Human Rights Developments
There were contrary tendencies of abuse and reform in Uzbekistan in 1996, although almost all human rights continued to be denied. The government maintained complete control of the media, and perpetrated or allowed the abuse of detainees and prisoners, interference with the independence of the judiciary, and a crackdown against members of the Islamic community. Nevertheless, the release of some prisoners of conscience, improvement in the right to monitor, and the federal authorities= greater willingness to address new abuses brought to their attention by international actors made 1996 a more promising year for human rights in Uzbekistan. Generally, the government=s pledges of reform brought Uzbekistan greater international approval than its actual human rights record warranted. By year=s end, increased attacks on dissidents suggested that the promises were empty words.
Perhaps the most pervasive violation of human rights in Uzbekistan remained denial of free speech, typified by total government control of the mass media and the widespread intimidation of journalists. A May 8 presidential decree and repeated presidential exhortations to journalists to be more critical of the government rang false. Media were still used fundamentally for state propaganda. The government attempted to boost its image in February by bringing a delegation of high-profile journalists from Russia to tour Uzbekistan, but it strictly controlled their movements during their stay. Several journalists who asked to remain anonymous reported that they had been threatened with loss of their jobs because their line of inquiry was displeasing to the government. In separate incidents, President Karimov and the head of the state television and radio, Shahnoza Ghanieva, deliberately misrepresented protests of abuse by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki representatives as statements that the organization had, on the contrary, found all reports of abuse to be unfounded.
The Russian-language media were particularly hard-hit in 1996. In February, Interfax correspondent Sergei Grebeniuk was found murdered. A police investigation did not result in any arrests, sending a chilling message to journalists, particularly Russians, in Uzbekistan. In January, Goskompechat= froze publication of the Russian Cultural Center=s newspaper Vestnik Kul=tury (Toshkent) immediately after the first issue had appeared and, in August, Russian Radio Mayak was reportedly ordered closed beginning in January 1997. The information blockade was so severe that many Russian-speakers reportedly cited it as the reason for their emigration in 1996.
Abuse during arrest, detention, and incarceration remained serious problems in 1996. Residents were detained and interrogated without legal grounds and mistreated for the purposes of intimidation or extortion. The release of some political prisoners this year gave a crucial glimpse into abusive practices. According to testimony taken by a then-member of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, Safar Bekjon was beaten 106 times during six months in Karshi prison, or almost once per day, and Gaipnazar Kushchanov was regularly beaten by guards, losing three teeth as a result, in Kyzyl Teppe pre-trial detention center.
Police entrapment of dissidents also continued in 1996. On August 12, police raided the home of Kochkar Ahmedov, a member of the banned Birlik movement. He was later accused of possessing several grams of marijuana and two pistol cartridges that allegedly were found during the raid. The charges fall into a well-known pattern of charges falsified by the police against dissidents. His trial had not begun as of this writing. The families of opposition figure Shukhrullo Mirsaidov, activist and Radio Liberty journalist Iadgor Obid, and independent cleric Obidkhon Qori Nazarov were badly harassed by the police in the capital, Toshkent, and threatened with eviction. Most dramatically, on November 9, Mr. Mirsaidov=s son, Hasan, was kidnapped, beaten, threatened with death, and releasedCan uncanny revisiting of the same kidnapping and beating he and his father had suffered in 1995 in the darkest days of government repression. Freedom of association also remained severely limited in 1996. Genuinely alternative political parties remained banned for the fourth straight year.
The government continued to deny the existence of a state-sponsored crackdown on leaders of independent, as opposed to state-run, mosques and their followers in Toshkent and in the Farghona Valley. There, the government harassed, detained, fired from work, and illegally deported dozens of these individuals. On February 24, for example, some fifty security agents surrounded the Tokhtaboi mosque in Toshkent during prayer time, and a representative of the local administration announced that the mosque=s prayer leader, Obidkhon Qori Nazarov, was dismissed from work. Then the forces reportedly beat some twenty people, put four under administrative arrest for alleged Ahooliganism,@ fined others, and ordered his deputy, Tahir Ibrahimov, deported to Tajikistan, where his family lived. These events, coupled with the failure to find three high-profile clerics believed to have been Adisappeared@ by security forcesCAbdulla Utaev (1992), Abduvali Qori Mirzo and Ramazanbek Matkarimov (1995)C silenced many Muslims.
At the same time, a June amnesty on the eve of President Islam Karimov=s working visit to the United States liberated five prisoners of conscience: Rashid Bekjon, brother of exiled Democratic Party Erk leader Mohammed Solih; Abdulla Abdurazzakov; Safar Bekjon; Gaipnazar Kushchanov; and Mukhammadnabi Mirkomilov. An August 7 amnesty released political dissidents Makhmadali Makhmudov, Tolibjon Artykov, Shavqat Mamatov and Khoshim Suvanov, and also reduced the sentences of other prisoners of conscience by a quarter to a half. But four new political arrests were also made: on February 13, three scholars affiliated with Samarqand State UniversityCKholiknazar Ghaniev, Bakhtiar Nabii-oghli, and Nosim BoboevCwere arrested for possession of the banned Erk (Toshkent) newspaper. Under international pressure, the men were released on April 13 and the charges dropped.
The Right to Monitor
Despite some abuse of human rights activists, the right to monitor improved this year, as did the government=s willingness to respond to reports of abuse. Fear of reprisals generally prevented local residents from investigating and reporting on violations of their own civil and political rights, however.
In March, secretary of the unregistered Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan Polina Braunerg and her son were arrested in Almalyk and interrogated about her Aspying@ activities. After international outcry, the case against her and her son was suspended but the charges were not dropped. At the end of 1995, when leading activist Mikhail Ardzinov was in the United States to receive a human rights award from Human Rights Watch, police reportedly broke into his Toshkent home, removed his telephone and camera, and sealed his apartment. During the September seminar of the OSCE=s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, activist Ahmadjon Abdullaev was detained and interrogated for an hour after having met with a representative of Amnesty International, and others reported heavy surveillance. It is likely that the police=s overnight detention and mistreatment on August 30 of John MacLeod, the director of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki=s Toshkent-based Central Asia office, was meant as intimidation for his activities.
At the same time, some new doors opened to monitoring and reporting by local residents in 1996. An intense international support campaign secured eleventh-hour permission, illegally denied, for the long-banned Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan to hold its organizing congress on September 7. The congress was held without interference, epitomized by the presence of society chairman Abdumannob Polat, who had returned to Uzbekistan for the first time since fleeing it for asylum in the United States in 1993. On June 14, the Ministry of Justice registered the nongovernmental Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, despite the group=s failure to comply with all provisions of the law on social organizations, strongly suggesting that it enjoyed government backing: the ostensible reason for prior rejection of the registration application of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan had been its failure to meet all legal requirements.
International monitoring also expanded in 1996. The two-and-a-half-year visa ban on Human Rights Watch/Helsinki was lifted and a field investigation permitted in November 1995 as well as numerous high-level meetings. In July, a branch office was registered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (registration by the Ministry of Justice was pending) and began operating.
The parliament=s human rights commission completed its first full year of activity as a channel for citizens to seek government intervention on cases of abuse. It was not active on cases of political harassment, but did give an unusually candid assessment of government impediments to monitoring (Narodnoe Slovo, Toshkent, July 16), such as that Athe people responsible cannot be bothered to make the effort, or lack the basic competence [to do so], which means the state funds spent on checking endless complaints are wasted.@
The Role of the International Community
With the exception of the U.S. government and OSCE and, to a lesser extent, the U.N. and the government of the United Kingdom, the international community left human rights off its visible Uzbekistan agenda in 1996. Attempts by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki to inform the international business community involved in Uzbekistan about state-sponsored abuse and urge that it use its influential voice to press for reform had no apparent impact in 1996.
The United Nations
In February, the UNDP, in conjunction with ODIHR and the U.N. Centre for Human Rights, conducted a government needs assessment trip, which in part included human rights concerns, and submitted a proposed program for implementation. With the exception of representatives of the U.N. Centre for Human Rights and ODIHR, however, the delegation failed to act on information contained in a detailed briefing paper submitted by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, and rejected opportunities to consult with local activists. A UNDP representative in Toshkent reported that the UNDP office had made some interventions during the year but declined to mention which.
The European Union
On June 20, Uzbekistan and the E.U. signed an Agreement on Cooperation and Partnership which conditions implementation on respect for human rights as outlined in OSCE documents. However, that element was not stressed prior to the signing. On the contrary, during an April 8 visit to Uzbekistan, European Commissioner Hans van den Broek inexplicably praised Uzbekistan=s Aserious progress in ensuring that human rights were defended.@ The European Parliament can still use its power to reject final approval of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Uzbekistan to show concern that Uzbekistan seriously breached its human rights clause even before the agreement was ratified.
The OSCE worked actively in Uzbekistan in 1996. It helped promote a human rights dialogue with the Uzbekistan government by maintaining a regional liaison office in Toshkent, sending delegations, and conducting two seminars on human rights topics in the fall of 1996. Although these seminars fixed much-needed scrutiny on Uzbekistan=s human rights record, neither ODIHR nor the OSCE as such insisted on making even minimum improvements a prerequisite for conducting the seminars and failed to insist at the planning stages on adequate participation by nongovernmental actors at all seminars. The addition of a full-time human rights officer promised to strengthen the otherwise lackluster human rights work of the OSCE=s regional office.
The United States
The U.S. remained in the forefront of international governmental efforts to address human rights concerns in Uzbekistan in 1996, but prematurely weakened its stance by dramatically enhancing its support for the government.
The embassy conducted important interventions on behalf of victims, paid welcome and rare attention to the crackdown against Muslims, and the State Department=s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor consistently stressed that the progress to date fell short of international commitments and submitted specific demands and case work to the government. The U.S. is likely to have won the release of five prisoners of conscience in June, encouraged an open exchange of information with the government, and also used its membership in the OSCE effectively to promote human rights.
But it also offered an unprecedented degree of support for Uzbekistan, based more on promises of reform than actual reform. The most dramatic evidence of the new policy came in June when President Karimov came to the U.S. for a Aworking@ visit (functionally an official visit). The trip granted him a long-coveted meeting with the U.S. president (which took place on June 25), previously withheld as a sign of U.S. disapproval of serious ongoing abuse in his country. It also afforded him several weeks of photo opportunities and assistance in securing business contracts that reportedly almost tripled U.S. investment in Uzbekistan, but allotted only a single meeting in which to communicate human rights concerns (put to excellent use by Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck and his staff). However, because of the new policy of conciliation, when U.S. human rights demands were almost entirely unmet by the end of the year, the U.S. seemed hesitant to use available leverage to ensure compliance in the future.
The Right to Asylum in the European Union
Human Rights Developments
The number of persons seeking asylum in Europe continued to decline in 1996. Following a record number of applications in 1992, European states imposed strict visa requirements on the nationals of most of the world=s refugee-producing countries. Largely due to these restrictions on entry into Europe, the number of asylum applications filed in the first six months of 1996 fell to an eight-year low. The rate at which European states recognized asylum seekers as refugees under the Geneva convention relating to the status of refugees remained low, with many countries pursuing increasingly restrictive interpretations of their obligations under the convention. For example, in the first six months of 1996, excluding refugees accepted under the UNHCR=s resettlement quota program, Norway recognized only five asylum applicants as convention refugees. Although many of the European Union (E.U.) member states also granted temporary protection regimes and residence permits on humanitarian grounds, these alternative categories of protection often accord asylum seekers fewer rights and benefits than those available under the convention.
Those asylum seekers who, notwithstanding entry restrictions, reached Europe and applied for asylum faced a variety of additional barriers. Asylum seekers who had what were deemed Amanifestly unfounded@ claims and those coming to Europe through Asafe third countries@ to which they could be returned were subjected to accelerated screening procedures. Many asylum seekers placed in these categories were detained, received inadequate information and assistance for navigating the asylum procedures, and were either denied a right of appeal or deported before a decision was reached on their appeal. In the U.K., the home secretary introduced legislation to extend application of accelerated procedures to all asylum seekers from countries on its Awhite list,@ proposed to include Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ghana, India, Pakistan, Poland and Romania.
Application of Asafe third country@ rules continued to place many asylum seekers in jeopardy of ultimate refoulement because most E.U. member states made little effort to ensure that the returned asylum seeker would be able to seek asylum in the third country. Moreover, as E.U. states returned asylum seekers to their eastern and southern neighbors through which they had transited, these Asafe third countries@ increasingly implemented Asafe third country policies@ of their own. Many asylum seekers expelled from E.U. territory allegedly bounced from Asafe third country@ to Asafe third country@ and, in some cases, were ultimately returned to their country of origin. In a major setback for asylum seekers, the German constitutional court held in May 1996 that restrictions on the right of asylum adopted in 1993, including a Asafe third country@ policy and limitations on the right to appeal, do not violate the German Basic Law.
Detention of asylum seekers in Europe was a persistent problem in 1996. Detention was most often employed in the cases of asylum seekers with uncertain identities or nationalities. The trend in many countries was to detain asylum seekers for increasingly long periods of time. In May 1996, the Belgian parliament adopted legislation providing for renewable two-month periods of detention for asylum seekers whose asylum application had been rejected. Both the United Kingdom and the Netherlands constructed new facilities in which to detain rejected asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. In many European countries, asylum seekers were detained in unsatisfactory, prison-like conditions for extended and sometimes indefinite periods of time. In Sweden, notwithstanding repeated complaints by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and government-appointed advisory committees, the authorities persisted in detaining asylum seekers in remand prisons, integrated with the criminal population and subject to the same strict prison visitation and recreation regime, in at least one case for as long as ten months. The Netherlands held rejected asylum seekers awaiting deportation at its Koning Willem II detention facility, widely criticized in 1996 for its allegedly arbitrary and excessive disciplinary regime.
The primary purpose of increased detention is to ensure that asylum seekers whose applications are denied can be expelled. In 1996, a number of European countries stepped up efforts to expel rejected asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. Threatened expulsions were the subject of hunger strikes, demonstrations, and suicide attempts throughout Europe. Activists claimed that many expulsions split families in violation of the right to respect for family life and imposed other forms of hardship on long-term residents of European states. Methods of expulsion employed by several European states also drew criticism in 1996. On several occasions, authorities were reported to have used excessive physical restraint and administered sedative drugs to resistant returnees. There was also widespread use of group expulsion to countries where human rights activists claimed the high-profile practice could draw attention to and endanger the returnees.
The fate of more than 700,000 asylum seekers from Bosnia-Hercegovina residing in western Europe continued to dominate political agendas in 1996. The Dayton peace plan signed in December 1995 identified the early return of refugees and displaced persons as an Aimportant objective@ of the peace process. By late January 1996, Germany, which shelters more than half of the Bosnian refugees in western Europe, had already announced plans to terminate temporary protection as of June 30, 1996, and to commence repatriation of refugees immediately thereafter, with a goal of repatriating 200,000 Bosnians by July 1997. Although conditions in Bosnia-Hercegovina forced Germany to abandon this initial plan, it subsequently set October 1, 1996, as the date after which the Länder (lands or states) could forcibly repatriate Bosnians. Switzerland also announced plans to begin the aggressive repatriation of Bosnian refugees in mid-1996, though repatriation had not occurred as of this writing. Other countries took a more generous stance toward Bosnian refugees, refusing to set a strict timetable for return and agreeing to pursue only voluntary repatriation in cooperation with the UNHCR. As a practical matter, implementation of large-scale repatriation proved impossible in 1996 due to the slow pace of reconstruction and on-going violations of human rights. (See section on Bosnia-Hercegovina) Nonetheless, because of these repeated threats of imminent repatriation, many Bosnians in western Europe lived under considerable stress and insecurity throughout 1996.
The Role of the International Community
The European Union
The European Union=s efforts to harmonize asylum policies in 1996 continued to reinforce restrictive trends in member states= policies.
On March 4, 1996, the Council of Ministers formally adopted a Ajoint position@ on Athe harmonized application of the definition of the term >refugee= in article 1 of the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951 relating to the status of refugees.@ Reinforcing restrictive jurisprudence in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden, the joint position suggests that protection should be given only to those persecuted by state agents or with the encouragement or permission of state agents. This interpretation of the convention could be used to deny protection to, for example, Algerians whom the government cannot protect from persecution by insurgents or Somalians fleeing circumstances in which the government has collapsed altogether. The UNHCR strongly criticized this aspect of the joint position, describing the interpretation as contrary to the letter and spirit of the Geneva convention. The joint position constitutes a non-binding political commitment by the member states, and in September the Swedish government proposed reform of its asylum law that would depart from both its past practice and the E.U. joint position by providing protection for victims of persecution by non-state agents, regardless of government complicity. It remains to be seen to what extent the joint position will be implemented by the other member states.
In support of member states= efforts to increase expulsion of rejected asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, in December 1995 the Council of Ministers adopted a Arecommendation of concerted action and cooperation in carrying out expulsion measures.@ The recommendation listed principles to govern coordinated expulsions and identified measures to obtain cooperation from states to which third-country nationals are to be returned. In September 1996, the European Parliament adopted a resolution criticizing the council for its failure to consult the parliament on the December 1995 recommendation, deploring expulsion practices in certain member states (France, Spain, and Belgium, in particular), and calling for a Athoroughgoing study into the legislation and practices on expulsion and removal policies in the Member States of the European Union.@
There was some progress in 1996 toward complete ratification of the 1990 Dublin convention, detailing rules by which one and only one member state of the European Union would be responsible for adjudication of an asylum application. The convention must be ratified by all member states before it can be implemented. Ireland and the Netherlands, the only two states that had not yet ratified the convention, were expected to do so by late 1996 or early 1997. In the meantime, in March 1996, a subset of the European Union member states celebrated the first anniversary of the entry into force of the Schengen convention, which also established rules for determining the state responsible for each asylum application. There were continued reports, throughout 1996, that the applications of asylum seekers sent to Asafe third countries,@ both inside and outside Europe, were frequently not considered in the third country, sometimes resulting in refoulement. In numerous cases, adjudicators of the British Immigration Appeal Authority found insufficient evidence to conclude that other European countries, including France and Belgium, could serve as Asafe third countries.@ Such decisions raise significant doubts about whether the Asafe third country@ rules embodied in member states= legislation and the Schengen and Dublin conventions comport with international commitments to safeguard against refoulement. The Asafe third country@ rules and other aspects of European asylum procedures were the subject of a critical report and resolution endorsed by the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament in October in response to the Council of Ministers= 1995 resolution on minimum guarantees for asylum procedures.