(New York) - The Uzbek government should immediately stop the persecution of the Uzbek human rights group the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch said today. In the past two days, at least five human rights defenders from the alliance have been detained, harassed, and threatened because of their human rights activities.
"These incidents are just the latest in a government-led campaign of harassment and intimidation of alliance members, and attest to the Uzbek authorities' determination to continue their relentless persecution of human rights defenders in Uzbekistan," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The government continues to hold at least 12 human rights defenders in prison for no reason other than their legitimate human rights work. Many other activists, independent journalists, and political dissidents are also behind bars on politically motivated charges. Human Rights Watch said that the EU in particular should make the ongoing detention and persecution of human rights defenders and other civil society actors a priority focus of its upcoming annual human rights dialogue with Uzbekistan, scheduled to take place on June 10, 2009, in Tashkent.
In the most recent episode involving the alliance, three members - Elena Urlaeva, Salomat Boimatova, and Ilnur Abdulov - were stopped between 8 and 9 a.m. on May 27, by about four men believed to be police or security officers in plain clothes. The alliance members were on their way to the UN office in Tashkent to deliver copies of their recent reports on the situation of human rights defenders in Uzbekistan, as well as a statement about the crackdown on several alliance members during a May 13 protest.
The officers demanded that the three accompany them to the police station for questioning. When the alliance members raised objections, three of the officers attacked Abdulov, delivering severe blows to his head, chest, and back, and then forcing him and the others into a waiting police car.
They were taken to the Mirobadskii Police Station, where they were subjected to questioning not related to any alleged crime. The investigator questioning Urlaeva refused to identify himself to her and did not provide a written confirmation that her reports and documents had been seized, despite her requests. Urlaeva was forced to sign a statement that she would not participate in any human rights activities, meet any human rights defenders, or picket until June 10.
In the early afternoon, all three were transferred to the police stations in their respective neighborhoods in Tashkent. Urlaeva and Abdulov were released about three hours later. Abdulov then went to the hospital, where he was treated for several bruises to his ears and chest. The medical record indicates that he was diagnosed with a hematoma on his ribcage. Boimatova was told she would be questioned again, but after roughly an hour and a half, she too was released and the human rights documents returned.
Police also detained another alliance member, Yuri Konoplev, who was scheduled to meet Urlaeva, Boimatova, and Abdulov at the UN building, and drove him around in a police car for several hours before releasing him.
On the morning of May 29, around 9:30 a.m., two policemen in plain clothes detained yet another alliance member, Farkhat Mukhtarov, claiming that someone had filed a complaint against him. The police officers reportedly refused to show Mukhtarov any documentation or explain the basis for the complaint. Mukhtarov was threatened with criminal arrest if he refused to go with the police, although they did not have a warrant.
He was taken to the Yunusabadskii Police Station and held for several hours. A police officer who refused to give Mukhtarov her name called him and other alliance members insulting names. Before he was released, he was served a summons to report back to the police station on May 30, presumably for further questioning.
It is unclear whether these most recent incidents of harassment of alliance members are related to the violence in the Ferghana Valley earlier in the week. The details of that violence remain unclear, but there were a number of reports that, during the night of May 25, armed men detonated an explosive device at a police checkpoint in Khanabad on the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. There was also reported gunfire. The attackers escaped without being identified. The following day, on May 26, two suicide bombers reportedly killed themselves and a police officer and wounded at least 15 bystanders on Fitrat Street in the eastern city of Andijan. One bystander remains in critical condition.
Andijan is the location of the 2005 massacre of hundreds of mainly unarmed protesters by Uzbek government forces. Urlaeva reported that the police officers who detained her made a specific link between the attacks in Khahabad and Andijan and her detention, saying, "We have to keep the human rights defenders under control," and, "It's because of you these things are happening in Andijan."
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 a fair trial, economic and social rights, and the rights of vulnerable groups.
The Human Rights Alliance and other civil society groups in Uzbekistan have come under repeated government pressure in the past several years. In December 2008, Urlaeva and other Human Rights Alliance activists were fined on misdemeanor charges for picketing outside a government building. In April, Urlaeva told Human Rights Watch that she had noticed increased surveillance beginning in mid-March 2009. On April 15, Urlaeva was violently assaulted and threatened by two unknown assailants when she was leaving her apartment with her 5-year-old son Mukhammad. Only a few days later, on April 22, Mukhammad was attacked by an unknown assailant, who beat him repeatedly in the head with a stick. As a result of the attack, he was diagnosed with a concussion and hospitalized. Although the police promised to investigate both of the April incidents, the status of the investigations is unclear, and to date the perpetrators have not been brought to justice.
Uzbek authorities have a longstanding record of repressing independent civil society, detaining and threatening human rights defenders, journalists, and others with prosecution for their peaceful activism.
Human Rights Watch said that at the June 10 dialogue with Uzbekistan, the EU should call for the immediate release of all imprisoned human rights defenders and for a prompt and thorough investigation into all attacks on and ill-treatment of human rights defenders and for those responsible to be brought to justice.
"Securing the release of imprisoned activists and an end to their persecution must remain a core objective of the EU's policy vis-a-vis Uzbekistan," said Cartner. "These courageous individuals who put themselves at such risk simply to defend the values the EU claims to stand for deserve nothing less."