The Uzbek government has banned Human Rights Watch’s representative, in direct defiance of the European Union’s express call for the organization’s Tashkent director to be accredited, Human Rights Watch said today. This is the first time that a Human Rights Watch representative has been banned from Uzbekistan.

Halfway through the current EU sanctions cycle, imposed on Uzbekistan in response to the May 2005 massacre in Andijan and the ensuing crackdown on civil society, Tashkent has not only failed to make meaningful progress toward meeting the EU’s calls for rights improvements, it has actually backtracked in a number of respects. A meeting of EU ambassadors in Tashkent on July 28-29, 2008 provides a crucial opportunity to speak out against these abuses, and reaffirm the human rights benchmarks Tashkent must meet to fulfill the EU’s sanctions criteria.

“The Uzbek government is mocking the EU, and Brussels should respond forcefully to make clear it won’t accept this kind of behavior,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocate at Human Rights Watch. “This is a real test of the Uzbek government’s commitment to human rights and of the EU’s resolve to insist on real reform.”

The EU spelled out the criteria Tashkent would have to meet before the EU would formally end sanctions against Uzbekistan, including release of all imprisoned human rights defenders and the accreditation of Human Rights Watch’s Uzbekistan representative. At present, the bulk of the sanctions have been temporarily suspended.

Prior to conveying its decision to ban Igor Vorontsov, Human Rights Watch’s Tashkent representative, the Uzbek government had denied him the required work accreditation to pursue professional activities in the country. The basis given for this denial was that Vorontsov was, according to the Uzbek authorities, “not familiar with the mentality of the people of the region” and was not capable of understanding “the changes and reforms” taking place in Uzbekistan.

Uzbek authorities stated that they would consider an alternative candidate for the post, but that that candidate “should not be Russian.” Human Rights Watch considers such a position not only discriminatory, but also wholly inappropriate state interference in the staffing decisions of an independent nongovernmental organization.

The Uzbek authorities attempted to portray the denial decision as having nothing to do with Human Rights Watch’s presence in Uzbekistan; the facts refute this assertion. In recent years, all staff in Human Rights Watch’s Tashkent office, comprised of different nationalities and professional backgrounds, have faced sustained and intensifying government obstruction of their work, including repeated delays in decisions on, or denials of, visas and/or accreditation.

“This decision is clearly not about Igor Vorontsov, but about the government’s attempts to stop Human Rights Watch’s work in Uzbekistan,” said Szente Goldston. “But Human Rights Watch will not abandon investigations of human rights abuses because of this decision. Human Rights Watch will continue to cover human rights in Uzbekistan, no matter where we are based.”

In recent weeks, the Uzbek authorities have taken a number of decidedly negative steps, including two recent arrests that underscore the government’s determination to obstruct independent civic activism and human rights monitoring.

For example, on June 7, independent journalist Salidjon Abdurakhmanov was arrested in Nukus, the capital of the province of Karakalpakstan, on charges of drug possession, in what Human Rights Watch believes is retribution for his journalism work. Abdurakhmanov is a well-known journalist who worked most recently for Uznews.net, a website devoted to news on Uzbekistan, but had previously also worked with Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

Similarly, human rights defender Akzam Turgunov was arrested on July 11 in Karakalpakstan and charged with extortion. Turgunov is an advocate for the rights of political and religious prisoners and speaks out against torture. In recent months, he had also been working in Karakalpakstan as a public defender in a number of sensitive cases. Turgunov founded and heads the human rights organization Mazlum, and is a member of the opposition political party ERK. Both men are currently in detention, awaiting trial.

The charges against both Abdurakhmanov and Turgunov appear to be unsubstantiated and politically motivated in retribution for their work, and Human Rights Watch called on the authorities to immediately release both men.

The Uzbek government’s record is abysmal in all areas of the EU sanctions criteria:

  • It continues to hold at least 11 other human rights defenders and journalists in prison for politically motivated reasons (one in a closed psychiatric ward). A number of political dissidents are also serving lengthy prison sentences. The release on parole of rights defender Mutabar Tojibaeva in early June, while certainly welcome, was overshadowed by her precarious health condition and the authorities’ obstruction of her freedom of movement and denial of access to medical care even after her release. Tojibaeva has not been acquitted or amnestied, and is at risk of being returned to prison at any time for her human rights work;
  • It continues to crack down on civil society, detaining and threatening human rights defenders with prosecution for their peaceful activism;
    It persists in its refusal to allow United Nations human rights experts access to the country, despite their longstanding and repeated requests for invitations to visit;
  • It has failed to take effective action to address the culture of impunity for torture, which remains rampant despite recent legislation introducing habeas corpus;

It continues to deny justice for the May 2005 massacre at Andijan and persecutes people it deems to have any connection with the Andijan events – including refugees who fled after the massacre and later returned to Uzbekistan – triggering new waves of refugees; and
It continues to seek the forcible return of refugees from Andijan.

In late April, when the EU sanctions last came up for review, EU foreign ministers decided to extend the suspension of the bulk of the sanctions regime on Uzbekistan. They justified the move as a necessary gesture to Tashkent in recognition of a handful of positive steps it had taken.

“Tashkent was rewarded prematurely and now we see the results of this misguided policy,” said Szente Goldston. “The EU should safeguard the precious leverage sanctions offer, using them effectively to push for genuine human rights reform in Uzbekistan.”

The sanctions are slated to expire in October unless renewed by unanimity. Human Rights Watch urged the EU to keep the sanctions in place until Uzbekistan meets the human rights criteria the EU set.