The Uzbek government has stepped up its campaign of repression against human rights defenders by arresting a prominent rights activist and vocal critic of the Andijan massacre on the eve of her departure for an international conference in Dublin, Human Rights Watch said today.
Mukhtabar Tojibaeva was arrested on October 7 while preparing to leave for a human rights conference in Dublin. In recent weeks, she had been the focus of growing government pressure due to her human rights work, including her vocal criticism of the government’s May 13 massacre of hundreds of civilians at Andijan.
“This arrest shows the relentlessness of the Uzbek government's campaign to silence independent voices after Andijan,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Uzbek authorities should release Tojibaeva immediately and consider dropping the charges against her, which we believe are politically motivated.”
Tojibaeva is the head of the "Fiery Hearts" club, a human rights organization based in Margilan in the Fergana Valley. Tojibaeva had been invited to participate in an international conference for human rights defenders who are at risk. This conference was organized by Front Line, an international foundation for the protection of human rights defenders based in Dublin. She had been planning to depart Margilan for the Dublin conference the night of her arrest.
At approximately 11 p.m. on October 7, 16 police officers in Margilan stormed into Tojibaeva's house as she was preparing to leave for Tashkent, where she planned to catch a flight toward Dublin the next morning. Several of the officers were wearing masks and wielding automatic weapons and nightsticks.
The Uzbek authorities have charged Tojibaeva with extortion in what appears to be a politically motivated effort to stop her human rights work and prevent her from attending the conference. The charges stem from a dispute Tojibaeva had with an employee of a fish farm she owns. According to Tojibaeva, the employee had previously confirmed in writing that he owed her 1 million sum (approximately US$1,000). He had already repaid her 350,000 sum. Before her trip, Tojibaeva asked the employee to repay the amount still owed. On October 7, he came to Tojibaeva's house and repaid her 250,000 sum. The police then burst in, accusing Tojibaeva of extortion.
"The charges against Tojibaeva appear to be completely spurious,” said Cartner. “The Uzbek government often uses such tactics to discredit human rights defenders and intimidate them into silence," Cartner said.
Tojibaeva has been a vocal critic of the Uzbek government and has spoken openly about the massacre in Andijan. On September 22, she gave an interview to Radio Liberty's Uzbek service, Ozodlik, in which she observed that pressure against the members of her club had intensified since the Supreme Court began the trial of 15 defendants accused of participation in the Andijan events. She also stated her belief that, following Andijan, local authorities had been given orders to silence all independent human rights defenders and political activists. "We do not need a government that does not follow its own laws," she said in the interview.
Previously, police had arbitrarily detained Tojibaeva on May 13, the day of the massacre in Andijan. Tojibaeva had been working with several families of the 23 businessmen who were on trial in Andijan at the time and was planning to visit them that day. That morning, the head of the Department of Social Order of Fergana province’s Ministry of Internal Affairs phoned her and ordered her not to leave her house.
Later that day, several police officers were sent to her house to prevent her from leaving. At 5 p.m., the head of the Anti-Terrorist Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs summoned Tojibaeva, saying he had to speak with her briefly. When she arrived at the police department, authorities detained her but refused to record the arrest officially. Tojibaeva was kept in custody until May 16. In August, police also blocked her from traveling from her home in Margilan to Namangan to work on a case there, turning her back at a police checkpoint between the cities.
The government has denied all responsibility for the hundreds of deaths that occurred when government forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators on May 13 in Andijan. Instead, the government has engaged in an effort to rewrite the history of the Andijan events and has launched a brutal crackdown on human rights activists, independent journalists, and others who have spoken out about the Andijan events and called for accountability. At least a dozen activists are currently imprisoned on politically motivated charges while others have been forced to flee the country in fear for their safety. Other activists have reported increased surveillance, harassment and interference in their work.
Human Rights Watch urged the international community, particularly the United States and EU member countries with embassies in Tashkent, to take up Tojibaeva’s case and call for her and other wrongfully detained human rights defenders’ immediate release. They should also call on the Uzbek government to grant urgent access to Uzbekistan for the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Human Rights Defenders and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.