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(New York) - Uzbek authorities should immediately release Norboi Kholjigitov, a wrongfully imprisoned human rights defender who is critically ill with diabetes, Human Rights Watch said today. European Union officials who are in Tashkent on June 23 and 24, 2011, for human rights talks with the Uzbek government should make Kholjigitov's plight a key component of these discussions.

Kholjigitov became ill with diabetes after he was imprisoned in 2005, his family told Human Rights Watch. His condition has progressively worsened during his incarceration. Kholjigitov was transferred on May 1 from a Karshi prison, where he was serving a six-year, eight-month prison sentence, to a prison hospital in Tashkent, the capital, for treatment.

"The Uzbek government should never have sent Kholjigitov to prison in the first place," said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Given his failing health, which is undoubtedly linked to his imprisonment, keeping him locked up is nothing short of unconscionable."

Kholjigitov, 58, is a longstanding member of the Uzbek human rights group Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU), who defended farmers' rights in the Samarkand province, helping farmers fight expropriation of their farms. For many years before his arrest, he was also active in Ozod Dekhonlar (Free Peasants), an independent opposition political party.

Kholjigitov's relatives last saw him on May 18. Afterward, they told Human Rights Watch that Kholjigitov is in critically poor health. Due to problems with his blood circulation, a serious complication of diabetes, Kholjigitov's legs below the knees are affected with gangrene. He has lost feeling in his lower legs and feet, impairing his ability to walk, and his arms also "freeze up," they said. Previously, his family had reported that all of his teeth had fallen out, and after a visit with him in late April, they said that he suffered stomach problems because he could not fully chew his food.

Kholjigitov's relatives have had to purchase medicines for him, as the prison hospital has not provided them. They also bought Kholjigitov dentures.

The doctor at the prison hospital told Kholjigitov's family that he has asked to have Kholjigitov examined by an oncologist, as several lumps have appeared on his body. Kholjigitov's condition is further compromised because of a severe viral infection.

Earlier this year, Kholjigitov's family reported that prison authorities twice ignored his requests to be transferred to the prison hospital, despite his declining health.

Human Rights Watch called on the European Union to take a strong and principled stance on human rights concerns in Uzbekistan and to insist that the government fulfill all six human rights criteria set by EU foreign ministers. These include releasing all imprisoned human rights activists and others imprisoned on politically motivated charges.

The other criteria are: allow unimpeded operation of nongovernmental organizations; cooperate fully with all relevant UN special rapporteurs; guarantee freedom of speech and of the media; implement the conventions against child labor; and fully align election processes with Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and other international standards.

At least 13 human rights defenders are currently languishing in Uzbekistan's prisons for no other reason than their legitimate human rights work. They are: Solijon Abdurakhmanov, Azam Formonov, Nosim Isakov, Gaibullo Jalilov, Alisher Karamatov, Jamshid Karimov, Norboi Kholjigitov, Abdurasul Khudainasarov, Ganihon Mamatkhanov, Habibulla Okpulatov, Yuldash Rasulov, Dilmurod Saidov, and Akzam Turgunov. Many other journalists and political activists are similarly behind bars, as are thousands of "religious prisoners," whom the Uzbek government has labeled "extremists."

According to reports received by Human Rights Watch, several other imprisoned activists also have serious health problems, which are exacerbated by poor conditions and torture and other ill-treatment in Uzbekistan's notoriously abusive prison system. Among those whose health also demands immediate attention are Karamatov, Karimov, Khudainazarov, Jalilov, and Saidov.

Despite repeated commitments by EU foreign ministers and senior EU officials to make the relationship between the EU and Uzbekistan dependent on concrete and meaningful rights improvements, the Uzbek government's continued intransigence has yet to result in concrete policy consequences, Human Rights Watch said.

"The EU should demand Kholjigitov's release and make the release of all other wrongfully imprisoned human rights defenders a core demand during the human rights dialogue in Tashkent," Rittmann said. "The EU should insist on concrete results from its engagement with Tashkent, and there's hardly a more pressing one right now than Kholjigitov's release."Human rights defenders and other independent activists in Uzbekistan face regular interference, harassment, and detention by the authorities. In recent months, human rights activists have been repeatedly detained for holding peaceful protests in Tashkent. 

For example, on April 4, Abdullo Tojiboi-ugli, a human rights and political activist, was detained by police and fined after speaking to day laborers at the Kuilyuk bazaar about their constitutional rights. On June 10, police detained representatives of the Uzbek civil society organizations Ezgulik and the Expert Working Group, who were picketing the Kyrgyzstan Embassy to mark the first anniversary of the outbreak of violence in southern Kyrgyzstan a year ago. After several hours, the activists were released with a warning not to participate in picketing again.

Kholjigitov was arrested on June 4, 2005, on fabricated charges of extortion and slander. His arrest and trial took place in the midst of the Uzbek government's crackdown on civil society in the wake of the government massacre of largely peaceful protesters in Andijan. On June 23, HRSU reported that Uzbek central television had aired a program criticizing Kholjigitov and the Ozod Dekhonlar party. The program showed "representatives of the public" calling human rights defenders "enemies of the people."

On October 18, 2005, Kholjigitov was sentenced to 10 years in prison by the Samarkand Regional Criminal Court. Kholjigitov's family told Human Rights Watch that the judge at an appeals hearing in November 2005 reduced Kholjigitov's sentence by one third under an amnesty, leaving him with a six-year, eight-month prison sentence.

Kholjigitov has been subjected to ill-treatment and harassment by prison authorities, particularly after sending a complaint to the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan in November 2008. Prison officials reportedly threatened him with transfer to a psychiatric clinic if he continued to file complaints.

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