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Forced Resettlement

Another example of the close cooperation between law enforcement agencies and mahalla committees leading to human rights abuse arose in the forced displacement from their homes of the nearly 4,000 people in Surkhandaria province, near the Tajik border, and their forced resettlement to an open desert area some 250 kilometers away in 2000 and 2001.166 This report does not address the validity of the government’s justification for the forced displacement. Rather, it documents the manner in which these resettlements occurred and in which the arrests of numerous villagers were conducted breached international human rights standards. This treatment shows again how the Uzbek authorities use mahalla committees to play a role in the implementation of a range of abusive policies at the local level. Although the information about the exact role played by the mahalla committees in the following cases of forced resettlement is limited, the descriptions below show another aspect to the cooperation between abusive authorities and mahalla committees.


In August 2000, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) militants launched armed incursions into the mountainous regions of Uzbekistan’s southern Surkhandaria and northeastern Bostanlyk regions, and into Kyrgyzstan’s southern Batken region. The incursions followed those initially conducted by the IMU into Kyrgyzstan in August 1999, and constituted a second bid to oust the Karimov government and establish Islamic rule in Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek government responded with an operation to remove alleged civilian support and potential support for the insurgents and exercise closer political control over suspected collaborators. The forced displacement of just over 4,000167 villagers from the mountainous regions of Surkhandaria region, located on the Tajik-Uzbek border, took place in three phases. The first was in August 2000, when the military activities erupted, the second, in February 2001, and the third, a full year after the official end of military activities, in late September 2001. Official reasons for the displacement were the security threat posed by IMU insurgents and the risk of natural disaster including landslides and floods. The villagers were taken to resettlement villages in open desert up to 250 kilometers away from their homes, effectively evacuating a significant part of the Uzbek-Tajik border region. At first the authorities promised that the villagers would be able to return home, however, they later told the villagers that the move was permanent. The forced displacement facilitated the arrest of close to 120 villagers between September 2000 and April 2001; seventy-three of them were brought to trial on charges of aiding and abetting the IMU fighters.168 In line with the government’s ongoing campaign against independent Muslims and alleged terrorists, the villagers were arrested for what appeared to be politically motivated reasons—to eradicate support for the IMU and lessen resistance to the forced resettlement program. After torture, ill-treatment, and grossly unfair trials, they were convicted and sentenced to three to eighteen-year prison terms in June 2001.169

During the forced displacement, villagers were ordered at gunpoint by army representatives, accompanied by local authorities and mahalla representatives, to leave their homes in great haste, obliging many to leave the majority of their personal possessions, food supplies, and livestock behind. The authorities threatened and beat the villagers when they voiced opposition to the move, and soldiers fired into the air, and pillaged and torched houses. Most of the displaced were told at the time of the move that it was to be temporary, although all have since been told that it is permanent, and have been uniformly denied permission even to visit their homes.

Carrying out forced displacement in this manner, including the use of physical force, looting and burning of villagers’ houses by Uzbek authorities breaches internationally accepted human rights standards and international humanitarian law.170 The arrests of the seventy-three villagers breached internationally accepted due process human rights standards.

Involvement of the Mahalla Committees

In August 2000, the villages of Angorikozi, Kishtut, Sarinovo, Hamidarcha, Tamarkhut, Registon, Khovat, Zambek, Kunkurmas, and Tamshush were evacuated immediately after the clashes between insurgents and the Uzbek armed forces near Kishtut. Residents of all these villages recounted that local officials, including representatives of mahalla committees, police, and heavily armed soldiers arrived en masse to inform villagers that they must be moved due to the threat posed by the presence of the insurgents in the area.171 They were told that the move was to be a temporary one, ranging from three days to a month, and they would be able to return once the security situation returned to normal. Many villagers stated that when they protested, they were threatened and beaten by authorities, including mahalla committee representatives.172

Zumrat Otomurodova of Khovat related:

Local officials including . . [the] chairman of the mahalla, informed us early in the morning of August 25 that we were to be moved because the rebels might come to our village. They told us that we would be able to return in about a month. But when people protested, we got beaten. [Name omitted] beat several women, for example, my sister, on her arm, and my neighbor on the legs.”173

Ruziguli Alieva, also of Khovat, corroborated the involvement of the mahalla committee chairman:

On the morning of August 25, soldiers and the chairman of the mahalla arrived, there were helicopters too. They told us that there was going to be war, and that we must be protected. Nobody wanted to leave, but we were beaten by the officials and forced to go, everybody was crying. The chairman of the mahalla women’s committee, Bahrinnova, cried “All the men will go to prison, you’ll be without husbands, if you don’t leave!” We weren’t given time to gather our things, and we had to leave behind anything we couldn’t gather by hand. We were told that we would be able to return when the situation calmed down.174

In an effort to control access to information, residents who were moved to resettlement villages were warned by police and local authorities not to talk to visitors or only to make positive statements about their conditions. While gathering information in June 2001 and June 2002, mahalla committee officials prevented Human Rights Watch from freely accessing information in the resettlement villages. In Bandikhan resettlement village, for example, mahalla committee secretary Ishmurzo Rezev, and Bobokul Misorov, chairman of the district mahalla committee, insisted on accompanying Human Rights Watch at all times. The chairman of the Shurchi resettlement village mahalla committee likewise insisted on accompanying Human Rights Watch, thus preventing private interviews from taking place. In Kizirik in June 2002, male members of the village forbade female residents to speak with a Human Rights Watch representative, stating that there were no complaints to be made, and a mahalla representative insisted on attending all interviews; as a result, residents delivered only positive reviews of current conditions.175

The arrests of the Surkhandaria villagers—seventy-three people accused of aiding and abetting the IMU—were conducted between September 2000 and April 2001, with a large proportion of the arrests taking place in December 2000 in Istiklol village in Sherobod district.176 Mahalla committee members also participated in the arrests and the due process violations that occurred at the time of arrest. In many of these cases, police— with the aid of mahalla committee members—led the individual to think they were needed for informal questioning, and promised concerned relatives that he would return the same day. In others, the authorities lured suspects into coming for questioning by claiming they were needed for compensation review. In no case documented by Human Rights Watch did police produce an arrest warrant. Given the close cooperation between mahalla and law enforcement agencies, it is unlikely that the mahalla representatives accompanying the police were unaware of the intent to arrest.

Khudoinazar Alimakhmadov was arrested from the Istiklol resettlement village in December 2000. According to his father, Mingbobo Alimakhmadov:

…three policemen in uniform arrived at our house from Sherobod, together with the chairman of the Sherobod mahalla, Kh. Roziev. I was at home with Khudoinazar, his wife, and his children. The police didn’t ask for any documents, but said, “we have to talk, then you’ll be released.” He left his passport and money with his wife.177

Alimakhmadov was unable to locate his son in custody until February 2001, when he learned that Khudoinazar was held in pretrial detention in Tashkent prison.

Three days after the arrest of Khudoinazar, another of Alimakhmadov’s sons, Sultonazar, was also arrested. Alimakhmadov gave the following account:

…the chairman of the mahalla and some policemen came to our house, and once again they said, “we need to talk, you’ll be back home this evening.” They didn’t explain where they were taking him. For five days or so I visited the police, and eventually, I found him in [the Tashkent prison].178

Khudoinazar and Sultonazar Alimakhmadov were sentenced in June 2001 to thirteen and seven years, respectively, in a strict regime prison.179

In another incident, Arbob Sherkholov and Shakhizinda Rajabov, from Uzun district, were arrested from the Istiklol resettlement village. Oista Sherkholova, Sherkholov’s wife and Rajabov’s sister, told Human Rights Watch:

On December 13, 2000, at 4:00 p.m., a policeman named Kamiljob and the chairman of the Sherobod mahalla, Khudoirod Ruziev, arrived at our house in a police car. They said to Arbob and Shakhizinda, “we would like to give you land and compensation money, come to Sherobod for discussions now, then you can come home in three days.” …. I waited for fifteen days, then I went with twelve other women to Termez, and along with the other women I found my husband’s name on the list of prisoners in Termez prison.180

In the round-up of others also later tried in Tashkent, the authorities with the aid of mahalla officials used the tactic of promising compensation to secure the cooperation of those arrested more than once. Such tactics breach the right to be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for arrest and also interfere in the right to communicate with counsel of his own choosing, since in practice it is relatives who will usually organize such counsel.181

166 The human rights abuses perpetrated by law enforcement, military, and security forces during the forced displacement, as well as the failure to provide adequate compensation to displaced persons, is the subject of a broader area of Human Rights Watch research conducted in August 2001 and August 2002.

167Based on figures obtained from officials in all of the resettlement villages visited by Human Rights Watch. Residents of several of the resettlement villages told Human Rights Watch that some villagers who were forced out of their villages went to stay with relatives in the Sariosiyo district in Surkhandaria, making the real total of displaced persons higher.

168 According to Human Rights Watch interviews in Tashkent and the resettlement villages, May-June 2001 and June 2002; Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan bulletins, January 16 and February 19, 2001; meeting with an official from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Tashkent, June 13, 2001; and U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2000.

169 Human Rights Watch, unofficial court transcript, Tashkent City Court trial, May 22-31, 2001. Human Rights Watch interviews in Tashkent and the resettlement villages, May-June 2001 and June 2002. A full description of the case is the subject of a broader area of research planned for 2003.

170 The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Uzbekistan is a party, provides in article 12 that everyone lawfully within a State shall have the right to freedom of movement and to choose his own residence. Although the ICCPR does permit derogation (or some limits) on rights such as freedom of movement during times of public emergency or armed conflict, those limits must be only those strictly required by the situation at hand and under no circumstances may the limits be imposed on a discriminatory basis. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, adopted in September 1998 by the United Nations General Assembly, reflect international humanitarian and human rights law and provide a consolidated set of international standards governing the treatment of the internally displaced. Although not a binding instrument, the Guiding Principles are based on international laws that do bind states and insurgent groups, and they have acquired authority and standing in the international community.

Principle 7 of the Guiding Principles requires that the authorities seek the free and informed consent of those to be displaced and the involvement of those affected in the planning and management of their relocation.

Principle 21 prohibits pillage of the property of displaced persons and further requires the protection of property left behind at the time of displacement.

Principle 28 of the Guiding Principles states that authorities are required to establish conditions and to provide the means for displaced persons to return voluntarily, “in safety and with dignity” to their homes or to resettle voluntarily elsewhere.

171 Human Rights Watch interviews with residents of each of these villages, in Tashkent, May 28, 30-31 and June 6, 2001, and in Istiklol resettlement village, June 2 and 16, 2001.

172 Ibid. Residents of Tamshush appear to have been treated differently. There, authorities told villagers the move was to be permanent, and none reported violent acts during the actual displacement.

173 Human Rights Watch interview with Zumrat Otomurodova, Tashkent, May 28, 2001.

174 Human Rights Watch interview with Ruziguli Alieva, Tashkent, June 6, 2001.

175 The villagers have been resettled to eight new resettlement centres in the barren steppe regions of Surkhandaria and Kashkadaria provinces. The majority of the villages were located at an average of twenty kilometers from major towns, and public transport to these towns is both difficult and infrequent. Initially conditions were dire, with severe food shortages, lack of adequate heating, clothing and bedding. General living conditions in the villages by mid-2002, although poor, were adequate. All residents lived in newly-constructed three to four-room brick houses on par with or superior to the quality of houses in surrounding areas. The villages were supplied with gas, electricity and water, and general stores offer basic food staples such as flour, sugar, tea, oil and salt. Access to basic services such as medical points, schools, postal outlets, public transport and police stations had been ensured, albeit in many cases this access was difficult. Nonetheless, the villagers faced severe difficulties in meeting their basic daily needs and ensuring self-sufficiency.

An assessment conducted by Médecins sans Frontières-Holland (MSF-Holland) in July and September 2002 found close to five per cent acute malnutrition in children under five years of age in Istiklol resettlement center. MSF-Holland subsequently organized supplementary food distribution for the families of the malnourished children and for seventy-eight female-headed families in that center. In May 2003, Médecins sans Frontières published a two-page report stating that after emergency intervention, these children were back to normal weight, however, a large number of families were clearly impoverished, and there “is no sign that the current situation will improve in the near future.” Médecins sans Frontières intervenes to address malnutrition among children in Surkhandarya, Uzbekistan, Briefing document, May, 2003, As the present report went to press, the media began to report a rising death rate among the displaced due to malnutrition and disease. See, Tulkin Karaev, “Uzbekistan: Disease Hits Resettled People,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting, August 22, 2003.

176According to Tashkent City Court verdict, issued by Judge N.Sh. Rustamov, Syrdaria Province Court verdict, issued by Judge E.B. Ernazarov, Tashkent Province Court verdict, issued by Judge T. Sh. Zainuddinov, and Tashkent Province Court verdict, issued by Judge Z.S. Usmanov, all on June 7, 2001. Istiklol village residents had been moved from a tent camp in Sariosio district to Sherobod district at the end of November 2000. Many of them perceived the arrests, which took place shortly after their arrival in Istiklol village as a reprisal against protests which the villagers had mounted to oppose the move to Istiklol resettlement village. Human Rights Watch interviews with Istiklol village residents, May-June 2001.

177 Human Rights Watch interview with Mingbobo Alimakhamadov, Tashkent, May 30, 2001.

178 Ibid.

179 Tashkent City Court verdict, issued by Judge N. Sh. Rustamov. They were convicted on charges of terrorism (article 155 of the criminal code); inciting ethnic hatred (article 156); undermining the constitutional order (article 159); and distributing “religious extremist” literature (article 244-1).

180 Human Rights Watch interview with Oista Sherkholova, Tashkent, June 6, 2001. According to Syrdaria Province Court verdict, issued by Judge E.B. Ernazarov, they were arrested on December 18, 2000.

181 Article 9, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Inadequate compensation was only later given to those in the resettlement villages. Compensation was not a genuine reason for inviting the men to accompany the officials.

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September 2003