(New York, October 27, 2008) - The German government should not have permitted the head of Uzbekistan's secret police to visit Germany immediately after the European Union lifted sanctions stemming from a 2005 massacre in Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch said today.
Rustam Inoyatov, head of the National Security Service of Uzbekistan, flew to Germany on October 23, the same day that an Uzbek court sentenced a prominent human rights activist to 10 years in prison on politically motivated charges.
A visa ban had prevented Inoyatov and seven other current and former high-ranking Uzbek officials from visiting countries of the European Union for the last three years (the list originally numbered 12 but was shortened to eight in the spring of 2007). It was lifted on October 13, 2008.
Among the abuse suffered by the sentenced activist, Akzam Turgunov, during his official interrogation was having boiling water poured down his back, rendering him unconscious.
"Inoyatov's visit shows precisely why the visa ban should never have been lifted in the first place," said Rachel Denber, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This man is implicated in the killings of hundreds of people. It's a disgrace that the German government allowed him to visit so quickly. And it's particularly appalling that Inoyatov arrived in Germany just as the Uzbeks were throwing another brave dissident in prison."
Uzmetronom, an Uzbek nongovernmental news website, reported on October 23 that Inoyatov and a delegation of Uzbek security officials had flown to Germany on an official visit. It is not known how long they will remain in the country.
The European Union imposed the visa ban on Inoyatov and the other Uzbek officials in October 2005, in response to the Uzbek government's refusal to allow an independent, international inquiry into the May 2005 massacre in Andijan, in eastern Uzbekistan, and the ensuing government crackdown on civil society. The ban, as well as other EU sanctions, was supposed to be lifted when the government of Uzbekistan met certain conditions for improving its human rights record, including releasing all imprisoned activists and ending their harassment, accrediting Human Rights Watch's Uzbekistan researcher, and allowing UN monitors, including the special rapporteur on torture, to visit the country.
The Uzbek government failed to meet any of these conditions. It released a handful of activists from prison, but arrested two others in recent months, and continues to hold at least another nine behind bars for politically motivated reasons (one in a closed psychiatric ward). It not only persisted in its denial to accredit Human Rights Watch's Uzbekistan researcher, but outright banned him from the country. It continues to deny access to UN monitors despite their longstanding and repeated requests for invitations.
The Uzbek government abolished the death penalty and announced the introduction of habeas corpus in legal proceedings, but torture remains rampant and its record is atrocious on basic rights such as free expression, assembly, and religious belief.
"To say that the Uzbek government has made human rights progress is patently absurd," said Denber. "The German government led the efforts within the EU to lift the visa ban, and it should be ashamed today for having done so."
The Uzbek dissident sentenced on October 23, Akzam Turgunov, 56, is the chairman of a Tashkent-based human rights organization called Mazlum ("The Oppressed"). He was convicted on extortion charges that appear to be the result of a police frame-up. He is the second activist in Uzbekistan 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 dubious charges of selling drugs.
A purely symbolic embargo on arms trade with Uzbekistan, also imposed in October 2005, remains in place.
In May 2005, an armed uprising in Andijan, a city in eastern Uzbekistan, was followed by a massive public demonstration protesting government policies. After government forces violently dispersed the demonstration, they fired on a large crowd of fleeing protesters, the vast majority of them unarmed. Hundreds were killed. The government has persistently denied any responsibility for the killings.
"German officials should insist that the Uzbeks release Turgunov and other activists who are now in prison," said Denber. "Under these bitter circumstances, it's the least they can do."