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(Brussels) – Uzbek authorities have transferred an imprisoned human rights defender to a punishment cell, a move that indicates they may intend to arbitrarily extend his sentence on trumped-up charges. The authorities should immediately and unconditionally release the human rights defender, Azam Farmonov, and should not arbitrarily extend his sentence.

Farmonov, known for his work promoting farmers’ rights, has been behind bars since 2006 and is scheduled to be released on April 29, 2015. But on April 6, authorities transferred him from Jaslyk prison colony in the northwestern Karakalpakstan autonomous region to a punishment cell in the city of Nukus for unspecified “violations of prison rules” – a practice Uzbek authorities have typically used before extending political prisoners’ sentences.

“Azam Farmonov has already lost almost a decade of his life and suffered horrific torture behind bars for no reason other than his courageous work,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Uzbek authorities should release him now and stop the exceedingly cruel practice of arbitrarily extending sentences for years on the eve of release.”

Farmonov’s wife, Ozoda Yakubova, told Human Rights Watch that an unidentified prison official called her daughter on April 12 to inform her that Farmonov was transferred “to set him up for an [sentence] extension.” The minimum extension for “violations of prison rules” is three years.

Human Rights Watch has documented the practice of extending for years political prisoners’ sentences of people imprisoned on political charges. The action is often taken just days before the person is to be released, on insignificant and often farcical grounds such as possessing “unauthorized” nail clippers, saying prayers, or wearing a white shirt. Officials have four times extended the sentence of a peaceful opposition figure, Murod Juraev, imprisoned since 1994. The most recent extension, in 2012, was for infractions including “incorrectly peeling carrots” in the prison kitchen. 

Farmonov, 36, a father of two children, was chairperson of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU) in Gulistan, Syrdaryo region. He monitored violations of social and economic rights with a focus on the rights of farmers and people with disabilities. He also defended them in court as a lay public defender. He was arrested on April 29, 2006, alongside another rights activist, Alisher Karamatov, on fabricated charges of extortion.

Due process violations marred Farmonov’s pretrial detention and trial. Authorities held both men incommunicado for several days and tortured them. Officers of the National Security Service (SNB) placed sealed gas masks on their heads to simulate suffocation and beat their legs and feet, pressuring them to “confess.” During a search of Farmonov’s home on the day of his arrest, police beat Yakubova, who was pregnant. Farmonov was not represented by independent counsel at his trial. On June 15, 2006, the Yangiyo’l City Court sentenced him to nine years in prison. Farmonov has reported that authorities tortured him frequently in the first years of his sentence, including stripping him to his underwear, handcuffing him, and leaving him in an unheated punishment cell for 23 days in January 2008, when temperatures reached approximately -20 degrees Celsius.

Farmonov’s relatives and rights defenders believe that his lengthy prison term and abuses he has suffered have caused serious damage to his health. In a July 2013 meeting with his wife, he described constant tooth pain and the appearance of a number of hard lumps in various places on his body. Beyond routine check-ups, prison authorities have denied Farmonov’s repeated requests for medical and dental care.

Farmonov’s family told Human Rights Watch that authorities had previously blocked his eligibility for early release by charging him with multiple violations of prison rules, including “helping prisoners write appeals,” often shortly before the government’s Constitution Day amnesty declaration, at which time eligible prisoners are announced.

Uzbekistan has one of the world’s worst human rights records and has unlawfully imprisoned thousands of people for the peaceful exercise of their freedom of expression. Rights activists, journalists, and others imprisoned on politically motivated charges suffer torture and abysmal prison conditions.

Uzbekistan’s authoritarian president Islam Karimov has ruled the country continuously since being appointed Communist Party boss of the then-Soviet republic in 1989. In March 2015, he won the presidency in an election that monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) said lacked genuine opposition and was marred by legal and organizational shortcomings.

“By now, the US and EU are well aware of President Islam Karimov’s routine practice of imprisoning human rights defenders like Azam Farmonov for lengthy terms to stamp out dissent,” Swerdlow said. “The time has come for these and other key governments to let President Karimov know that there will be meaningful consequences for their bilateral ties unless he immediately releases all those imprisoned on politically motivated charges and lives up to Uzbekistan’s international commitments.”

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