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It's time to save lives

Since the massacre in the eastern city of Andijan in May 2005, when government forces killed hundreds of protesters, the Uzbek government has maintained a brutal campaign against human rights activists.

I never witnessed an acquittal - a reduced sentence or speedy amnesty was the best anyone could hope for. I interviewed hundreds of victims of horrific abuses. I also had the privilege of working with incredibly courageous and dedicated people: Uzbekistan's human rights defenders. I daily witnessed how the government interfered in their work, harassed them, threatened and beat them.

Since the massacre in the eastern city of Andijan in May 2005, when government forces killed hundreds of protesters, the government has maintained a brutal campaign against human rights activists. More than a dozen of my former colleagues are now behind bars, and at least a dozen more have fled the country.

Yet somehow none of this prepared me for the verdict against my dear friend and colleague, Umida Niazova, who was sentenced on May 1 to seven years' imprisonment on trumped-up charges. Umida, a journalist and human rights activist, also worked as a translator for Human Rights Watch in Tashkent, accompanying me and others to monitor trials and translate the proceedings from Uzbek to Russian.
In April, the Uzbek government charged Umida with illegal border crossing, smuggling and distributing material causing public disorder. The authorities say Umida "smuggled" her laptop into the country because she didn't declare it on her customs form, though she made no effort to conceal it - she put it through the customs X-ray machine. They say she distributed materials found on her laptop that are allegedly "extremist" and "fundamentalist" - including Human Rights Watch's report on the Andijan events.

Even witnesses for the prosecution testified that there was no evidence she had distributed them. But that made no impact on the court, which barred diplomats from the trial and forbade all present from taking notes.
Umida is in prison today because the Uzbek government refuses to tolerate scrutiny or accountability.

But she is also in prison because governments in the West have failed to push for tangible change. The European Union imposed limited sanctions on Uzbekistan following the Andijan killings, but it has not made the fate of Uzbekistan's imprisoned human rights defenders a precondition for easing the sanctions. That sent an unmistakable message to the Uzbek government.
Despite Umida's commitment to Uzbekistan, last fall she said she felt the pressure against her and her colleagues growing and worried about providing a safe home for her two-year-old son Elbek. We began to look for opportunities for her to work or study abroad. But we were too late.

It is not too late, however, for the European Union to pursue a principled strategy on Uzbekistan, a strategy that has at its core the lives of Uzbeks and its own principles, rather than political expediency.

On May 14, the Union is to decide whether to lift the targeted sanctions. Ahead of this decision, the Union has urged the Uzbek government to agree to a human rights dialogue, instead of demanding the release of people like Umida. But what kind of dialogue about human rights is plausible when the people who work in honor of those rights languish in prison?

This is not the time for mere dialogue. This is the time to save lives: Umida, Mutabar Tojjbaeva, Saidjahon Zainatbitdinov, Gulbahor Turaeva and the other human rights defenders were imprisoned for daring to work for a better future. Without their release, any dialogue would be meaningless and discredit the European Union as a promoter of human rights.

Allison Gill is the Moscow office director at Human Rights Watch and ran the Tashkent office from 2003 to 2005.

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