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Human Rights Watch today announced that Mutabar Tojibaeva, an Uzbek human rights defender, has been selected to receive the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2008. Tojibaeva is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence for her outspoken criticism of the Uzbek government following the 2005 massacre in Andijan.

Tojibaeva is a fearless critic of the Uzbek government who openly spoke out against the massacre in Andijan. She forcefully condemned the shooting of hundreds of mainly unarmed civilians by government forces, even though the government was engaged in a fierce crackdown on individuals and organizations who sought to establish and expose the truth about the Andijan events. She is the head of the Burning Hearts Club, an unregistered nongovernmental organization (NGO) in the eastern Uzbek city of Margilan, and has long helped ordinary people seek justice. She has monitored trials and published reports on illegal child labor.

“The Uzbek government has tried to silence people who speak about the Andijan massacre,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But they have not been able to silence Mutabar Tojibaeva. Even from prison, she is a voice and a symbol for truth and accountability in Uzbekistan, and the Martin Ennals Award is a fitting tribute to her bravery.”

On the night of October 7, 2005, Tojibaeva was arrested in her home as she was preparing to travel to Ireland for a human rights conference. She was charged with 17 counts of criminal activity, including slander, extortion, tax evasion, polluting the environment and membership in an illegal organization – her own unregistered NGO. Yet, despite the threat of a long prison sentence, Tojibaeva remained defiant and told the court, “I do not regret my activities and I will continue them regardless of the verdict.”

On March 6, 2006, in a trial that blatantly violated fair trial standards, Tojibaeva was sentenced to eight years in prison, which was upheld on appeal.

Tojibaeva is currently being held at the Tashkent Women’s Prison. In summer 2007, prison authorities put her in the prison’s psychiatric ward without informing her lawyers of the reason, and forced Tojibaeva to take daily medication. Her family told Human Rights Watch that she was forced to spend 40 straight days in the ShIZO (punishment cell), causing her health to significantly worsen. Tojibaeva was diagnosed with cancer and on March 18, 2008, had surgery at the Tashkent Oncological Hospital.

“We are extremely concerned about Mutabar and the reports of her deteriorating health,” said Cartner. “We call on the Uzbek government to honor the demand of the jury of the Martin Ennals Award for her immediate release.”

The Andijan Massacre took place almost exactly three years ago. Despite calls for an independent investigation into the events of May 13, 2005, the Uzbek government has refused to allow an investigation to take place and has held no one accountable for the massacre. Instead, more than two dozen human rights defenders have had politically motivated criminal charges brought against them. Defenders have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms or have had to flee the country after being threatened and physically attacked for their work. Despite the amnesty of several human rights defenders earlier this year, at least 12 defenders, including Tojibaeva, still languish in prison.

The chairman of the jury of the Martin Ennals Award, Hans Thoolen, describes the laureate as “an exceptionally brave woman in a country where standing up for human rights is a dangerous activity that can lead to imprisonment and death; where human rights defenders often have to choose between prison or exile.”

The Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders is a unique collaboration among 10 of the world’s leading human rights organizations to give protection to human rights defenders worldwide. The jury is composed of the following NGOs: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, International Federation for Human Rights, World Organisation Against Torture, Front Line, International Commission of Jurists, German Diakonie, International Service for Human Rights and HURIDOCS. Previous laureates inlcude: Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, Burundi and Rajan Hoole-Kopalasingham Sritharan, Sri Lanka (2007); Akbar Ganji, Iran and Arnold Tsunga, Zimbabwe (2006); Aktham Naisse, Syria (2005); Lida Yusupova, Russia (2004); Alirio Uribe Muñoz, Colombia (2003); Jacqueline Moudeina, Chad (2002); Peace Brigades International (2001); Immaculée Birhaheka, Democratic Republic of Congo (2000); Natasha Kandic, Yugoslavia (1999); Eyad El Sarraj, Palestine (1998); Samuel Ruíz García, Mexico (1997); Clement Nwankwo, Nigeria (1996); Asma Jahangir, Pakistan (1995); and Harry Wu, China (1994).

Martin Ennals (1927-1991) was instrumental to the modern human rights movement. He was the first secretary-general of Amnesty International and the driving force behind many other organizations. His deep desire was to see more cooperation and solidarity among NGOs: the MEA is evidence that this is possible.

The Martin Ennals Award ceremony will take place in Geneva on November 20, 2008.

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