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The Uzbek government’s unrelenting persecution of human rights defenders warrants urgent action by the international community, Human Rights Watch said today. On Monday, European Union officials are scheduled to begin a series of meetings with Uzbek authorities in Tashkent.

In an online facebook of Uzbek human rights defenders published today, in anticipation of International Human Rights Day, which falls on December 10, Human Rights Watch catalogues their courageous work and the multiple methods the Uzbek government employs to silence and punish them.

The Uzbek government uses methods that range from intimidation, threats and harassment to physical attacks, imprisonment and torture. Numerous civil society activists – including human rights defenders, independent journalists, and members of the political opposition – have been beaten by unknown assailants, threatened by local authorities, set upon by mobs, and placed under house arrest.

“The international community must step up its efforts to protect Uzbekistan’s embattled civil society if it is to survive,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Uzbek government has a long record of repressing civil society, but we haven’t seen a crackdown of these proportions since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union.”

In the past year alone, at least a dozen defenders have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms on politically motivated charges. Some have seen their relatives detained, in apparent retaliation of their human rights work. Others have had to stop their human rights work or flee the country altogether following threats to their lives and those of their loved ones. Yet many human rights defenders in Uzbekistan continue important research and advocacy work to press for improved human rights conditions in their country.

The European Union’s meetings next week with Uzbek authorities in Tashkent provide an excellent opportunity to intervene forcefully on behalf of Uzbekistan’s human rights community, Human Rights Watch said.

EU officials should use their meetings to demand an end to the crackdown on civil society so that human rights organizations can continue their work unfettered, and secure commitments to the release of all jailed human rights defenders and their relatives. They should also meet with civil society activists and consult with them on a continuous basis to ensure EU policy reflects and addresses their needs.

“Reaching out directly to Uzbekistan’s human rights defenders is all the more important as the government repeatedly tries to mislead the international community about its human rights record and ensure that no independent information leaves the country,” said Cartner. “The EU should listen to Uzbekistan’s persecuted human rights activists and use its leverage to stand up in their defense.”

Human Rights Watch also called on the European Union to encourage the Uzbek government to give human rights defenders in Uzbekistan an opportunity to engage directly with their government on its human rights record.

The EU visit to Uzbekistan marks a warming of relations following the decision by EU foreign ministers last month to ease the EU sanctions on Uzbekistan. The stated aim of the visit is two-fold: to hold expert-level discussions with the authorities about the May 2005 events in Andijan, when government forces massacred hundreds of largely unarmed civilians fleeing a demonstration; and to negotiate the terms of an EU-Uzbekistan human rights dialogue, scheduled to begin early next year.

EU officials justified their softened stance on Uzbekistan largely in response to the Uzbek government’s offer to start these dialogues, arguing that they demonstrated an important momentum for positive change.

In a letter to EU foreign ministers reacting to the decision, Human Rights Watch argued that easing the sanctions was premature and deprived the EU of critical leverage.

“The EU shouldn’t be easing sanctions before Uzbekistan delivers concrete results,” said Cartner. “The EU must now move beyond welcoming Tashkent’s initial gestures to insisting on concrete progress on human rights.”

In February, the European Union is slated to again review its sanctions regime, which consists of a visa ban on senior officials for a duration of six months and an embargo on arms exports for 12 months.

Human Rights Watch called on the European Union to formulate specific benchmarks for the Uzbek government to fulfill by this three-month review in order to be considered as making meaningful progress in human rights. Such benchmarks include:

  • releasing the more than a dozen imprisoned human rights defenders and their relatives;
  • ending the crackdown on human rights defenders, independent journalists and members of the political opposition;
  • allowing local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to operate without government interference, including by re-registering those that have been liquidated or otherwise forced to stop working in Uzbekistan, and issuing visas for staff of international NGOs;
  • providing information about the fate of those forcibly returned from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine, and allowing immediate access to them for international monitors;
  • implementing the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on torture; and
  • granting immediate access for UN human rights monitors who have requested invitations.
  • In a memorandum submitted to the European Union as it prepared for its visit to Tashkent, Human Rights Watch outlined its concerns and recommendations regarding the Andijan expert meeting, urging it, among other things, to ensure that the meeting will not be viewed as a substitute for the independent inquiry that the European Union and other actors of the international community have long called for.

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