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The sentencing of Umida Niazova, an Uzbek human rights defender, should compel the European Union to make the release of rights defenders a necessary precondition for any further easing of sanctions against Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch said today. Niazova is the translator for Human Rights Watch’s Tashkent office.

Niazova was sentenced on May 1 to seven years of imprisonment on politically-motivated charges by the Sergeli District Court in Tashkent. She was convicted 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).

“The Uzbek authorities are punishing Umida Niazova because she worked for groups that expose human rights abuses and they want to send a chilling message to others like her,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Uzbekistan should immediately release Niazova and at least 14 other human rights activists wrongfully detained.”

Human Rights Watch also called on Uzbekistan’s other key partners, including Russia, to use their influence with the Uzbek government to insist on the release of imprisoned defenders.

A Human Rights Watch representative who monitored the trial said that at the May 1 hearing Niazova told the court that she had worked for 10 years in human rights, and that it was normal to criticize the authorities.

“This is the idea of a democracy,” Niazova told the court. “If we want to build civil society, criticism of the authorities must be allowed.”

Niazova also expressed hope for a mild verdict because her 2-year-old son had just started to talk. Niazova remained calm during the sentencing.

Niazova’s family was allowed into the courtroom, but representatives of the German and US embassies were denied entry.

“There is already a German present,” said Judge Nizam Rustamov, referring to the Human Rights Watch representative, who is a German citizen.

Before her arrest, Niazova was a regular contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other news agencies. She also worked with such international nongovernmental organizations as Freedom House and Internews.

Niazova is one of 15 human rights defenders imprisoned by Uzbek authorities on politically motivated charges 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.

EU sanctions on Uzbekistan – put in place in November 2005 in response to the Uzbek government’s refusal to allow an independent, international inquiry into the massacre – are to be reviewed on May 14 at a meeting of the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council. One of the assessment criteria for reconsidering the sanctions is “willingness to adhere to the principles of respect for human rights, rule of law and fundamental freedoms.” But the European Union never made the release of Uzbekistan’s human rights defenders a condition for easing the sanctions, choosing instead to focus on establishing a “structured human rights dialogue” with the Uzbek government.

The European Union, led by the German presidency, has also made no public statements about Niazova or any of the other imprisoned human rights defenders, nor has it called for their release.

“Niazova’s sentence is first and foremost a disgrace for the Uzbek government, but it’s a disgrace for the EU too,” said Cartner. “The EU now needs to make absolutely clear there will be no consideration of easing any sanctions until Niazova and the 14 other imprisoned defenders are released.”

Other imprisoned Uzbek human rights defenders are: Gulbahor Turaeva, Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, Mutabar Tojibaeva, Nosim Isakov, Norboi Kholjigitov, Abdusattor Irzaev, Habibulla Okpulatov, Azam Formonov, Alisher Karamatov, Mamarajab Nazarov, Dilmurad Mukhiddinov, Rasul Khudainasarov, Bobumurod Mavlanov, and Ulugbek Kattabekov.

To view photos and the stories of the above defenders, including the charges against them, please see the Uzbek Human Rights Defender Facebook.

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