(New York) - The Uzbek government is intensifying its crackdown on political opposition and human rights activists in advance of December 27, 2009, elections, Human Rights Watch said today.

In recent weeks, authorities in Uzbekistan have harassed, detained, and beaten political opposition and human rights activists. Authorities have placed dozens of activists throughout the country under de facto house arrest in an apparent effort to thwart any civic activism, warning them not to leave their homes until after the elections. At least six activists had their passports temporarily confiscated, and one was severely beaten and otherwise ill-treated in detention. The authorities also expelled an opposition movement leader from the country.

"This pre-election crackdown in Uzbekistan is as chilling as it is predictable," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "What should not be predictable is the international community's response. Uzbekistan's partners need to speak out and call for an immediate end to these abuses."

The intensified crackdown on the political opposition and human rights activists, coupled with the pro-government parties' monopoly in parliament and the absence of independent media, will again deprive the Uzbek electorate of the right to choose their representatives. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors elections in the region, has concluded that conditions do not merit sending a full contingent of monitors.

The Uzbek Central Election Commission has approved the four registered political parties currently represented in the parliament to compete in the elections. They are the People's Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, the Adolat (Justice) Social Democratic Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the National Revival Party "Milliy Tiklanish."

All four parliamentary parties have openly declared their support for the government, and opposition parties are not allowed to register or to offer candidates in the election.

The Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan, founded in August 2008 and apparently made up of nongovernmental and other activists, mainly from the ecology and health sectors, will automatically get 15 seats out of the total of 150, under election law amendments passed in December 2008.

The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights concluded in an October report about Uzbekistan that "the current political spectrum does not offer the electorate a genuine choice between competing political alternatives."

The report, issued following a so-called needs assessment mission the OSCE typically conducts in advance of an election, said the mission "did not identify any significant improvements in the electoral framework [which] continues to fall short of OSCE commitments," noting that "none of the key OSCE/ODIHR recommendations offered in the past for consideration appear to have been implemented." As a result, the needs assessment mission concluded it did "not consider the deployment of an election observation mission, even of a limited nature, meaningful."

However, referring to what it termed the "declared interest of the Uzbek authorities to maintain a dialogue with the OSCE/ODIHR on electoral reform," the organization ultimately deployed a small-scale election assessment mission to "further review the administrative and legal framework for elections and offer technical recommendations on improving the electoral legislation, procedures and practices." A 14-member team deployed to Uzbekistan on December 3 and will issue a final report, including concrete recommendations, following the election.

Since independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has not held a single election that the OSCE found to be free or fair.

Clampdown on the Political Opposition

The Uzbek government has not registered a single opposition party since independence and has targeted opposition leaders for persecution. In March 2006 Sanjar Umarov and Nodira Khidoyatova, leaders of the opposition Sunshine Coalition, were sentenced to 14 and 10 years in prison, respectively, on politically motivated charges. Khidoyatova was given a suspended sentence and released on appeal. Umarov's sentence was reduced on appeal to seven years, four of which he served before he was released as part of an amnesty in November, reportedly due to ill health.

Other opposition parties and movements, such as Birlik (Unity), Erk (Liberty), Ozod Dekhon (Free Peasant Party), and the Birdamlik (Solidarity) opposition movement, continue to be denied registration and are prevented from meeting. In the lead-up to the elections, the government has prohibited meetings of as few as three persons.

Nigora Khidoyatova, leader of the Ozod Dekhon party, told Human Rights Watch that its members are subject to constant surveillance by local authorities and are regularly harassed by the police, especially when two or more activists attempt to gather.

According to information received by Human Rights Watch, on December 10, the authorities summoned the leader of the Birdamlik opposition movement, Bahodir Choriev, to Tashkent and the following morning expelled him from Uzbekistan. Choriev had returned to Uzbekistan from exile in October.

In late November, Birdamlik was prevented from holding a constituent assembly in Shahrisabz. Dilorom Iskhakova, leader of Birdamlik's Uzbekistan branch, told Human Rights Watch that the authorities prevented 31 Birdamlik activists in 11 provinces from attending the assembly, which had to be cancelled as a result.

Iskhakova said that in the weeks leading up to the assembly, local authorities tried to convince Birdamlik activists to stop their political activities and, in particular, not to attend the assembly. Authorities summoned the activists to police stations, called them and told them not to leave their homes, and, in the days before the assembly, detained them or placed them under de facto house arrest.

One activist in the Ferghana Valley told Human Rights Watch that he was detained early in the morning on November 23, the day before the assembly was to take place, and not released until almost 11 p.m. that night. Authorities reportedly refused his requests to see a lawyer. Iskhakova said that some were held overnight and released the following morning. One was reportedly held for six nights. At least two were forced to sign statements that they would not travel outside their provinces.

When six activists from the Ferghana Valley tried to travel to the assembly on November 23, police turned them back at a checkpoint, Iskhakova said. The next day, police again stopped them at a checkpoint, confiscated their passports, and held them until the afternoon, when it was too late for them to travel to the assembly. Their passports were then returned and they were released.

In early November 2009, Uzbek authorities in six locations detained at least seven activists to prevent them from meeting with Choriev. One of them, Mamir Azimov, chairperson of the Jizzakh district branch of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, was badly beaten by the police who detained him on November 11 after he attempted to meet with Choriev, Iskhakova, and others in a café.

Restrictions on the Media

Genuine public debate about political issues, and media freedoms generally, are entirely absent in Uzbekistan. The government severely limits television, radio, and print media with unofficial censorship, and blocks websites such as http://www.ferghana.ru/ that present independent or critical views. It continues to deny accreditation to correspondents from international media outlets, including the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

A number of journalists are in prison on fabricated charges, including Dilmurod Saidov, arrested in February and sentenced in July to 12 ½ years in prison. Many others have fled Uzbekistan, including Galima Bukharbaeva, who reported from the scene of the 2005 massacre in Andijan, and Natalya Busheyeva of Deutsche Welle, who left the country under pressure in 2007.

Crackdown on Human Rights Activists

The Uzbek government severely restricts independent civil society activism and obstructs human rights work. For many years Human Rights Watch has documented the harassment, persecution, and detention of civic activists who might otherwise have played an important role in contributing to the transparency of the electoral process. In the past two months, authorities have increased their harassment and persecution of these activists in an apparent effort to silence them.

In one recent example, on December 7, the authorities prevented several members of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan from attending a meeting. In one case, Akrom Muhiddinov, an activist in Yangiyul, received a phone call from his local mahalla (neighborhood) committee's representative telling him not to leave his house. Then he was summoned to the committee office on the pretext that the neighborhood police officer wanted to speak to him. The police officer never showed up, but he was not allowed to leave until the Alliance meeting was over.

In a separate incident on December 7, police detained Gavkhar Berdieva and Nuriya Imamkulova, activists from Jizzakh province, the evening before they planned to picket in front of the presidential administration building. Police took them to a police station in the Gallaaral district of Jizzakh province, confiscated their phones, and insulted and threatened them. Berdieva said the officers told her that they were "fed up" with the women's human rights activities, and asked, "Aren't you afraid that something might happen to your children?" They were released late that night.

Berdieva told Human Rights Watch that she was detained again early in the morning on December 8, then again on December 9, and held until late at night. The police officers called Berdieva "an enemy of the people" and accused her of acting against the president, she said. A neighborhood police officer has apparently gone to Berdieva's house repeatedly since then, warning her not to leave her house until after the elections.

The Uzbek government continues to hold at least 14 human rights activists in prison on politically motivated charges. Authorities forbid peaceful public assemblies and have not registered a single independent domestic human rights group in the past six years. The government also restricts the operation of international nongovernmental organizations, and since 2004 has forced numerous international organizations to close.

Human Rights Watch was forced to suspend its operations in Uzbekistan in July 2008 after the government denied accreditation to its researcher, and then barred him from the country. In early December, a Human Rights Watch researcher was subject to a violent attack that appeared to be orchestrated by authorities in Karshi, detained, and then expelled from the city. Police in Karshi and Margilan detained human rights defenders to prevent them from meeting with the researcher.