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The six-year prison sentence handed down to Uzbek rights defender Gulbahor Turaeva on April 24, 2007 underlines the need for the European Union to maintain sanctions against Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch said today. The sentencing belies the claims of human rights progress in Uzbekistan made by Germany to justify dropping the remaining EU sanctions against Uzbekistan.

“Gulbahor is the latest victim of a brutal government emboldened by the EU’s weak approach to human rights in Uzbekistan,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU should denounce the verdict and make clear there will be no further advancement of relations until Turaeva and other imprisoned activists are released.”

Turaeva, a doctor and member of the nongovernmental organization Anima-kor, which works to protect the rights of medical doctors and their patients, was arrested on January 14, 2007 at the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. Border guards seized from her a number of books by exiled opposition leader Muhammed Solih that are unofficially prohibited by the Uzbek authorities. The charges brought against Turaeva included anti-constitutional activities, slander, and producing and spreading materials that threaten the public order.

Turaeva remained in detention until and throughout her trial, which began on April 18 and ended April 24.

The verdict, handed down by a regional court in the eastern city of Andijan, was announced just as EU foreign ministers were concluding a meeting in Luxembourg to discuss enhanced relations with the governments of Central Asia. While encouraging reforms in Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, on Uzbekistan the EU simply announced its decision to enter into a “human rights dialogue” with Tashkent, saying the EU Council “look[ed] forward to holding the first round of this dialogue as soon as possible.” This contrast speaks volumes about the approach pursued by the German EU presidency.

“The EU, led by Germany, has repeatedly chosen to overlook Uzbek government abuses, portraying superficial gestures by Tashkent as genuine progress,” said Cartner. “It has put dialogue as the starting point of its human rights strategy in Uzbekistan, instead of the release of dissidents. Turaeva’s prosecution is directly linked to this soft-pedaling on Uzbekistan’s poor rights record.”

Another politically motivated prosecution, of rights defender Umida Niazova, who is also Human Rights Watch’s Tashkent office translator, was postponed indefinitely on April 19, the day her trial was scheduled to begin.

The Uzbek government has imprisoned at least 15 rights defenders as part of its brutal crackdown on civil society unleashed in the aftermath of the May 2005 massacre in Andijan, in which security forces killed hundreds of mostly unarmed protesters as they fled a demonstration. Those who speak out about the Andijan massacre and seek to highlight the lack of accountability for the crimes committed have become the targets of particularly harsh harassment and other forms of retaliation.

Turaeva had herself been previously detained on May 27, 2005, when she was held in the Andijan prosecutor’s office for 17 hours, and denied food or access to a lawyer. At that time, an official in the prosecutor’s office accused her of spreading lies about the Andijan killings and of anti-constitutional activities. Turaeva had spoken with journalists regarding the number of bodies she saw immediately following the massacre.

Turaeva’s sentencing comes just weeks before the EU is slated to decide on the future of its sanctions policy toward Uzbekistan, imposed in fall 2005 following Tashkent’s refusal to agree to an international inquiry into the Andijan massacre. The criteria for reviewing the sanctions includes “actions of the Uzbek government in the area of human rights,” regarding which the EU Council has specified it is “look[ing] to the Uzbek government to make progress.”

Uzbek authorities also recently refused to extend the work accreditation of Human Rights Watch’s representative in Tashkent, but ultimately granted the accreditation for a probationary period of three months, while accusing Human Rights Watch of projecting a negative image of Uzbekistan.

“Anything short of extending the EU sanctions currently in place would be unconscionable,” said Cartner. “Turaeva and Niazova were both arrested after the EU eased the sanctions last November. Now the EU should see to it that they and the other wrongfully detained defenders are released.”

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