The Uzbek government’s recent release of five individuals imprisoned for human rights work shows that sustained international pressure on Tashkent is effective, Human Rights Watch said today. The releases occurred in the days preceding an important bilateral EU-Uzbekistan meeting in Tashkent on February 5.

The five activists released or amnestied between February 2-4 are Umida Niazova, Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, Dilmurod Muhitdinov, Ikhtior Khamraev, and Bahodir Mukhtarov. Niazova was serving a suspended prison sentence after her seven-year prison term was commuted in May 2007.

“We are overjoyed that these courageous men and women are finally free, but more than a dozen other activists remain in prison simply because of their peaceful human rights work and criticism of the government,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU needs to keep up pressure on Tashkent to release all imprisoned human rights activists.”

Uzbekistan’s release and effective amnesty of imprisoned human rights defenders is among the criteria that the European Union has set for reviewing the sanctions it imposed on Tashkent more than two years ago. The next review of the sanctions is scheduled for late April.

The European Union initially imposed sanctions against Uzbekistan in October 2005, in response to the May 2005 Andijan massacre, in which Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of mostly unarmed protesters, and during the Uzbek government’s ensuing crackdown on civil society.

During its last review, the European Union in October 2007 extended sanctions against Uzbekistan for an additional 12 months. At the same time, however, it temporarily suspended for six months the bulk of the sanctions regime, including a visa ban on eight Uzbek government officials, as a gesture to the Uzbek government.

Nevertheless, the European Union also stressed that sanctions would be automatically reinstated unless Uzbekistan fulfilled the EU’s conditions, which include releasing human rights defenders from detention and ceasing their harassment. Other criteria for Uzbekistan include allowing access by relevant international bodies to prisoners, engaging effectively with the UN special rapporteurs on human rights, and allowing all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) – including Human Rights Watch – to operate without constraints in Uzbekistan.

EU member states are split as to whether to maintain sanctions against Uzbekistan, and countries like Germany and Spain have claimed that the sanctions have not proven effective and should therefore be dropped altogether. Fortunately, however, a group of EU members including the Netherlands, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and the United Kingdom have taken a principled position that the sanctions should be extended further until the Uzbek government had met the EU’s clearly stated benchmarks for easing sanctions. To do otherwise, these countries argued, would be to squander the EU’s leverage and undermine its credibility in other human rights crises.

Human Rights Watch stressed that the release and amnesty of a number of human rights defenders proves that a principled stand by the EU can affect human rights positively, even in countries like Uzbekistan.

“The release of these five activists is clearly the result of EU pressure,” said Cartner. “Tashkent has finally understood that it needs to make real concessions for the sanctions to be removed. The EU must now act responsibly to ensure that it maintains pressure until all its criteria are met.”

Human Rights Watch called on the European Union to continue to use its leverage with the Uzbek government and not falter in pressing strongly for the release of all remaining human rights defenders in custody, including:

Mutabar Tojibaeva;
Azam Formonov;
Alisher Karamatov;
Jamshid Karimov;
Norboi Kholjigitov;
Habibulla Okpulatov;
Mamarajab Nazarov;
Nosim Isakov;
Ulugbek Kattabekov;
Abdusattor Irzaev;
Rasul Khudainasarov;
Bobomurod Mavlanov; and
Gulbahor Turaeva (currently serving a six-year suspended sentence at home).

Human Rights Watch remains very concerned about the well-being of the recently released activists. Uzbekistan’s defenders who have been fortunate enough to avoid imprisonment continue to operate under extreme conditions of government repression, exposing themselves and their families to constant threats and harassment. In the last six months alone, several defenders have had to flee the country, indicating that the crackdown against the human rights community continues.

“Focusing on getting imprisoned defenders released should remain an absolute priority for the EU in its dealings with Tashkent,” said Cartner. “But ensuring their safety and ability to pursue their work unhindered is equally important, and this is a key part of the sanctions criteria.”

Ikhtior Khamraev was released on February 2, 2008. He is the son of Bakhtior Khamraev, a well-known human rights defender from Jizzakh and chair of the Jizzakh province branch of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (OPCHU). Ikhtior Khamraev was arrested on August 2, 2006 and on September 25, 2006 was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for alleged hooliganism. Many, including Human Rights Watch, believe Ikhtior Khamraev’s imprisonment is retribution for his father’s human rights work.

Bahodir Mukhtarov was released on February 4, 2008. He is the eldest son of Mamatkul Mukhtarov, head of the Samarkand branch of OPCHU. Bahodir Mukhtarov was arrested on February 15, 2007 and in June 2007 was sentenced to one year imprisonment. Many organizations believe Bahodir Mukhtarov was arrested and imprisoned because of his father’s human rights work as well.

Saidjahon Zainabitdinov was released on February 2, 2008. He is a long-term human rights defender and chair of the human rights group Appeliatsia (Appeal) who witnessed the massacre at Andijan on May 13, 2005. In the days following the massacre, Zainabitdinov gave dozens of interviews to the press and international community about the uprising and protest in his city, speaking out forcefully against the indiscriminate shooting of unarmed protesters by Uzbek forces.

On May 21, 2005, Uzbek authorities arrested Zainabitdinov and accused him of publishing bulletins that “were intended to sow panic among the population” and undermine Uzbekistan’s public image. In a closed trial, he was sentenced to seven years of imprisonment on charges of slander, undermining the constitutional order, and membership in an illegal religious organization.

Dilmurod Muhiddinov was released on February 4, 2008. He is an active member of the human rights organization Ezgulik and of the opposition political party, Birlik. Police arrested Mukhiddinov in his home in Markhamat district, Andijan province on May 20, 2005, and accused him (and five others involved with the party) of distributing a Birlik statement condemning the Andijan massacre. Of the six who stood trial, Mukhiddinov was the only one who was not released on a suspended sentence on January 12, 2006. Instead, he was sentenced to five years of imprisonment.

Umida Niazova was amnestied on February 2, 2008. She is a human rights defender and independent journalist who regularly contributed to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other new agencies. From 2005 to 2006, she worked as a translator for Human Rights Watch’s representative office in Uzbekistan. Previously, she had worked with such international NGOs as Freedom House and Internews.

On January 22, 2007, Niazova was arrested by the Uzbek authorities as she was returning to Tashkent from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She was held incommunicado for four days, and faced politically motivated charges of smuggling and illegally crossing the border. She was sentenced to seven years of imprisonment on May 1, 2007. Niazova’s prison term was later commuted to a seven-year suspended sentence. Under the terms of her suspended sentence, Niazova had been obliged to report regularly to the neighborhood police, notify the authorities about any changes in her profession, and observe a 10:00 p.m. curfew.

Background

The government of Uzbekistan is one of the most repressive to have emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union. For many years it has fostered a hostile and dangerous environment for the work of human rights defenders and others in civil society. In the two years following the May 13, 2005 massacre in Andijan, the Uzbekistan government unleashed a fierce crackdown on human rights defenders, independent journalists, and NGO and political activists. More than two dozen human rights defenders have had criminal charges brought against them.

The European Union first imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan in October 2005, in response to Tashkent’s refusal to agree to an international commission of inquiry into the May 2005 Andijan massacre, as well as the unprecedented levels of crackdown on civil society perpetrated by the government in the months following the massacre. The sanctions were composed of a visa ban on 12 Uzbek officials the European Union considered “directly responsible for the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force in Andijan,” an arms embargo, and partial suspension of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), the framework that regulates the European Union’s relationship with Uzbekistan. This marked the first time in the EU’s history that it suspended a PCA with another country over human rights concerns.

Over the last two years, the European Union has incrementally weakened the sanctions despite persistent defiance by the Uzbek government to heed EU human rights demands. First, the partial suspension of the PCA was lifted in November 2006. The sanctions were again weakened in May 2007 when the names of four officials were taken off the visa ban list. In October 2007, the visa ban was suspended for six months, but will automatically be reinstated unless there is a consensus to continue suspension or lift the ban altogether.