(Moscow) – Russian authorities should investigate death threats against Vitalii Ponomarev, the lead Central Asia expert with Memorial Human Rights Center, Human Rights Watch said today. The investigation should be prompt and comprehensive, and Russia should seek cooperation from Uzbek authorities to ensure its thoroughness, Human Rights Watch said.
“These are vile threats and clearly aimed at intimidating a top human rights expert,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Russian and Uzbek authorities should identify those behind these threats and hold them accountable.”
On January 12, Ponomarev, head of the Central Asia program at Memorial Human Rights Center, received a series of anonymous threats against him and his family by email. Ponomarev told Human Rights Watch the authors sent threatening emails, in Russian and Uzbek, from three different email addresses within a span of three minutes. On January 18, the day Ponomarev published a news release about the threats, he received yet another threatening email.
The authors threatened to kill Ponomarev’s family, and to kill him should he go to southern Kyrgyzstan. Ponomarev told Human Rights Watch the emails were short, threatened to decapitate Ponomarev, and said, “we know where you live in Moscow and where you stay in Bishkek, Jalal-Abad, and Osh,” all cities in Kyrgyzstan.
Ponomarev travels regularly to Kyrgyzstan but has not traveled to Uzbekistan since the late 1990s.
Ponomarev told Human Rights Watch the emails were sent from a single IP address registered in Tashkent.
On January 18, Memorial filed a criminal complaint with the Federal Security Service and the Moscow prosecutor’s office, requesting an investigation to identify and hold responsible those making the threats.
Ponomarev is one of Russia’s leading experts on human rights in Central Asia. In recent years he has investigated and published reports on the Uzbek government’s crackdown on Islamists in the region and the actions by Uzbek security services on Russian territory. Ponomarev is an expert on Islamist groups in southern Kyrgyzstan and reported extensively about the June 2010 violence between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in southern Kyrgyzstan and its aftermath. In May 2012, he published, together with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, “A Chronicle of Violence”, a comprehensive report on the 2010 violence.
On December 26, 2012, Ponomarev published a report about how Uzbek security services interrogated and beat an Uzbek national, Latif Zhalalbaev, in a Russian prison. Zhalalbaev was a migrant worker in Russia when he was arrested and sentenced in October 2012 on counterfeiting charges. The security agents allegedly were seeking information about the financing of an Islamist militant group by individuals from Namangan, in the Fergana Valley. The report alleged the officials warned Zhalalbaev that after his release he would be extradited to Uzbekistan, where he would be tortured and “rot in prison.”
The security official’s reference was apparently to the death of another Uzbek national, Abdusamat Fazletdinov, who was found hanged in a Russian pre-trial cell in Moscow. On December 10, Ponomarev published a news release stating that Fazletdinov committed suicide following a visit and interrogation by Uzbek security service officers who threatened to torture him once he was extradited to Uzbekistan on charges of “extremist activity.”
Ponomarev’s accounts of alleged involvement by Uzbek special services in unlawful actions outside Uzbekistan are not the first time such allegations have been made. In 2011 and 2012, several political opposition figures and Uzbek human rights activists living in exile, including in Russia, were victims of acts of violence or targeted killings, incidents to which the Uzbek government were allegedly linked.
In February 2012, an unknown assailant shot Imam Obidhon-kori Nazarov, a prominent Uzbek religious leader, in Sweden. Nazarov was one of Uzbekistan’s most popular religious figures in the 1990s until the government shut down his mosque, forcing him and thousands of his followers into exile. The assassination attempt came after years of death threats and intimidation. Sweden's Chief Prosecutor Krister Petersson stated that Uzbekistan's secret services were likely behind the attack.
In April 2012, Uzbek authorities aired a 20-minute television program accusing France-based human rights activist Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association of Human Rights in Central Asia, of stealing millions of dollars, and calling for her extradition. The film came days after Atayeva had publicly called for an investigation into an assassination attempt on Nazarov.