(Moscow, October 23, 2008) - Uzbek authorities should immediately and unconditionally release Akzam Turgunov, a human rights defender and opposition activist who was sentenced on October 23 to 10 years in prison on politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch said.
A court in Manget, Karakalpakstan (a distant region of Uzbekistan), convicted him of extortion, less than two weeks after the European Union, on October 13, 2008, lifted sanctions on Uzbekistan, citing human rights "progress." Turgunov has been seriously ill-treated in custody, and his trial manifestly violated fair trial standards.
"Now that the EU has lifted sanctions, the Uzbek government seems to feel freer than ever to crack down on dissidents," said Igor Vorontsov, Uzbekistan researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Turgunov is yet another example of a human rights defender arrested on fabricated charges, ill-treated in custody, and subjected to a blatantly corrupt trial."
Turgunov, 56, is the chairman of the Tashkent-based human rights organization Mazlum ("The Oppressed"), which is affiliated with the independent political party Erk ("Freedom"). Police in Manget arrested Turgunov on July 11 under circumstances that seemed to have been staged to frame him.
He had traveled to Manget, in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic 1,100 kilometers west of Tashkent, to assist a woman with a court case over child support payments. Turgunov has served as a public defender in trials throughout Uzbekistan, including many in Karakalpakstan, in cases involving violations of human rights and civic freedoms.
In this case, the woman's former husband agreed to an out-of-court settlement and arranged to meet Turgunov and the woman's brother to make the payments due under the settlement. When a plastic bag supposedly containing the money was handed over to Turgunov, the police appeared and arrested him and the woman's brother, charging that they had extorted money from the former husband.
On July 14, while Turgunov was in a police investigator's office writing a statement, someone poured boiling water down Turgunov's neck and back, severely burning him and causing him to lose consciousness. The authorities refused to investigate the assault until Turgunov removed his shirt during a court hearing on September 16, revealing his serious wounds from the attack.
"The Uzbek authorities shamelessly continue to abuse and ill-treat whomever they choose," said Vorontsov. "Turgunov's vicious assault sends a powerful and frightening message to others who dare to work for justice. How can the EU maintain that progress has been made?"
Turgunov is the second activist to be convicted on politically motivated charges in recent weeks. On October 10, 2008, Solijon Abdurakhmanov, a journalist known for his often critical reporting on the government's policies, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of selling drugs, an offense he did not commit.
In July, the Uzbek government banned Human Rights Watch's researcher from entering Uzbekistan.
In a hugely disappointing move on October 13, EU foreign ministers decided to lift the visa ban on eight former and current Uzbek government officials thought to have been responsible for the attack by police on mostly unarmed demonstrators in the city of Andijan in May 2005, killing hundreds of them. The European Union pledged to keep the situation under review and called on Uzbek authorities among other things to release all imprisoned human rights defenders and to cease their harassment.
The EU cited progress in human rights as a justification for easing the sanctions. Among the positive developments highlighted by the European Union was a joint EU-Uzbek government-organized seminar on "Liberalization of the Media," held in Tashkent on October 2-3, just days before Abdurakhmanov's conviction.
Uzbek authorities permitted the early release from prison of two human rights defenders last week. Dilmurod Mukhiddinov, member of the human rights organization Ezgulik ("Goodness") and of the independent political party, Birlik ("Unity"), was freed on October 17 and granted amnesty. He had been arrested in his home in Andijan province on May 20, 2005, and accused of distributing a Birlik statement condemning the Andijan massacre.
After the massacre, the government unleashed a fierce crackdown against activists and journalists who attempted to report on the Andijan events and their aftermath. Mukhiddinov was convicted together with five others, who were previously released on suspended sentences on January 12, 2006. Mukhiddinov was sentenced to five years in prison.
Another imprisoned rights defender, Mamarajab Nazarov, an Ezgulik member from Jizzakh province, was also freed last week, according to Vasila Inoyatova, head of Ezgulik. Nazarov had been serving a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence since July 19, 2006, on false charges of extortion.
"We welcome Mukhiddinov's and Nazarov's releases but the important thing to remember is that they never should have been in prison in the first place," said Vorontsov. "The Uzbek government is using activists like hostages. It gets credit for releasing them but then simply arrests more to take their places."
Human Rights Watch urged EU governments and the United States to raise Turgunov's case with the Uzbek government urgently, demanding his immediate release.