Human Rights Developments
The government registered its first alternative parties in years and held a multiparty election and a popular referendum. It adopted institutional mechanisms for strengthening human rights and reached out diplomatically to its political opposition and to the international community far more than in previous years. These developments effected some short-term improvements, most notably the release of seven political prisoners: Pulatjon Okhunov, Otanazar Oripov, Inomjon Tursunov, Salavat Umurzakov and Nosir Zokirov (November 1994), Ibragim Buriev (April 1995) and Mukhtabar Akhmedova (June 1995).
However, the violations that earned Uzbekistan's government its stigma in the first place continued in 1995, including politically motivated arrests of political dissidents and Islamic leaders, violent abuse of opposition and human rights activists, cruel and inhuman treatment in pre-trial detention, violations of due process rights, refusal to register opposition parties and independent advocacy groups, and oppressive censorship.
The most dramatic improvements during the year were on the diplomatic front. The government welcomed the opening of an Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) regional liaison office in the capital, Tashkent; began to engage in a joint project on human rights and governance with the U.N. Development Programme; in November 1995 reversed an almost three-year ban on Human Rights Watch's fieldwork by extending its representatives an invitation to return to Uzbekistan; and held high-level meetings in Washington, D.C. with Human Rights Watch and with leaders of its own political opposition, with whom there had been no dialogue in several years. These steps were welcome, but as of this writing, dialogue appeared more sustained with foreigners than with domestic critics: the scheduled follow-up meeting between the government and the opposition had not materialized six months later.
Efforts to promote human rights on the institutional level were also a promising sign but as of this writing had not yet effected real change. In February, the government created a human rights commission as part of the Supreme Council; in June set up a Commission on the Observance of the Constitutional Rights and Liberties of Citizens; and in August passed a law allowing any action or decision violating civil rights and liberties to be contested. These moves seemed to be mere window-dressing, however: the government liquidated the existing human rights commission, and the right to protection of civil liberties was already enshrined in Uzbekistan's federal and international obligations.
The government claimed_so far unconvincingly_that decentralization of political power was one of its prime advances. On December 25, 1994, it held what were hailed in the local media as the first multiparty parliamentary elections since independence, and on March 26, 1995, conducted a national referendum on the presidency. But these proved a sham. By June 3, 1995, the government had registered three parties other than the ruling Popular-Democratic Party, but did not lift its effective ban on the most vocal opposition parties, Erk (meaning Strength or Will) and Birlik (Unity) and refused to register a nascent opposition party, Adolat (Justice), indeed registering a much tamer party under that same name. Thus, while the elections were technically multiparty, differences among the party platforms were insignificant and the electorate was still denied access to the full spectrum of political options.
Moreover, the elections were held in an intimidating atmosphere. For example, Rashid Bekjon, a leader of the banned Erk Party, was arrested on December 11, 1994, reportedly in possession of flyers urging an election boycott, and was sentenced a half-year later to five years in jail on unrelated charges. Similarly, on March 31, one co-founder of the embryonic Adolat Party, Ibragim Buriev, was arrested on charges of, inter alia, illegal drug and arms possession, which were believed to have been falsified. He was released a month later, allegedly for health reasons, but also as a concession to criticism of his arrest. Ultimately, 90 percent of parliamentary seats went to members of the ruling party, and in the March referendum, an implausible 99.6 percent of eligible voters approved extending President Islam Karimov's tenure to the year 2000.
Soon after the referendum, the other unregistered Adolat co-founder and a leading political opponent of President Karimov, Shukhrullo Mirsaidov, was violently assaulted for the fifth time in two years, allegedly by security agents. On April 18, he reported, he was kidnaped, drugged, stripped of his clothes, and photographed on video with a naked woman, presumably to discredit or blackmail him later, and his son was kidnapped and rendered helpless after being sprayed with gas. Saidov's unprecedented ability to hold a high-visibility press conference following the incident was a sign of the increased tolerance of critical speech the government exhibited for foreign consumption in 1995; the fact that the abuse occurred in the first place, and that no criminal investigation resulted, as of this writing, was a sign of how far the government would have to go to improve its actual human rights record.
Free, peaceful expression continued to be in jeopardy since publication of our last World Report. At the end of 1994, the government stripped American correspondent Steve LeVine of his journalist's accreditation and forced him to leave Uzbekistan, apparently because his writings displeased the government. Later in the year he was allowed to return to Uzbekistan but as of this writing, his accreditation had not yet been restored. On January 22, 1995, dissident Mukhtabar Akhmedova was arrested on charges of insulting a public official in connection with a letter she wrote protesting a government proposal to raze parts of the capital's old town. She was sentenced to four years in prison but amnestied on June 13.
Two cases indicated continuing abuse of criminal suspects during arrest and interrogation. On March 30, seven people associated with the unregistered Erk Party were sentenced to long prison terms stemming from allegations of involvement in a plot to overthrow the government. Reportedly, most were badly beaten during arrest and interrogation and forced to incriminate themselves and others. In July, two young women held in detention were intimidated into submitting to unwanted abortions, allegedly to elicit a confession. In a clear concession to public outcry, prison authorities released the women pending trial on October 5, and in late October reportedly ordered the head of the National Security Service (former KGB), the government agency responsible for their mistreatment, to take immediate, unplanned retirement.
The Right to Monitor
A small number of independent activists did monitor human rights this year, though at personal risk. To note only one case, Mikhail Ardzinov reported that security agents were probably behind the violent assault on him on March 9: two men knocked him down and drove off with his briefcase, but drove by again within minutes and threw it back to him. Trial monitoring equipment, notes he had been taking as he observed a political trial, and the iron rod he habitually carried with him to protect himself from just such attacks were missing from the briefcase.
The Role of the International Community
The U.S. continued to be the only country known to have kept human rights high on its bilateral agenda with Uzbekistan. The Clinton administration actively monitored human rights conditions, issued démarches and conducted interventions even as it welcomed the government's increased willingness to address human rights concerns. To highlight only one example, the U.S., working bilaterally and through the OSCE and the Congressional Working Group on International Women's Human Rights, vigorously protested the cases of forced abortion.
A visit in May by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Nancy Ely-Raphel, during which she reportedly raised concern about ongoing violations and met with activists, was followed by the signing of a treaty in June allowing U.S. citizens to travel freely within Uzbekistan. Through the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a government-funded organization linked to the Democratic Party, the U.S. sponsored the unprecedented meeting of official and opposition figures in January and again invited top officials to Washington for talks in June.
The administration also conveyed its distaste for Uzbekistan's practices by refusing to issue President Karimov a coveted invitation, although Vice-President Gore met with him in Washington, D.C. while President Karimov was in the U.S. in November for the fiftieth-anniversary U.N. celebrations.
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki