The wrongful detention of a well-known Uzbek dissident in Sweden on Tuesday highlights the lack of a strong European Union policy toward Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch said today.
Police at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport arrested Mohammad Solih, who has political asylum in Norway, at 6:20 a.m. on Tuesday, May 16, when he was on his way to London for meetings with government officials and civil society groups. Swedish officials arrested Solih on an Interpol warrant, based on an extradition request posted by the Uzbek government. They held him overnight, apparently without informing the Norwegian embassy in Stockholm, despite Solih’s Norwegian travel documents. Authorities released Solih the following day, after the Norwegian government confirmed Solih’s asylum status.
“Given the Uzbek government’s notorious record of politically motivated persecution, any such arrest warrant should be viewed with skepticism,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Swedish government owes Solih an apology, and must ensure that safeguards are in place to prevent similar mistakes.”
Solih’s arrest in Stockholm came just one day after EU foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels on May 15, refused to adopt a tougher policy toward Uzbekistan. The decision was taken despite the Uzbek government’s failure to heed an EU call to clarify and hold accountable those responsible for the massacre of hundreds of unarmed protesters in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan on May 13, 2005.
In the year since the massacre, the Uzbek government has instead unleashed a fierce crackdown on civil society, covered up the truth behind the massacre, and presided over a series of show trials of hundreds of people allegedly involved in the uprising and protest that followed. Uzbek authorities have also aggressively sought the forced return of many who fled Uzbekistan after the violence, another known fact that should have led the Swedish officials to question the credibility of the Interpol warrant.
Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental groups had called on the EU to use the meeting this week to expand its visa ban on high-ranking Uzbek government officials “responsible for the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force in Andijan.” Uzbekistan’s president Islam Karimov and other key officials should be added to the list. Human Rights Watch also called on the EU to freeze the assets of those subject to the visa ban, making it impossible for them to use the banking system within the European Union.
In conclusions issued on May 15, the EU ministers “deplore[d] the increasingly serious harassment of human rights defenders,” the “persecution, prosecution and detention of leading opposition figures,” and the “expulsion” of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and of “numerous” nongovernmental organizations. But instead of adopting additional measures, the ministers simply confirmed that the existing sanctions, imposed in October 2005, would remain in place, and that they would be reviewed in October this year.
“The fact that President Karimov can travel freely to Europe while Mohammad Solih remains subject to an Interpol warrant is plainly absurd,” said Cartner. “This incident exposes the utter hypocrisy of EU policy toward Uzbekistan. It is high time that the EU mount a more forceful response.”
Solih was arrested in similar circumstances on a visit to Prague in November 2001, where he had traveled on the invitation of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. A court in Prague heard Solih’s case, dismissed the Uzbek government’s extradition request, and ordered him released. After his release, Solih was received by Vaclav Havel, then president of the Czech Republic, who told reporters that Solih was “a genuine human rights fighter, a democrat and a man unjustly accused.”
“Solih’s ordeal in Prague was already one arrest too many,” said Cartner. “The Swedish government should now do everything in its power to annul the Interpol warrant against him, and declare its support for a firm and principled EU policy toward Uzbekistan.”
Solih is chairman of the Erk (“Freedom”) party, a political opposition group now banned in Uzbekistan. He was the only genuinely independent candidate to challenge President Karimov in the 1991 presidential elections. He subsequently suffered severe persecution, including detention and house arrest, forcing him to flee the country. He received asylum in Norway, and has been living in exile in Europe since 1994.
In November 2000, the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan sentenced Solih in absentia to a 15-year prison term on charges of terrorism and anti-state activities. Human Rights Watch monitored the trial, and found it reminiscent of Soviet-era show trials. No material evidence of Solih’s guilt was presented. Nine of Solih’s co-defendants also received lengthy terms in prison, and two other men were sentenced in absentia to death in the same trial.
Three of Solih’s brothers – Komil, Muhammad, and Rashid Bekjonov – were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 10 to 15 years on politically motivated charges, reflecting the Uzbek government’s policy of “guilt by association”. Relatives of those labeled “enemies of the people” face arrest and, in some cases, lengthy prison terms. According to a human rights activist who served time in prison along with Rashid and Muhammad Bekjonov, the brothers were subjected to particularly harsh treatment, including repeated torture, by prison authorities.