(New York) - Uzbek authorities should fully investigate the harassment of several human rights activists the day after they appeared on a Russian news program, Human Rights Watch said today.
On April 24, 2011, human rights activists, including Elena Urlaeva, head of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, appeared on a television program Special Correspondent, on the Russian channel Rossiya 1, which explored conditions for ethnic Russians in countries in Central Asia 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The activists described meager pensions in Uzbekistan and talked about how streets formerly named after Russian authors have been renamed in Uzbek. Urlaeva spoke about how she has been subjected to forced psychiatric treatment in Uzbekistan. The next night, groups of three to four women accosted the activists at their homes, screaming insults at them for speaking on the Russian program.
"The timing and similarity of these harassment incidents suggest that they were organized and premeditated," said Rachel Denber, acting Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The Uzbek authorities should not tolerate such blatant harassment of human rights activists."
A European Parliament delegation was in Tashkent on April 26 and 27 for meetings with the Uzbek authorities, civil society activists, and representatives of the diplomatic community and international organizations that have a presence in Tashkent. Human Rights Watch encouraged the delegation to use these meetings to call on the Uzbek government to stop persecuting human rights defenders, allow nongovernmental organizations to work without interference, and release imprisoned human rights activists.
Urlaeva told Human Rights Watch that at about 10:30 p.m. on April 25, a group of three women knocked loudly on her apartment door. When Urlaeva opened it, the women shouted insults at her, saying she had disgraced Uzbekistan. They demanded that she come outside, and tried to grab her and pull her out of her apartment. Urlaeva's husband intervened and managed to close the door. The women continued to shout insults outside Urlaeva's apartment and to knock loudly on the door.
The women left after about 20 minutes. Urlaeva told Human Rights Watch it took an hour for the neighborhood police officer to come to her apartment to take her statement about the episode.
Small groups of women made similar visits that night to the homes of two other human rights activists, Tatyana Dovlatova at about 10 p.m. and Viktoriya Bazhenova at about 11 p.m.
Dovlatova went out to meet the four women who came to her house. They screamed at her, demanding to know why she was on television and told her she "disgraced Uzbekistan."
Bazhenova's mother, Lyudmila Kutepova, who lives with her daughter and, like Bazhenova, is a member of the Alliance, said that at least four women outside their apartment shouted insults, and knocked and kicked on their door for a little over an hour, saying that they should leave Uzbekistan for "your Russia." Kutepova said she called the police three times before a neighborhood police officer finally came to their apartment, but by that time, the group had left.
"Of course it's important that police took statements from the activists," Denber said. "But the government should investigate these incidents thoroughly and ensure the security of these activists."
Groups of apparent government proxies have attacked human rights defenders in their homes before. For example, on August 18, 2006, during a visit to Jizzakh by a Western diplomat, a group of 15 to 20 women tried to force themselves into the home of a human rights defender, Bakhtior Khamroev, after his wife opened the door. The women shouted that Khamroev had sold out his motherland. Some of them picked up shoes in the corridor and threw them at his family. One picked up a metal shoe horn and threw it at Khamroev, injuring his face.
Civil society in Uzbekistan faces frequent threats, intimidation, and harassment. For many years, human rights defenders, independent journalists, and members of the political opposition have been subjected to physical attacks, threatened by local authorities, and placed under house arrest. At least 13 human rights defenders are serving lengthy prison terms on politically motivated charges, one in a closed psychiatric ward.
Urlaeva is the head of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan. For more than a decade, she has been monitoring and reporting on a wide range of human rights issues, including police abuse, torture, forced child labor, and more recently, economic and social rights. Uzbek authorities have subjected her to forced psychiatric treatment on numerous occasions in retribution for her activism. In 2010, she was awarded the Per Anger Prize in Sweden for her "non-violent and unselfish struggle for human rights in her country."
Bazhenova, an Alliance member, has participated in peaceful protests and has written on a variety of topics, including housing issues and the environment. On December 6, after participating in a peaceful protest with other human rights defenders, she was detained, tried on administrative charges, and fined.
Since 2005, activist Tatyana Dovlatova has participated in pickets and monitored trials. In 2011 an Uzbek court convicted her on "hooliganism" charges in a trial riddled with procedural violations. For example, Dovlatova was not informed of when there would be closing arguments, which prevented her from even making a closing statement in her own defense. She was immediately granted amnesty, but her conviction remains on record.