monday, Utkam Pardiev, a member of the Independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (IHRSOU) and Mamuljon Azimov, a member of HRSU, were both called to report to local prosecutors’ offices.

Last week the Jizzakh governor had reportedly warned farmers in Jizzakh, who have in recent months staged a series of demonstrations, not to follow the Andijan example.

Last week in the capital, Tashkent, authorities arbitrarily detained several human rights activists attempting to reach demonstrations protesting the government’s use of force in Andijan.

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