(New York) - The Uzbek Government should stop obstructing the work of human rights activists and allow them to operate in the country freely and without fear for their safety, Human Rights Watch said today.
In recent days, Uzbek authorities in Karshi and Margilan have detained human rights advocates to prevent them from meeting with a Human Rights Watch researcher. In Karshi, the Human Rights Watch researcher was also attacked by an unknown assailant, then detained and forced to leave the city. The attack appeared to be a setup.
"Uzbekistan's international partners have been praising the government for human rights improvements, but this praise is wholly undeserved," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Anyone who tries to report on human rights in Uzbekistan clearly risks getting attacked, arrested or worse."
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for December 27, 2009. It is not clear whether the recent efforts to halt human rights work were linked to the election or part of an ongoing effort to stifle discussion about the human rights situation in the country.
Key international actors, including the United States and the European Union, have grown increasingly silent in the face of Uzbek government abuses, arguing in favor of what they term "quiet diplomacy" instead.
Detentions and Attack in Karshi
On December 5, police in Karshi, in southern Uzbekistan, prevented a meeting arranged by telephone between Nodir Akhatov and Gulshan Karaeva, of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, and Tanya Lokshina, a Human Rights Watch researcher. Police officers stopped the minibus Akhatov was taking to Karaeva's house for the meeting and took him to a police station, where police confiscated his phone. Then four officers took him to a nearby café, "inviting" him for a meal, making clear that he was not allowed to leave. Then they took him to a second café and detained him there until well after Lokshina had been forced to leave Karshi.
Akhatov told Human Rights Watch that at one point he asked an officer why the authorities were so concerned about his meeting Lokshina. He said the officer answered, "We will not let anyone meddle in our internal affairs."
Also on the morning of December 5, a police official contacted Karaeva to tell her he had allegedly found a doctor who would examine her son who has a disability, and that he would drive them to the hospital himself. When Karaeva declined, he suggested that she go alone to be introduced to the doctor. Karaeva again declined, explaining she was expecting guests.
That morning, as Lokshina was walking toward the street where Karaeva lives, a young woman unknown to Lokshina lunged at her without warning, screaming loudly. The assailant grabbed Lokshina's hair, and pulled violently, trying to drag her away. Lokshina called out for help, but none of the people who saw the attack came to her assistance. A police officer suddenly appeared, pulled Lokshina into his car, and accused her of provoking a street fight.
He took Lokshina to a police station, where she was questioned about why she came to Karshi and whom she planned to visit.
Police photocopied Lokshina's identification, demanded to see the contents of her bag and her notebook, and made her write a description of the attack, even though she said she did not want to press charges. They held her for four hours, saying the police chief wanted to speak to her. Then an apparently higher-ranking officer from the security services put Lokshina into a taxi, which took her to Tashkent.
The police officers refused to identify themselves and insisted that Lokshina had not been detained, though they forbade her to use her cell phone or leave. Lokshina saw her attacker leave the police building, use her cell phone, and move around the building without police escort.
The attack left Lokshina with trauma to the neck, light bruising, the loss of some hair and a violent headache for over 24 hours.
The next day, Lokshina planned to meet with Ahmadjon Madumarov, of the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan, in Margilan, a city in the Ferghana Valley. But police officers came to Madumarov's home and told him he had to come to the station to fill out a questionnaire for family members of people serving prison sentences on religion-related charges.
He was allowed to leave the station for a short time to attend a wake, though he was followed by a police car, and then was held again in the station for hours. He finally told the police they should show him an official summons if they wanted to keep him longer. He was released at about 5:15 p.m., an hour after Lokshina left Margilan.
"What happened to Lokshina and the people who tried to meet her has frequently been happening to human rights monitors in Uzbekistan, and it shows the government has something to hide," Cartner said. "It is high time Uzbekistan's international partners speak out, loud and clear, to say that this despicable practice must stop."
Last month seven human rights and political activists were detained, three of whom were also beaten, when they attempted to meet with a political opposition leader.
The Uzbek government has long obstructed Human Rights Watch's work in Uzbekistan. Human Rights Watch has been unable to maintain a continuous presence in the country since July 2008, when the authorities first denied a researcher work accreditation and then barred the person from entering the country. On July 21, 2009, Uzbek authorities stopped another Human Rights Watch researcher at the Tashkent airport and deported her.