An Uzbek court this week sentenced human rights defender Gulbahor Turaeva for a second time this year, Human Rights Watch said today.
According to Turaeva’s husband, who was in the courtroom when the verdict was read out, the sentence was handed down by a court in Andijan, in eastern Uzbekistan, which convicted her on slander charges. Due to what appears to be a disconnected phone line to Turaeva’s family, Human Rights Watch has been unable to confirm further details about the substance of the charges against Turaeva.
News about the verdict came to light on May 9, just as a high-level European Union delegation was in Tashkent for a first round of meetings with Uzbek authorities as part of a structured “human rights dialogue” between the EU and the Uzbek government. In response to EU concerns raised about the case, Uzbek authorities denied the sentence took place.
“Turaeva’s first sentencing was bad enough,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This second verdict is outrageous, and underscores why the EU should focus its dialogue with Tashkent on the need to release Turaeva and the other rights defenders.”
Turaeva, a mother of four children, the youngest of whom is only 8-months-old, is a doctor and member of the nongovernmental organization Anima-kor, which works to protect the rights of medical doctors and their patients. She was handed a six-year prison term following a sham trial on April 24, after being arrested on January 14 at the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border for attempting to bring in books by exiled opposition leader Mohammed Solih. Turaeva was prosecuted on politically motivated charges of anti-constitutional activities, slander and producing and spreading materials that threaten the public order.
The second trial against Turaeva started on May 2 and ended on May 7. Her husband was informed about it only on the second day, and was not allowed a visit with his wife following either the initial or the second verdict, despite it being a right under Uzbek law. Throughout her pre-trial detention and both trials, Turaeva was denied access to a defense lawyer of her choice.
“Turaeva’s sentencing shows that the Uzbek authorities are confident that their actions will not lead to negative repercussions,” said Cartner. “It is time for the EU to make clear they are wrong.”
At least 14 rights defenders are in prison in Uzbekistan today. They are the victims of the Uzbek government’s 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.
Authorities in Uzbekistan earlier this week released one human rights defender imprisoned on politically motivated charges. Convicted on May 1 to seven years of imprisonment, Umida Niazova, who is also Human Rights Watch’s Tashkent office translator, saw her verdict commuted one week later to seven years of probation following a “confession” during her appeal hearing which, in stark contrast to her trial, was open to diplomatic monitors.
On May 14, the European Union is slated to decide on the future of its sanctions policy toward Uzbekistan, imposed in 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: “We look to the Uzbek government to make progress.”
In a letter sent to EU foreign ministers earlier this week, Human Rights Watch called on the EU to extend the sanctions currently in place and to make clear they will not be reconsidered until imprisoned rights defenders are released.
“It’s time for an EU strategy toward Tashkent centered on the lives of Uzbeks and the EU’s own principles, rather than political expediency,” said Cartner.