(Moscow) - Uzbek authorities should promptly investigate the violent attack against Elena Urlaeva, a prominent human rights defender, on April 15, 2009, and bring to justice those responsible, Human Rights Watch said today. Two unidentified assailants assaulted and threatened Urlaeva, 52, a member of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, outside her apartment building in Tashkent.

"There's no doubt that Urlaeva was attacked in retribution for her human rights work," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "It's the latest incident in a long and sorry record of harassment and abuse against human rights defenders in Uzbekistan."

The attack came during a period of increased government harassment of human rights activists in Uzbekistan, especially since the European Union lifted sanctions against Uzbekistan last fall.

The attack occurred as Urlaeva was leaving home in the morning with her 5-year-old son, she told Human Rights Watch. Two young men, dressed in black and wearing sunglasses, kicked and punched her in the head and in the chest. Shouting profanities, they told Urlaeva that she, "should have left the country long ago," and demanded to know why she had not left already. One of the assailants took out a knife and made a few cuts in the leather jacket Urlaeva was wearing.

She also said that a car that she believes belonged to the Uzbek secret police, was at the scene during the attack. She said it was one of several cars that had been following her for the last month. The people in the car did not come to her aid when she was attacked. The car remained in place after the police and ambulance arrived.

The assailants did not harm Urlaeva's 5-year-old son, but the child was extremely upset, she said.

"It's especially reprehensible to attack Urlaeva in front of her small child," said Cartner. "Whoever did this clearly felt confident they would get away with it."

Urlaeva called the police and an ambulance immediately after the assailants left. The doctor found bruises on her head and her chest, and abnormally high blood pressure. The police wrote up the incident in detail and promised to investigate and to try to find the attackers. Urlaeva told Human Rights Watch that the police were trying to appear helpful, but that they informally advised Urlaeva that her human rights work was "risky."

Urlaeva has been involved in human work in Uzbekistan for more than a decade. The Human Rights Alliance, which has no political affiliations, is one of the most vocal, grassroots groups in Uzbekistan. It works on a variety of human rights issues including torture, access to justice, right to fair trial, economic and social rights, and the rights of vulnerable groups.

The Human Rights Alliance and other groups have repeatedly come under government pressure in the past year. In December 2008, Urlaeva and other Human Rights Alliance activists were fined on misdemeanour charges for picketing outside a government building. Urlaeva told Human Rights Watch that she noticed increased surveillance - the car that followed her, for example - beginning in mid-March 2009.

Dilmurad Sayidov, a member of the human rights group Ezgulik, was arrested on February 22 on extortion charges that appear to be politically motivated. Vasila Inoyatova, director of Ezgulik, has reported increased pressure since March 24, when police and representatives of the prosecutor's office arrived at her home and office allegedly "in response to complaints from citizens about the Ezgulik website."

A well-known Uzbek human rights defender, Mutabar Todjibaeva, has recently become the target of abusive reports published in Uzbekistan's government-controlled media.

The government continues to hold at least 12 human rights defenders in prison on politically motivated charges, one of them in a closed psychiatric ward.

On October 13, 2008, EU foreign ministers decided to lift the bulk of the sanctions that had been imposed on Uzbekistan following the government massacre of hundreds of mostly unarmed demonstrators in the city of Andijan in May 2005 and the fierce crackdown on civil society that ensued. Among the conditions set by the European Union for lifting the sanctions were the release of all imprisoned human rights defenders and ceasing their harassment - both of which the Uzbek government continues to flout, to date.

"In the six months since the EU lifted the visa ban we have seen more attacks, harassment, and imprisonment of human rights defenders," said Cartner. "The EU and the United States should send a strong signal to the Karimov government that a genuine concern for human rights will not be sacrificed, especially as a new period of cooperation gets under way."