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Human Rights Watch Concerns on Uzbekistan

Submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee on the occasion of its March 2010 Review of Uzbekistan

This memorandum provides an overview of Human Rights Watch's main concerns with respect to the human rights situation in Uzbekistan, submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Committee ("the Committee") in advance of its March 2010 review of Uzbekistan's compliance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ("the Covenant").

The Uzbek government's human rights record remains atrocious and has only deteriorated further in the past year. Of urgent concern is the plight of civil society, which remains the target of constant government intimidation and harassment, and the more than a dozen human rights defenders, journalists, and other independent civic and political activists whom the Uzbek government continues to harass and imprison on politically motivated grounds.  Authorities in Uzbekistan continue to clamp down on media freedoms and suppress religious worship. There is a deeply entrenched culture of impunity for serious human rights violations, including for torture and ill-treatment, which remain rampant. The judiciary lacks independence, and the weak parliament dominated by pro-government parties does not effectively check executive power. Government-sponsored forced child labor in the cotton sector remains a key human rights concern, despite government claims that it is tackling this issue. Almost five years later, the government continues to deny accountability for the massacre of hundreds of mostly unarmed protesters fleeing a demonstration in the city of Andijan in May 2005.

The Uzbek government's record of cooperation with international institutions, particularly with United Nations mechanisms, remains poor. It continues to refuse access to the country to no fewer than eight UN special procedures despite their longstanding and repeated requests for invitations to visit Uzbekistan. The government has also demonstrated its lack of commitment to cooperation through its continued failure to implement UN expert bodies' recommendations pertaining to torture. During the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council in December 2008, it flatly denied the existence of a number of well-documented human rights problems and rejected as "unacceptable because factually wrong" numerous recommendations, including that it should release imprisoned human rights defenders and end harassment and intimidation of civil society activists.  

Human Rights Watch considers the upcoming Human Rights Committee review of Uzbekistan to be a crucial opportunity to underscore the urgent need for human rights reform in Uzbekistan. At the conclusion of this overview is a proposed set of recommendations for specific steps the Uzbek government should be urged to take to begin addressing its appalling human rights record. An accompanying Annex provides details on the more than a dozen human rights activists the Uzbek government has imprisoned on politically-motivated grounds.

Accountability for the Andijan massacre (Covenant articles 2, 6, 7, 17)

The Uzbek government has steadfastly refused to clarify the circumstances surrounding the 2005 massacre by government forces in Andijan, or to hold accountable those responsible for the killings. Instead, it has sought to rewrite history and silence all those who might question its version of the events, launching an intense crackdown in Andijan itself and exerting pressure on all who knew the truth about the events. Several hundred individuals who were convicted and sentenced in closed trials in 2005 and 2006 are believed to remain in prison serving lengthy sentences.

To this date, the Uzbek government continues vigorously to seek out and persecute anyone it deems to have a connection to or information about the Andijan events. This is particularly true for many of the relatives of hundreds of persons who fled to Kyrgyzstan in the immediate aftermath of the massacre and were later resettled in third countries, as well as those who fled but later returned to Andijan.

Intense government pressure, taking the form of interrogations, surveillance, ostracism and in at least one case an overt threat to life, has continued to generate new refugees from Andijan, years after the massacre.

Persecution of human rights defenders and repression of civil society activism (Covenant articles 7, 9, 10, 14, 17, 19, 21, 22)

In the aftermath of the Andijan massacre, the Uzbek government unleashed a fierce crackdown on civil society unprecedented in its proportions. It imprisoned dozens of human rights defenders, independent journalists, and political activists for speaking out about the Andijan events and calling for accountability for the May 13 killings. The authorities also blocked the activities of local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Many human rights defenders and other activists have had to flee the country out of fear for their security or that of their loved ones.

The government continues to harass and imprison individuals who seek to document and expose human rights violations in Uzbekistan, with at least four new convictions of human rights defenders in the last six months alone.  In the weeks leading up to the parliamentary elections in December, local authorities across Uzbekistan cracked down on civic and political activism, temporarily detaining activists to keep them from meeting in groups of as small as three.

At this writing, the government continues to hold at least fourteen human rights defenders in prison for no reason other than their legitimate human rights work. They are: Solijon Abdurakhmanov, Habibulla Akpulatov, Azam Formonov, Nosim Isakov, Gaibullo Jalilov, Alisher Karamatov, Jamshid Karimov, Norboi Kholjigitov, Rasul Khudainasarov, Ganihon Mamatkhanov, Farkhat Mukhtarov, Yuldash Rasulov, Dilmurod Saidov, and Akzam Turgunov.[1] Many other civic activists, independent journalists, and political dissidents are also serving prison sentences on politically motivated charges, including political dissident Yusuf Jumaev.

Worrying, credible reports that a number of these imprisoned activists are suffering severe health problems as a result of poor conditions and ill-treatment in Uzbekistan's notoriously abusive prison system underscore the urgency of securing their immediate and unconditional release. The release in November 2009 of political opposition leader Sanjar Umarov pursuant to an amnesty is a case in point. According to a statement released by his family on November 23, Umarov is in poor health as a result of his experience. While in detention he was gravely ill-treated and according to information received by Human Rights Watch, he spent an extended period of time prior to his release in a prison hospital. Another example is that of Norboi Kholjigitov, a 60-year-old human rights defender imprisoned in 2005 and serving a 10-year term. Kholjigitov, who suffers from diabetes, has apparently partially lost control of his right arm and leg and has difficulty walking.

Independent civil society activism remains severely restricted, with authorities detaining and threatening with prosecution human rights defenders, journalists, and others for their peaceful activism.  In the months leading up to the parliamentary elections in December, authorities repeatedly harassed, detained, and beat political opposition and human rights activists. They placed dozens of activists throughout the country under de facto house arrest in an apparent effort to thwart any civic activism, warning activists not to leave their homes until after the elections. For example, on November 11, 2009, Mamir Azimov, a human rights defender based in Jizzakh, was detained and beaten by the police after he met with members of Birdamlik, a political opposition group. The police also forced Azimov to stand with his legs shoulder-width apart and hold a chair over his head for about an hour and threatened to continue beating him if he lowered it. On that same occasion, another Jizzakh-based defender Bakhtior Hamroev was punched in the face by a man believed to be a security agent. 

In early December, police prevented two Karshi-based activists, Nodir Akhatov and Gulshan Karaeva, and Ferghana-based Ahmadjon Madumarov from meeting with a Human Rights Watch researcher. Officers stopped the minibus Akhatov was taking to Karaeva's house for the meeting and took him to a police station, where they confiscated his phone and temporarily detained him for several hours. The officers then took him to a nearby café, "inviting" him for a meal, making clear that he was not allowed to leave. He was not released until well after the Human Rights Watch researcher had been forced to leave Karshi, over eight hours later. The next day, Madumarov was similarly prevented from meeting with the researcher by local police who went to his home and told him he had to go to the station to fill out a questionnaire.

A particularly insidious practice employed by the Uzbek government is a combination of threats, harassment, and sometimes even imprisonment of activists' children or other relatives in retaliation for their human rights or civic work. Examples include Ikhtior Hamroev, the son of Bakhtior Hamroev, a well-known human rights defender from Jizzakh province. Ikhtior was arrested in August 2006 and sentenced the following month to three years' imprisonment on hooliganism charges, widely believed to be in retribution for his father's human rights work. Bahodir Mukhtarov, the son of Mamatkul Mukhtarov, another leading human rights activist, was similarly arrested in February 2007 and imprisoned for nine months, actions believed to be a reprisal for his father's human rights work. Authorities have also imprisoned two of dissident Yusuf Jumaev's sons, Bobur and Mashrab, on fabricated charges in apparent retaliation for their father's activism.  Yusuf Jumaev is himself serving a five-year prison term on fabricated charges.

In addition, there have been a number of attacks on human rights defenders or their family members by unidentified assailants who are rarely, if ever, held to account, raising concern that these attacks are at a minimum tolerated, if not encouraged, by the government. In April 2009, just days after a violent attack by two unknown assailants on Elena Urlaeva, leader of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, her five-year-old son, Mukhammad, was the target of another vicious attack.  An unknown assailant beat Mukhammad repeatedly in the head with a stick, causing him to be hospitalized with a concussion. Although the police promised to investigate both incidents, the status of the investigations is unclear, and to date the perpetrators have not been brought to justice.

The government also restricts the operation of international NGOs, and since 2004 has forced numerous international organizations to close. Human Rights Watch itself was forced to suspend its operations in Uzbekistan in July 2008 after the government denied work accreditation to, and then outright banned its researcher from entering the country. On July 21, 2009, Uzbek authorities deported a Human Rights Watch researcher upon arrival at the Tashkent airport, and in December 2009, another 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.

Torture and ill-treatment (Covenant articles 2, 7, 10, 14)

Torture and ill-treatment are endemic to the criminal justice system in Uzbekistan. Authorities have failed to take effective action to address the culture of impunity for torture, highlighted by the UN Committee Against Torture in its November 2007 examination of Uzbekistan as a key obstacle to effectively combating it. The government has also persisted in its failure to fully implement the 2003 recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on torture.

As a result, torture remains rampant despite the much-hailed habeas corpus legislation that entered into force in January 2008. Indeed, to make habeas corpus effective it is necessary to implement a number of other reforms guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary, which is sorely lacking in Uzbekistan. According to Uzbek lawyers interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the habeas corpus reform remains largely a formality with little practical effect on the rights of the defendant, and it fails to serve as a mechanism for preventing or ending torture and ill-treatment in detention.

Human Rights Watch continues to receive credible reports of torture and ill-treatment, particularly during pre-trial detention, while judges continue to ignore allegations of torture brought forward by defendants and refuse to initiate investigations into such claims. A number of these cases concern imprisoned activists whose treatment Human Rights Watch follows closely, including Yusuf Jumaev, Khusodbek Usmonov (released after completing his sentence in July 2009) and Akzam Turgunov (during pre-trial detention). Usmonov, who at the time was 67 years old, testified during his trial in March 2009 that he had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment, including being beaten with hard objects in the groin and abdomen and being forced to lay naked face-down and being threatened with rape if he did not confess his guilt. The judge ignored these allegations.

In the case of Jumaev, officials at Jaslyk prison-where he is being held-have repeatedly placed him in an isolation cell, including in June 2009, when for eight days he was denied use of a toilet and not allowed out of the isolation cell. For at least two of the days he was also denied food and water. According to his daughter, he was transferred back to his regular cell only after his health deteriorated severely. His family also reported that prison guards had burned him several times during his detention by placing a hot electric teapot on his shoulders.

Imprisoned human rights defender Akzam Turgunov is another case in point; on July 14, 2008, three days after his arrest, while in a police investigator's office writing a statement, someone poured boiling water down his neck and back, severely scalding him and causing him to lose consciousness. The authorities refused to investigate the abuse until Turgunov removed his shirt to reveal his burn scars during a court hearing in September 2008. The investigation concluded that his burns were minor and did not warrant any action. Turgunov, 57 years of age, was sentenced on October 23, 2008 to 10 years in prison following a trial that manifestly violated fair trial standards.

The suspicious death in custody in June 2009 of Negmat Zufarov, a prisoner serving a lengthy sentence on religion-related charges, was a chilling reminder of the abysmal conditions and ill-treatment in Uzbekistan notoriously abusive prison system.

Finally, a distinct concern relating to torture and ill-treatment in Uzbekistan is that of Uzbek refugees and asylum seekers in neighboring countries whose forcible return the Uzbek government actively seeks, often successfully, despite the serious risk of torture and ill-treatment they face upon return. Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan appear particularly vulnerable, with more than a dozen forcibly returned to Uzbekistan since 2005. Human Rights Watch documented at least two such cases in 2008-of Erkin Holikov, handed over to Uzbek authorities in May 2008 despite having a pending asylum claim, and Haiotjon Juraboev, a UNHCR recognized refugee who was apparently stopped in Bishkek in September 2008 by unknown individuals whom witnesses said introduced themselves as security officials, only to emerge in an Uzbek prison several months later. Juraboev was sentenced to a 13-year prison term in February 2009.

Repression of the right to freedom of expression (Covenant article 19)

Despite legislation outlawing censorship and ensuring freedom of speech, in practice, censorship is the norm and freedom of expression is severely limited in Uzbekistan. Independent media is tightly controlled and the few journalists who continue to work in the country do so at great risk to themselves, forced to self-censor due to harassment, beatings, detention, and threats of imprisonment for their critical views of the government.

In a recent example, on January 7 and 9, 2010 several independent journalists received phone calls from the Tashkent prosecutor's office summoning them for an "informal conversation" about their journalistic activities, including Khusniddin Kutbiddinov, Marina Kozlova, Aleksei Volosevich, and Abdumalik Boboev. Several of them were questioned by an assistant to the prosecutor who reportedly told them that he had received a dossier on each from the National Security Agency (SNB) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs and that he wished to clarify some questions he had about the information in the documents. The journalists were questioned about their affiliation with international media outlets and in at least one case, about the journalist's relationship with Freedom House and Human Rights Watch. According to one of the journalists, each was made to write an explanatory note ("obyasnitelnoe") following their conversations with the prosecutor's assistant.

In a recent case, authorities on January 13, 2010 charged photographer and videographer Umida Ahmedova with insult and slander under articles 139 and 140 of the Uzbek Criminal Code. The charges were based on a book of Ahmedova's photographs published in 2007, "Women and Men: From Dawn till Dusk," and a documentary film produced in 2008, "The Burden of Virginity."  On February 10, 2010, following a trial that lasted only two days, Ahmedova was found guilty on both counts but was not handed a prison sentence pursuant to an amnesty.

As noted above, the government continues to hold a number of independent journalists on politically motivated charges. Among them is Jamshid Karimov, involuntarily held in a closed psychiatric ward since September 2006 for what many believe is retribution for publishing articles on the internet that were critical of the government. In the last 18 months alone at least three journalists have been prosecuted and sentenced to imprisonment on fabricated charges - Solijon Abdurakhmanov, arrested in June 2008 and sentenced in October 2008 to 10 years in prison for allegedly selling drugs; Dilmurod Saidov, arrested in February 2009 and sentenced in July to 12½ years in prison on extortion charges; and Kushodbek Usmonov, arrested in January 2009 and sentenced in March to a six-month prison term for insult and libel.

Foreign correspondents and Uzbek citizens working for foreign media are not allowed to operate without accreditation - currently there are only a handful of accredited foreign correspondents in Uzbekistan and no foreign journalists working for Western media outlets.

International news bureaus such as BBC, RFE/RL, Deutsche Welle, and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) have been repeatedly refused re-accreditation. Websites that carry articles critical of the government are routinely blocked within Uzbekistan, making access to international news and human rights websites extremely limited.

Religious persecution (Covenant article 7, 10, 18)

Authorities in Uzbekistan continue their unrelenting, multi-year campaign of arbitrary detention and ill-treatment and torture of Muslims who practice their faith outside state controls or who belong to unregistered religious organizations, with thousands incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Peaceful religious believers are often branded "extremists," with dozens of new arrests and convictions on charges related to extremism each year. Human Rights Watch has documented allegations of ill-treatment in a number of these cases.

One such case concerns Gaibullo Jalilov, a human rights defender and pious Muslim arrested in September 2009. Jalilov's work has focused on the crackdown on independent Muslims in the Kashkadarya region of Uzbekistan. Authorities charged Jalilov and three others, Faizullo Ochilov, Utkur Sodikov, and Yusuf Bobomuradov, with a series of fabricated religious extremism charges, including the two most commonly used articles 159 (anti-constitutional activity) and 244(membership in a banned organization). On January 18, 2010, they were all sentenced to prison terms ranging from seven to 10 years. On multiple occasions during the trial, Jalilov's lawyer and family members were not informed of scheduled hearings, and there were allegations of ill-treatment during pre-trial detention.

Following a number of violent incidents in July and August 2009 in Tashkent, including an attack on Imam Anvar qori Tursunov and the subsequent murder of security service officer Hasan Asadov who had been investigating the attack, Human Rights Watch received credible reports that the authorities then carried indiscriminate widespread arrests targeting pious Muslims in and around the city of Tashkent, and in the Syrdaryo and Kashkadarya provinces of Uzbekistan. 

Human Rights Watch interviewed several persons whose relatives were detained and arrested in the period from August to October, 2009 on charges based on articles 159 and 244 of the Uzbek criminal code, amongst others. All the families interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported gross procedural violations and lack of due process, including the authorities' obstruction of families' efforts to hire non-state appointed lawyers, and in cases where lawyers were hired, the authorities' refusal to permit the lawyers' access to their clients. In many cases, the authorities also failed to inform family members of the location of their relative's detention, as well as information about the time and date of their trials.

Additionally, in a worrisome trend that appears to be designed to keep religious prisoners incarcerated beyond their original sentences, authorities frequently initiate new criminal proceedings against such prisoners, often just weeks before their terms expire, for alleged violations of prison regulations such as refusing to attend breakfast, failure to shave and maintain adequate personal hygiene, or disobeying orders of prison staff. Prisoners subject to such proceedings are not afforded adequate due process rights or a meaningful opportunity to challenge the accusations mounted against them, and can easily end up having their prison sentences extended by three years or more.

A recent example is the case of Dilshod Shahidov (b. 1974), serving an eight-year sentence on religion-related charges. While in prison, Shahidov was repeatedly charged with violating the prison regime, including for allegedly refusing to attend breakfast and not looking after the cleanliness of his cell. On January 21, 2009 he was found guilty of "disobeying prison regime orders" and sentenced to almost five and one-half additional years in prison by the Kosom District Criminal Court.

Forced child labor in the cotton industry (Covenant article 8)

The widespread use of government-sponsored forced child labor to collect the annual cotton harvest remains a key human rights concern in Uzbekistan, despite government claims to the contrary.  The government points to the entry into force of a new law on children's rights in January 2008 and ratification of the International Labor Organization's Conventions on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor and on the Minimum Age of Employment in March 2008. However, there is significant, credible evidence that the government has failed to implement these laws and that forced child labor continues unabated.

A related issue of great concern is the risk of harassment and detention facing human rights defenders seeking to document and report on forced child labor. Human Rights Watch is aware of several cases in which local authorities have harassed and threatened activists after learning about their attempts to document the use of forced child labor.

Recommendations for specific steps the Uzbek government should be urged to take to address the above described concerns:

  • Immediately and unconditionally release all wrongfully imprisoned human rights defenders, journalists, members of the political opposition, and other activists held on politically motivated charges;
  • End the crackdown on civil society and allow domestic and international human rights groups to operate without government interference, including by re-registering those that have been liquidated or otherwise forced to stop working in Uzbekistan, and issuing visas and accreditation for staff of international nongovernmental organizations;
  • Ensure accountability for the Andijan massacre and cease harassment and other abuses of returned refugees and families of refugees who remain abroad;
  • Take meaningful measures to end torture and ill-treatment and the accompanying culture of impunity, including by implementing in full the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and Committee Against Torture;
  • Cease harassment of journalists, decriminalize libel and slander, and allow domestic and international media outlets, including those that have been forced to stop operating in Uzbekistan, to register and grant accreditation to international journalists;
  • End religious persecution, including by de-criminalizing peaceful religious activity and ending the imprisonment of thousands of people for their nonviolent religious expression;
  • End forced child labor in the cotton sector, allow independent monitoring, and involve independent nongovernmental organizations in assessments of child welfare, particularly as they relate to the cotton sector;
  • Allow unhindered access for independent monitors, including UN special procedures that have been unable to visit due to the government's refusal to issue the required invitations, and implement recommendations by independent monitoring bodies, including UN treaty bodies and special procedures.

[1] Please see annex for details on each case.

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