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Uzbek authorities denied work accreditation to the Tashkent office director of Human Rights Watch, and announced that the trial of Human Rights Watch’s translator Umida Niazova would start this week, Human Rights Watch said today.

The moves are the latest steps in the government’s crackdown on human rights defenders and civil society, and come a month before the European Union is scheduled to decide whether to maintain sanctions on Uzbekistan imposed after the May 2005 massacre in Andijan. The EU Foreign Ministers also meet on April 23, 2007 to consider their strategy more generally towards Central Asia.

“Human Rights Watch is one of the last international organizations left in Uzbekistan, and now the government is trying to silence us,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But we’re determined to stay on and stand by the courageous Uzbek human rights community.”

The trial of Niazova, who is also a human rights defender and independent journalist in her own right, will start on April 19, 2007. Niazova has been indicted on politically-motivated charges of illegal border crossing, smuggling, and distributing material causing public disorder by using financial support from foreign governments (articles 223, part 1; 246, part 1 and 244/1, part 3 v of the Uzbek criminal code), and faces up to 10 years of imprisonment. Some of the charges apparently stem from research materials in her laptop computer, which the authorities confiscated when they initially detained her in December 2006.

In addition to translating written documents for Human Rights Watch, Niazova monitored numerous trials in Uzbekistan together with the Human Rights Watch Tashkent office director. Amnesty International has declared Niazova a prisoner of conscience.

“Like more than a dozen other human rights advocates in Uzbekistan, Umida Niazova is in prison because she has worked to expose abuses in her country,” said Cartner. “The authorities want to stop her work and to scare others from speaking out about the situation.”

Uzbekistan has one of the most repressive governments in the former Soviet region. For years it fostered a hostile and dangerous environment for civil society, and started a concerted move against civil society in the aftermath of the “colored revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. The government came under strong international criticism after killing hundreds of mostly unarmed protesters in Andijan in May 2005.

In the two years since the massacre, the government has unleashed a fierce crackdown on civil society. At least 15 human rights defenders are in prison on politically motivated charges, with two new arrests, including Niazova, since January.

In November 2005, the EU imposed limited sanctions on Uzbekistan, and said their removal would be linked to government cooperation on an independent, international inquiry into Andijan as well as general improvements in the human rights situation. In November 2006, despite the worsening situation in Uzbekistan, the EU weakened the sanctions. The EU is scheduled to decide on May 14, 2007 whether to continue the sanctions, which consist of a visa ban and an arms embargo.

The EU, led by the German presidency, has accepted as “progress” the Uzbek government’s offer to talk about Andijan and to hold a “structured human rights dialogue.” Some EU officials have publicly suggested the sanctions will be lifted, including Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who visited Tashkent last week, in his capacity as chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

“The EU should be expecting the Uzbeks to ease up on the crackdown, and instead they throw the book at a human rights defender and want to kick out the Human Rights Watch director,” said Cartner. “That’s not a sign of progress, but it’s a direct result of the EU soft-pedaling on Uzbekistan’s poor record.”

On April 13 the Ministry of Justice handed Human Rights Watch’s Tashkent office director a note saying that it was denying her work accreditation because she had “exceeded her authority” and “worked outside the office charter,” a formulation it has used before to expel staff of international or foreign organizations. It did not explain how she had done so.

The Ministry of Justice said it was not closing the office, although without accredited staff Human Rights Watch cannot legally carry out any work in the country. This move was the latest of many steps the government has taken to make it nearly impossible for Human Rights Watch to operate:

  • In April 2006, the Ministry of Justice denied work accreditation to Human Rights Watch’s office assistant, after harassing him and threatening him with criminal charges in 2005.
  • For the remainder of 2006 and 2007, the government refused to issue a visa to his replacement, leaving the office with only one professional staff person. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not reply to numerous letters requesting information about the visa. On April 16, Human Rights Watch learned that in late March the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Uzbekistan issued a telex number to the office assistant, enabling her to receive a visa. The number was issued more than nine months after Human Rights Watch submitted the original visa application.
  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not issue a single visa for Human Rights Watch headquarters staff to visit Uzbekistan. For the past year all visa requests have been pending without reply.
  • In April 2006, the Ministry of Justice audited the Human Rights Watch office, concluding that Human Rights Watch’s work was biased and that it operated as a “branch office” rather than as a “representative office.”
  • In November 2006, security agents conducted sustained and obvious surveillance of Human Rights Watch’s Tashkent director during office hours, after work, and on weekends.
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