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We are writing in advance of the upcoming General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) on 15-16 October, to urge you to ensure that the release of imprisoned human rights defenders be a core objective of the EU’s policy toward Uzbekistan.

The call the EU made on the occasion of the May GAERC for the release of imprisoned rights defenders—currently numbering at least thirteen—marked a significant and welcome development in its policy vis-à-vis the Uzbek government. It was the first time the EU linked its sanctions policy to the imperative of releasing these rights defenders, thereby giving the sanctions much-needed practical meaning, and centering its policy on those bearing the brunt of Tashkent’s repressive policies.

It is crucial that this linkage be maintained—both because principled EU action is the only hope for these individuals to see the light of freedom, and because the EU’s credibility as an effective promoter of human rights more broadly stands on the line.

As emphasized in the EU Central Asia Strategy, EU policy in the region should have at its core the advancement of concrete improvements in human rights; in the case of Uzbekistan, the release of jailed human rights defenders should top the list of such improvements sought. You will also be aware of our firm and longstanding support for the sanctions regime currently in place, which we believe forms a crucial part of such a results-oriented policy. We are well aware of the misgivings expressed by some member states about the sanctions as effective policy tools. Yet we remain convinced that they carry a real potential to trigger change—provided they are accompanied by consistent and specific reform demands that are raised in a pro-active, sustained manner.

The May GAERC conclusions represented an important recognition of this potential and gave significant impetus to the development of a more effective and strategic human rights policy toward Uzbekistan. We therefore hope the EU will use the upcoming GAERC to build on these achievements by reaffirming its call for the unconditional release of imprisoned human rights defenders, and by calling for additional concrete human rights improvements, including the following:

  • End the fierce crackdown unleashed on civil society—human rights defenders, independent journalists, and members of the political opposition—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 unfettered access for independent monitors, including the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), and UN special rapporteurs who have been unable to visit due to the government’s refusal to issue the required invitations.

As the May GAERC conclusions made clear, the sanctions would 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.” With respect to the human rights dialogue, an initial round of which were held in Tashkent 8-9 May, the conclusions further specified that the EU was “look[ing] forward to its continuation in an open and constructive manner with a view to achieving concrete and sustained results.”

It is important to recall in examining the situation in Uzbekistan the assessment criteria previously articulated by the EU, which included “any significant changes” with regard to key areas of concern such as detention and harassment of those who have questioned the Uzbek authorities’ version of the Andijan events, and 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.

Unfortunately, in the period since the May GAERC the government of Uzbekistan has taken no meaningful action to improve its human rights record. As mentioned above, it continues to hold at least thirteen human rights defenders in prison on politically motivated charges: Azam Formonov, Abdusattor Irzaev, Nosim Isakov, Alisher Karamatov, Ulugbek Kattabekov, Norboi Kholjigitov, Rasul Khudainasarov, Bobomurod Mavlanov, Dilmurod Mukhiddinov, Mamarajab Nazarov, Habibulla Okpulatov, Mutabar Tojibaeva, and Saidjahon Zainabitdinov all languish in prison following sham trials, serving lengthy sentences for no reason other than their legitimate human rights activities. In addition to these thirteen, authorities continue to detain independent journalist Jamshid Karimov in a closed psychiatric ward, where he has been confined since September 2006. More detailed descriptions of their cases are available on our website at:

In mid-June, one defender held on politically motivated charges, Gulbahor Turaeva, had her six-year prison sentence commuted to a suspended sentence and a fine. Turaeva’s release followed a trajectory similar to that of Umida Niazova, another defender whose seven-year sentence was commuted to a suspended sentence shortly before the May GAERC after she “confessed” to her “crimes,” renounced her human rights work and denounced her colleagues.

The EU wisely stopped short of welcoming Niazova’s release under such conditions, instead “taking note” of it and calling on the authorities to lift the significant restrictions imposed on her as part of the terms of her parole. It is our hope that the EU will be similarly measured in its reaction to Turaeva’s release, so as not to run the risk of condoning the obviously inappropriate manner in which these “releases” have taken place. Niazova, Turaeva and the thirteen other defenders who remain behind bars should never have been imprisoned in the first place. The EU should demand nothing less than their immediate and unconditional release.

The picture is grim also when it comes to human rights defenders who so far have been fortunate enough to escape imprisonment; many of these defenders continue to operate under extreme conditions of government repression, exposing themselves and their families to constant threats and harassment simply for their determination to pursue their human rights work. In the past two months alone, several defenders have had to flee the country, indicating that the crackdown against the human rights community shows no signs of abatement. Among them is Yagdar Turlibekov, a former political prisoner who just this month, after sustaining constant surveillance and threats of violence since his release from prison in December 2006, felt compelled to leave Uzbekistan.

Authorities have also persisted in their obstruction of Human Rights Watch’s work in Tashkent, denying work accreditation to our sole staff person without any explanation, thereby forcing her to leave the country. As a result, Human Rights Watch has not been able to have a presence in Tashkent since late July 2007.

In the course of the summer, Human Rights Watch also gathered disturbing testimony about continued government persecution of individuals whom the authorities deem to have been connected to or possess information about the 2005 events in Andijan. This pressure has targeted refugees who, after fleeing Uzbekistan in the immediate aftermath of the Andijan massacre and being resettled in third countries, returned to Uzbekistan, as well as their families. Endless interrogations, constant surveillance, ostracism and in some cases overt threats to life have triggered a new wave of refugees, many of whom are fleeing for the second time, more than two years after the massacre.

While the GAERC assessment criteria do not include torture reform, one positive development was the Uzbek parliament’s adoption in June of legislation abolishing the death penalty and introducing habeas corpus (judicial review of detention). It remains to be seen, however, what practical impact these long-awaited reforms—recommended by the UN Special Rapporteur on torture nearly five years ago—will have on the Uzbek government’s entrenched torture record. As long as the Uzbek government continues to imprison and harass human rights defenders and repress civil society it will be nearly impossible to assess whether these reforms will be effective.

As of this writing, torture remains an enduring problem in Uzbekistan. Despite government claims to the contrary, in the period since the UN Special Rapporteur on torture issued his authoritative 2003 report on torture in Uzbekistan, there has been no fundamental change in the widespread use of torture or in the practices that could effectively combat it. The upcoming review of Uzbekistan by the UN Committee against Torture will be an important opportunity to take stock of the much-needed reforms that have yet to be implemented in this area. Human Rights Watch and Uzbek human rights organizations have documented a number of cases involving torture allegations that took place in the period 2005-2007; we plan to publish our findings in a forthcoming report. Among the cases we documented was that of journalist and human rights activist Ulugbek Khaidarov, who was detained in September 2006 and released shortly before the EU sanctions decision in November 2006. Khaidarov was badly beaten in police custody and subjected to electric shocks.

Of concern are also several recent reported deaths in custody, apparently of prisoners held on religion-related charges, as well as an apparent surge in trials of individuals charged with religion-related offenses.

This grim picture notwithstanding, we firmly believe that EU engagement with the Uzbek government, if pursued in a principled, consistent manner, offers the best prospects for ending the cycle of abuse in Uzbekistan. We urge you to make full use of this potential and, building on the May GAERC conclusions, ensure an EU policy that seeks concrete results and has at its core the lives of those who have no hope but for principled EU action to protect them.

Thank you for your attention.


Holly Cartner
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division

Lotte Leicht
EU Director

CC: Ms. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, EU Commissioner for External Relations
Mr. Javier Solana, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy
Mr. Pierre Morel, EU Special Representative for Central Asia
EU Political and Security Committee Ambassadors
EU Council Working Group on Eastern Europe and Central Asia
EU Regional Directors for Eastern Europe and Central Asia

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