Human Rights Defender Azam Farmonov. Farmonov has suffered serious torture and been imprisoned since 2006.

(Brussels) – Uzbek authorities should immediately and unconditionally release the imprisoned human rights defender Azam Farmonov, whose sentence has been arbitrarily extended for five years by an Uzbek court, Human Rights Watch said today.

The arbitrary extension of Farmonov’s prison term shortly before his scheduled release date for allegedly “violating prison rules,” came to light on May 21, 2015. The EU and the UN Committee against Torture have previously called for Farmonov’s release, and Tashkent’s persistent refusal to do so is an example of its blatant disregard for its international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

“Azam Farmonov has already lost nine years simply for being a human rights activist in Uzbekistan,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The cruel addition of five more years to his sentence is yet another sign that the Uzbek government should be made to pay a price for its abysmal human rights record.”

Farmonov, 36, a father of two children, was chairperson of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan in Gulistan, Syrdaryo region. He defended the rights of farmers and people with disabilities, including representing them in court as a lay defender. He was arrested on April 29, 2006, alongside another rights activist, Alisher Karamatov, on fabricated charges of extortion and sentenced to nine years after being tortured to confess and a trial marred by serious due process violations.

Farmonov’s sentence was to expire on April 29, 2015. But on April 6, authorities transferred him from the Jaslyk prison colony in Nukus, over 800 kilometers from Tashkent, to a punishment cell in the city of Nukus for unspecified “violations of prison rules” – a practice Uzbek authorities have typically used before extending the sentences of those imprisoned on politically motivated charges.

On May 21, Farmonov’s wife, Ozoda Yakubova – the daughter of prominent human rights defender Tolib Yakubov, now in France – received a phone call from a former detainee in the Nukus pretrial detention center informing her that a regional court had extended Farmonov’s sentence by five years for allegedly violating prison rules and that he had been transferred back to Jaslyk prison. Yakubova was not notified of the trial dates for the extension and neither she nor any independent observers were able to attend the trial.

Human Rights Watch has documented the practice of arbitrarily extending the sentences of people imprisoned on political charges. The action is often taken just days before the person is to be released, on bogus grounds such as possessing “unauthorized” nail clippers, saying prayers, or wearing a white shirt and may result in years of additional imprisonment.

Farmonov’s family also revealed that they had received a note Farmonov had written on toilet paper in which he appeals to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to raise the issue of his unjust treatment directly with President Islam Karimov and senior officials in the Uzbek government. “There is no right of appeal for the prisoners of [Jaslyk],” Farmonov wrote. “The prison allows any official to accuse any prisoner of disobeying the prison rules and to detain them in an isolation cell.”

Ban is scheduled to visit Uzbekistan from June 9 to 11 and should urge President Karimov to uphold Uzbekistan’s international human rights commitments and release all those held on politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch and other groups recently called on members of the UN Human Rights Council, including EU member states, to establish a UN special rapporteur devoted to the atrocious human rights situation in Uzbekistan. The special rapporteur’s mandate would include a special focus on the continuing imprisonment of human rights defenders, journalists, and other peaceful activists.

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.

The EU, the UN Committee against Torture, and other bodies have earlier called for Farmonov’s release. In an official statement by then-European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, at a January 2011 meeting in Brussels with Karimov, Barroso raised specific human rights concerns, including Farmonov’s unjust imprisonment and ill-treatment.

In its 2014 human rights dialogue with Uzbekistan, the EU noted its concern with the authorities’ practice arbitrarily extending sentences. But an EU statement on May 18 following a meeting of the EU-Uzbekistan Cooperation Council read, “the EU welcomed Uzbekistan’s readiness to discuss about human rights with the EU in an increasingly open fashion within the Human Rights Dialogue.”

“The extension of an unjust sentence for a human rights defender, not Uzbek officials’ hollow rhetoric, is the real test of whether the government is ‘ready’ to improve human rights,” Swerdlow said. “This deeply unjust action should prompt an appropriate, robust response by the EU and other actors.”