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The European Union yesterday issued its first public call for the release of imprisoned rights defenders in Uzbekistan, marking a much-needed shift in its human rights policy, Human Rights Watch said today.

The call accompanied a decision by EU foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels on May 14, to extend the EU sanctions against Uzbekistan, imposed following Tashkent’s refusal to agree to an international commission of inquiry into the May 2005 Andijan massacre, in which Uzbek government forces killed hundreds of mostly unarmed protesters fleeing a demonstration.

“The EU is finally focusing its Uzbekistan policy around those bearing the brunt of Tashkent’s repressive policies,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s linking its sanctions policy to the urgent need to see human rights activists released.”

Human Rights Watch urged EU member states to follow up on this important step by engaging in concerted efforts to secure the release of at least 14 human rights defenders whom Uzbek authorities have imprisoned on politically motivated charges.

Among those imprisoned is Gulbahor Turaeva, an Andijan-based activist and mother of four, who was sentenced to a six-year sentence on trumped-up charges last month. The May 14 EU statement on Uzbekistan “calls upon the Uzbek authorities to release Ms. Turaeva and other detained human rights defenders.”

“Turaeva’s sentence was a sad indication of just how confident the Uzbek authorities felt that they had no need to fear for their actions,” said Cartner. “Yesterday’s EU decision should prove Tashkent wrong.”

Human Rights Watch has persistently urged the EU to require concrete improvements in human rights, such as the release of activists, as a key component of its engagement with the Uzbek government. In a letter sent to EU foreign ministers ahead of their meeting, Human Rights Watch called for an extension of the sanctions until all imprisoned rights defenders are released.

In its May 14 decision, the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council, which groups the 27 foreign ministers, also dropped four names from the list of Uzbek officials banned from entry into the European Union, a key piece of its sanctions policy.

“The weakening of the sanctions was completely inappropriate and sends a mixed message,” said Cartner. “But at least the EU demand for the release of human rights defenders is unambiguous.”

In addition to pressing for the release of imprisoned defenders, Human Rights Watch urged the EU to demand that the Uzbek government:

  • End the fierce crackdown unleashed on civil society since the Andijan massacre;

  • Allow domestic and international human rights groups to operate without government interference – including by re-registering those that have been liquidated or otherwise forced to stop working in Uzbekistan, and issuing visas for staff of international nongovernmental organizations;

  • Implement in full the recommendations of the United Nations special rapporteur on torture; and

  • Allow access to Uzbekistan for UN human rights monitors who have been unable to visit due to the government’s refusal to issue the required invitations.

Yesterday’s EU decision specifies that the sanctions will be kept “under review on the basis of the criteria set out in previous council conclusions, taking into account the actions of the Uzbek government in the area of human rights, including the results of the human rights dialogue.”

The assessment criteria previously articulated by the EU include “any significant changes to the current situation” with regard to a number of key areas of concern, including: the conduct and outcome of Andijan-related trials; detention and harassment of those who have questioned the Uzbek authorities’ version of the Andijan events; the government’s cooperation with and the outcome of an independent international investigation; and “any action that demonstrates the willingness of the Uzbek authorities to adhere to the principles of respect for human rights, rule of law and fundamental freedoms.”

With respect to the human rights dialogue between the EU and Uzbekistan (a first round was held in Tashkent on May 8 and 9) the EU said it “look[ed] forward to its continuation in an open and constructive manner with a view to achieving concrete and sustained results.”

“We urge the EU to uphold its demand for concrete and sustained results, and the Uzbek government to take the many urgent steps required to rectify its atrocious human rights record,” Cartner said.

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