Video blogger Sardor Kamilov (left) accosts Human Rights Watch researcher Steve Swerdlow at a hotel in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, June 13, 2019.

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(Berlin) – A Human Rights Watch researcher, Steve Swerdlow, was the target of an aggressive verbal attack while on a visit to Uzbekistan to investigate human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. The organization condemned the attack in Tashkent on June 13, 2019, which appears to be part of a wider smear campaign against Human Rights Watch, other human rights activists, and journalists in Uzbekistan.

On the morning of June 13, Sardor Komilov, a video blogger, and four other people went to the hotel where Swerdlow was staying in Tashkent. Komilov told the reception staff he was a guest of Swerdlow’s, called his room, and pretended to be a victim of abuses seeking Human Rights Watch’s help.

When Swerdlow came downstairs, Komilov and the others surrounded him on all sides, often blocking his movement, following and filming him for 20 minutes. Komilov verbally attacked Swerdlow with a series of unfounded accusations, many mirroring smears that have appeared online in recent weeks. Before driving off, they told Swerdlow to “get the hell out of Uzbekistan.”

“Human Rights Watch stands fully by our expert Steve Swerdlow and his outstanding investigations into Uzbek officials who violate human rights, and we condemn this brazen attack,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “This is clearly an attempt to intimidate Steve and appears to be part of an ongoing online campaign to try to discredit the work of human rights organizations and rights defenders in Uzbekistan. This effort to discredit human rights defenders will fail.” 

Human Rights Watch renewed its on-the-ground research in Uzbekistan in August 2017, after years of being prevented from operating in the country. This incident stands in stark contrast to other Human Rights Watch visits since 2017, during which staff members have largely been able to interact freely with nongovernmental organizations, government officials, and international organizations without harassment.

Several senior government officials have contacted Swerdlow since the incident to obtain information and note their concern.

The government has in recent years taken positive steps to improve its human rights record in key areas, but serious violations persist, including torture in prison, many people jailed on politically motivated charges, and severe limits on freedom of assembly, speech, and association.

Human Rights Watch is very concerned at the signal this incident sends to civil society, including human rights defenders and journalists. The government should protect free speech while also taking steps to protect the right of these groups to operate in a safe environment, free of intimidation, on-and-offline.