A year ago, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s authoritarian president disappeared from public life. Arrested under corruption allegations in February 2014 and apparently detained at her Tashkent home ever since, Gulnara Karimova – former ambassador, singer, fashion guru, social media star, and business tycoon – remains in a kind of sealed limbo, apparently unable to communicate directly with the outside world.
Karimova’s treatment over the last 12 months is far superior to that of thousands of other people in Uzbekistan suffering severe human rights abuses. Yet her high-profile case provides a telling insight into the dire state of human rights in Uzbekistan today.
Islam Karimov’s daughter became the ruling family’s black sheep at some point in 2013, railing publicly, mostly on Twitter, against those in Uzbekistan’s political elite Karimova felt had crossed her. At first, her concerns were primarily with corruption allegations thrown at her in several European countries. Criminal cases have been opened against her and her associates in various jurisdictions, including for money laundering in Switzerland. In response, she accused others in the political elite of dirty dealing.
Later, in 2013, she started mentioning human rights for the first time in her long career, accusing the country’s feared security services, commonly known by its acronym, the SNB, of torture. Even though Karimova’s statements almost exclusively concerned the supposed ill-treatment of her close associates, the public acknowledgment by a member of Uzbekistan’s ruling elite that such abuses are regularly committed by law enforcement bodies was unprecedented. This may have been the final straw for a father known for defiantly refusing to acknowledge any criticism, whether domestic or international, of his government’s appalling human rights record.
In mid-February last year, Karimova’s home was raided – a political earthquake for Uzbekistan given her position in the ruling family and her previous formal roles with the government. By her account, security forces threatened her daughter, badly beat her long-term partner before arresting him and another close associate; and took several others into custody on charges of corruption. A military court in Tashkent sentenced her long-term partner Rustam Madumarov and business associate Gayane Avakyan to 7 and 6 years imprisonment, respectively, although it is unclear whether they are serving these sentences behind bars.
A few days later, she was apparently under house arrest and has supposedly been there ever since, only able to leak out a few messages to the outside world through her son, Islam Karimov, Jr., and through a PR firm – both in the UK. Many years of speculation that her father might tap her to run as his handpicked successor for president in 2015 ended in January, when Karimov himself announced he would run for a fourth consecutive term as president, even though the constitution only allows him two.
Many people, familiar with her history, are unconcerned about her situation. She had, after all, been infamously tagged in a WikiLeaks cable as the ‘single most-hated person’ in Uzbekistan.
Karimova was an integral part of this government for many years and denied its systematic torture, its use of the forced labour of children and adults, and its mass killing of largely peaceful protesters in Andijan in 2005. As Uzbekistan’s representative to the UN in Geneva, where the UN Human Rights Council is located, she never uttered a word in defence of human rights, despite our calls on the government to end its human rights abuses and our numerous exchanges on Twitter directly with her imploring her to speak up. She was contemptuous of universal human rights at every step of her career – until her own rights were threatened.
Uzbekistan is holding dozens of journalists, human rights activists, and opposition figures on politically motivated charges; and thousands of peaceful religious believers have been locked up in horrific prisons and tortured, some for decades. Karimova’s conditions under house arrest remain murky, but they are certainly far better than those of long-term political prisoners in the country’s vile gulags.
One example is the rights activist Isroiljon Kholdorov, in prison since 2006 for speaking to the media about the mass graves in Andijan. Uzbek security services kidnapped Kholdorov from neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where he had fled for safety, and held him incommunicado in a room with boarded windows for six months before bringing him to trial on trumped-up charges.
Still, Karimova’s rights, like everyone else’s, should be protected. She has a right to a lawyer, and it’s unclear whether she has one. She has a right not be held in this sort of pre-trial limbo detention for such a long period. She has a right to a fair trial, too. But that is virtually impossible in Uzbekistan, where the judiciary is heavily dependent on the executive branch and where the independent legal profession has been dismantled through what have been described as legal ‘reforms.
Karimova also has a right to free expression – at the very least through a lawyer – to address, among other things, her current conditions and whereabouts. By all indications she is prohibited from doing so. Even those of us who didn’t agree with the things she was saying publicly in 2013 can still agree she had, and has, a right to say them, just like everyone else in Uzbekistan has, despite the government’s persistent refusal to acknowledge that right.
Also, Karimova’s story does not only concern her personal rise and fall. It is reasonably clear there has been a purge of those associated with her, not only those in her closest circle, but even employees of her businesses and foundations. Some young people have told Human Rights Watch they are being punished for having even a very tenuous connection to her once vast empire. It appears that their rights are also being trampled, and their individual cases ought to be impartially investigated.
Ultimately, Karimova’s case is about much more than her. It is indicative of Uzbekistan’s desperate human rights crisis, and underlines the need for robust international attention to its myriad abuses such as the absence of civil and political freedoms, torture, and endemic corruption. If the Uzbek government can trample the rights of even the president’s own daughter, then what hope is there for the rights of ordinary people?
Andrew Stroehlein is European media director at Human Rights Watch.
Steve Swerdlow is a Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.