(Berlin) - Germany should use the visit to Berlin by Uzbekistan's deputy foreign minister on May 24 through 26, 2011, to press for concrete improvements in human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Germany should make clear to the Uzbek government that enhanced relations depend on real human rights improvements, Human Rights Watch said.

Despite the Uzbek government's abysmal rights record and defiance of European Union (EU) calls for improvements, Germany has deepened its engagement with Uzbekistan with no strings attached. New information has come to light in recent weeks about Germany's payments of millions of euros to Uzbekistan for use of an airbase in Termez for operations in Afghanistan during a period when the EU had imposed sanctions and human rights criteria on the Uzbek government.

"Hosting high-level officials from Uzbekistan comes with a duty to speak out about the government's atrocious rights record," said Steve Swerdlow, Uzbekistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Germany needs to let Uzbekistan know that there will be no more business as usual."

Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov is a key official in the government of President Islam Karimov and previously served as foreign minister and Uzbekistan's ambassador to Germany.

Norov is scheduled to meet with officials from the Foreign Office, the Federal Chancellery, and the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner as well as representatives of the Bundestag.

The EU sanctions were imposed in response to Uzbekistan's massacre of mostly unarmed civilians on May 13, 2005, in the eastern city of Andijan and a relentless crackdown on human rights in its aftermath. According to the media reports, Germany paid a total of €67.9 million from 2005 through 2009 for use of the Termez base, with the payments rising each year the sanctions were in place and falling in 2008, when the sanctions were almost completely lifted. The payments in 2010 totaled €25.9 million, and payments are expected to continue as long as Germany uses the base.

At the same time that Germany quietly pursued these strategic interests worth millions of euros to the Uzbek government, Germany was criticizing the EU's sanctions and the human rights criteria linked to easing them, arguing that they were ineffective policy tools. The German government should explain whether it has considered alternatives to Termez, and if so why it has ruled them out in favor of supporting a government that continues to commit grave human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

On May 19, four Bundestag members urged Chancellor Angela Merkel to raise the cases of imprisoned human rights defenders in her government's interactions with Uzbekistan. Led by Viola von Cramon, the legislators said that "the Uzbek government has a long record violating the basic rights of its citizens," and declared that the "German government's engagement with the Uzbek government must include a consistent and frank dialogue regarding its ongoing human rights violations."

At least 13 human rights activists and numerous journalists and political activists are languishing in prisons in Uzbekistan in retaliation for their work, many of whom have been subjected to torture and ill-treatment. Torture and ill-treatment are widespread in both pretrial detention and prisons across Uzbekistan, and the Uzbek government persistently refuses to allow domestic or international nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, to operate in the country.

Muslims who practice their faith outside state controls are persecuted for their beliefs, with hundreds convicted on religious extremism charges every year, and many others re-tried on spurious prison violation charges to keep them incarcerated years after their original sentences are complete. Widespread use of government-sponsored forced labor, including child labor, to collect the annual cotton harvest is a pervasive human rights concern in Uzbekistan.

Germany should use the opportunity of Minister Norov's visit to press for concrete improvements, including the human rights criteria established by the EU's Foreign Affairs Council which are:

  • Release all imprisoned human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience;
  • Allow unimpeded operation of nongovernmental organizations in the country;
  • Cooperate fully with all relevant UN Special Rapporteurs;
  • Guarantee freedom of speech and of the media;
  • Proceed with the practical implementation of the conventions against child labor;
  • Fully align its election processes with international standards.

"Recent events across the Middle East and North Africa have shown that unconditional support for hardened autocracies neither guarantees stability, nor advances human rights," said Swerdlow. "Germany should use its considerable influence in Central Asia and its role as an EU member state to make clear to the Uzbek government that enhanced relations depend on real human rights improvements."