Freedom in the World 2004 - Uzbekistan
|Publication Date||18 December 2003|
|Cite as||Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2004 - Uzbekistan, 18 December 2003, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/473c54d1c.html [accessed 10 December 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Political Rights: 7
Civil Liberties: 6
Status: Not Free
Life Expectancy: 70
Religious Groups: Muslim [mostly Sunni] (88 percent), Eastern Orthodox (9 percent), other (3 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Uzbek (80 percent), Russian (6 percent), Tajik (5 percent), Kazakh (3 percent), other (6 percent)
Throughout 2003, Uzbekistan continued its repressive policies against human rights defenders, independent journalists, opposition political activists, and suspected members of banned Islamic groups in an attempt to silence dissent. Despite limited gestures toward greater political openness – including allowing two unregistered opposition political groups to hold meetings – the government's policy toward critics of the regime remained essentially unchanged. During the weeks surrounding a key meeting in Tashkent of representatives from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the authorities harassed or detained political dissidents and relatives of religious prisoners. While lifting restrictions on the convertibility of the national currency, the government resisted most international pressure to adopt reforms to the country's largely centrally planned economy.
Located along the ancient trade route of the famous Silk Road, Uzbekistan was incorporated into Russia by the late 1800s. The Uzbekistan Soviet Socialist Republic was established in 1924, and its eastern region was detached and made a separate Tajik Soviet republic five years later.
On December 29, 1991, more than 98 percent of the country's electorate approved a popular referendum on the Uzbekistan's independence. In a parallel vote, Islam Karimov, former Communist Party leader and chairman of the People's Democratic Party (PDP), the successor to the Communist Party, was elected president with a reported 88 percent of the vote The only independent candidate to challenge him, Erk (Freedom) Party leader Mohammed Solih, charged election fraud. Solih fled the country two years later, and the party was forced underground. The opposition group Birlik (Unity) was barred from contesting the election and later refused legal registration as a political party, and the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) and other religious-based groups were banned entirely. Only pro-government parties were allowed to compete in elections to the first post-Soviet legislature in December 1994 and January 1995. A February 1995 national referendum to extend Karimov's first five-year term in office until the year 2000 was allegedly approved by 99 percent of the country's voters.
The government's repression of members of the political opposition and of Muslims not affiliated with state-sanctioned religious institutions intensified following a series of deadly bombings in Tashkent in February 1999. The authorities blamed the attacks, which they described as an assassination attempt against Karimov, on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an armed group seeking the overthrow of Uzbekistan's secular government and its replacement with an Islamic state. The state justified its increasing crackdowns against moderate secular and religious groups under the pretext of fighting violent Islamist organizations, including the IMU.
Of the five parties that competed in the December 1999 parliamentary election, which was strongly criticized by international election observers, all supported the president and differed little in their political platforms. In the January 2000 presidential poll, Karimov defeated his only opponent, Marxist history professor Abdulhasiz Dzhalalov, with 92 percent of the vote. Uzbekistan's government refused to register genuinely independent opposition parties or permit their members to stand as candidates. Meanwhile, in August 2000, the IMU engaged in armed clashes with government troops in Uzbekistan; the following month, the U.S. government placed the IMU on its list of international terrorist organizations for its ties to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. As part of its declared effort to prevent renewed invasions by the IMU, Uzbekistan subsequently placed land mines along portions of its borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, leading to protests by both governments and reports of accidental deaths of civilians in the region.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Uzbekistan became a key strategic ally of the United States in its military operations in Afghanistan. Tashkent's decision to permit the deployment of U.S. troops on its territory for search-and-rescue and humanitarian operations was widely seen as an effort to obtain various concessions from the West, including economic assistance, security guarantees, and reduced criticism of its poor human rights record. In March 2002, the United States and Uzbekistan signed a Declaration on Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework, in which both countries agreed to cooperate on economic, legal, humanitarian, and nuclear proliferation matters. Uzbekistan's continued collaboration with the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign in 2002 led to American commitments of increased financial assistance in exchange for promises from Karimov of political reforms. However, there was little evidence at year's end of substantive changes to the Uzbek government's repressive policies.
In early May 2003, the EBRD held its annual meeting in Tashkent, the first largescale EBRD function in Central Asia. The choice of the meeting venue, which traditionally serves as a showcase for the host nation, stirred considerable controversy. In March, the EBRD set a one-year deadline for compliance with three broad benchmarks for reform in Uzbekistan: greater political openness and freedom of the media, free functioning of civil society groups, and implementation of the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. While welcoming these benchmarks, international human rights and political observers criticized the EBRD for failing to use its leverage to press Karimov for more concrete economic and political change. The observers noted that in the weeks surrounding the meeting, police intensified harassment of human rights defenders and relatives of religious prisoners in an attempt to prevent them from staging public protests about government abuses. In late November, Human Rights Watch concluded that Uzbekistan had made no real progress toward meeting the EBRD benchmarks.
Despite continued pledges by Karimov to implement economic reforms, the government took only limited steps to loosen its tight control over the country's economy. In October, Uzbekistan finally announced plans to ease restrictions on the convertibility of the national currency, the som, after years of pressure from international financial institutions. However, some analysts predict that pressure on the country's foreign exchange reserves will soon lead to a growing spread between the official exchange rate and the black market rate.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Citizens of Uzbekistan cannot change their government democratically. President Islam Karimov and the executive branch dominate the legislature and judiciary, and the government severely represses all political opposition. The national legislature largely confirms decisions made by the executive branch. The 1994-1995 and 1999 parliamentary elections and the 2000 presidential poll, in which only pro-government candidates could participate, were neither free nor fair. In a January 2002 nationwide referendum, 91 percent of voters allegedly approved amending the country's constitution to extend the presidential term from five to seven years. Karimov's current term in office will therefore end in 2007, rather than in 2005. In a parallel vote, 93 percent of voters officially supported replacing the country's 250-member single-chamber legislature with a bicameral parliament. Independent observers raised serious doubts about the validity of the referendum, citing the presence of police in polling stations and the fact that some people had been able to vote on behalf of several individuals. In April 2003, parliament adopted legislation providing former presidents immunity from prosecution and lifelong state-funded security for them and their immediate family.
No genuine political opposition groups function legally or participate in the government. A 1997 law prohibits parties based on ethnic or religious affiliations and those advocating subversion of the constitutional order. Members of unregistered secular opposition groups, including Birlik and Erk, are subject to discrimination, and many are in exile abroad. In a small gesture toward opening political life in the country, the authorities allowed both Erk and Birlik to hold open meetings in Tashkent in 2003. However, in an indication that this development did not represent a fundamental change in the authorities' policy toward the opposition, neither group was allowed to register officially as a political party. In addition, police briefly detained two Erk members a week before its meeting, searching their homes and seizing books, computers, and various documents. Corruption is reportedly widespread throughout various levels of government, with bribery to obtain lucrative positions a common practice.
The state imposes strict limits on freedom of speech and the press, particularly with regard to reports on the government and President Karimov. The government controls major media outlets and newspaper printing and distribution facilities. The country's private broadcast and print media outlets generally avoid political issues, are largely regional in scope, and suffer from administrative and financial constraints. Although official censorship was abolished in May 2002, the responsibility for censoring material was transferred to newspaper editors, who were warned by the State Press Committee that they would be held personally accountable for what they publish. Self-censorship is widespread, while the few journalists who dare to produce probing or critical reports of the authorities face harassment, physical violence, and closure of their media outlets. The government has blocked a number of non-Uzbek news Web sites, and access to controversial information on the Internet remains extremely difficult.
The year saw a renewed crackdown on the media in Uzbekistan. In a case that attracted international attention, independent journalist and human rights activist Ruslan Sharipov, who had written widely on government corruption, was sentenced on August 13, 2003 to five and a half years in prison on charges of homosexuality – which is a criminal offense in Uzbekistan – and sexual relations with a minor. Sharipov reportedly confessed to the charges under duress, citing concerns for the safety of his mother and legal defenders, and was tortured while in custody. In September, an appeals court reduced his prison sentence to four years. On August 28, Sharipov's attorney, Surat Ikramov, was abducted and assaulted by a group of masked men; Ikramov had been helping to organize a peaceful protest outside of parliament scheduled for the following day. Authorities reportedly used politically motivated charges to detain or arrest other journalists, including Tokhtomurad Toshev, editor of the newspaper Adolat; Oleg Sarapulov, an assistant to an independent journalist; Ergash Babajanov, a journalist and member of Birlik; and Khusnutddin Kutbiddinov and Yusuf Rasulov, correspondents with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, respectively.
The government exercises strict control over Islamic worship, including the content of imams' sermons, and is suspicious and intolerant of followers of Muslim organizations not sanctioned by the state. Many members of such groups have been arrested or imprisoned on charges of anti-constitutional activities, often under the pretext of the government's fight against militant Islamists. Muslim prisoners are frequently tortured for their religious convictions or to compel them to renounce their beliefs. Authorities have targeted members of the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Islamic Party of Liberation), an international movement calling for the creation of an Islamic caliphate throughout the Muslim world. Suspected members have been forced to give confessions under torture, and their family members have been subjected to interrogation, arrest, and extortion.
The government permits the existence of certain mainstream religions, including approved Muslim and Jewish communities, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church and some other Christian denominations. As of June 2003, the authorities had registered some 2,100 religious congregations and organizations. However, the activities of other congregations are restricted through legislation that requires all religious groups to comply with burdensome state registration criteria. Involvement in religious activities carried out by unregistered groups is punishable by fines or imprisonment, and meetings held by such groups have been raided and participants interrogated and arrested. The 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations prohibits activities including proselytizing and private religious instruction, and requires groups to obtain a license to publish or distribute materials.
The government grants academic institutions a degree of autonomy, though freedom of expression remains limited, according to the 2003 U.S. State Department country report on human rights practices. While professors generally are required to have their lectures pre-approved, implementation of this restriction vary, the report stated; university professors reportedly practice self-censorship.
Open and free private discussion is limited by the mahalla committees, a traditional neighborhood organization that the government has turned into an official system for public surveillance and control. According to a 2003 Human Rights Watch report, the mahalla committees maintain files on those considered to be overly pious in their religious expression and alert the police of so-called suspicious religious and other activities.
Although nonpolitical associations and social organizations are usually allowed to register, complicated regulations and governmental bureaucracy make the process difficult. Unregistered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU), do not exist as legal entities and can face difficulties operating. In a positive development, Yuldash Rasulov, an HRSU member, was released from prison in January 2003 under a December 2002 presidential amnesty. Rasulov, who had helped people persecuted for their religious beliefs, was sentenced to seven years in prison in September 2002 on charges of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and distributing extremist literature. Other human rights activists endured arrest, beatings, and intimidation throughout the year. On August 20, Mutabar Tajibaeva, the leader of a human rights group called Yuraklar, was beaten by a group of women while attending a demonstration against local law enforcement officials in the Ferghana Valley; Tajibaeva believes that the authorities organized the attack.
Despite constitutional provisions for freedom of assembly, the authorities severely restrict this right in practice. Law enforcement officials have used force to prevent demonstrations against human rights abuses in the country, and participants have been harassed, detained, and arrested. In recent years, there have been some small protests by family members of people jailed for allegedly being members of violent Islamic groups. Larger protests by merchants were staged across the county in response to new costly regulations that the government had imposed on them; some clashes between police and demonstrators were reported.
The Council of the Federation of Trade Unions is dependent on the state, and no genuinely independent union structures exist. Organized strikes are extremely rare. However, according to an August 2003 article by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, workers at two large factories in the city of Ferghana held several strikes that month to protest unpaid wages; most of the promised concessions from management reportedly failed to materialize, and workers were pressured or threatened.
The judiciary is subservient to the president, who appoints all judges and can remove them from office at any time. Police routinely physically abuse and torture suspects to extract confessions, which are accepted by judges as evidence and often serve as the sole basis for convictions. Law enforcement authorities reportedly often plant narcotics, weapons, and banned religious literature on suspected members of Islamic groups or political opponents to justify their arrest. Executions are regarded as state secrets, and relatives are sometimes not informed until months after the execution has occurred.
Prisons suffer from severe overcrowding and shortages of food and medicine. The Jaslyk prison camp is notorious for its extremely harsh conditions and ill-treatment of religious prisoners. Inmates, particularly those sentenced for their religious beliefs, are often subjected to ill-treatment or torture, and Human Rights Watch has documented a number of torture-related deaths in custody during the last few years. An estimated 6,000 to 7,000 political prisoners are being held in Uzbekistan's penal institutions.
Although racial and ethnic discrimination is prohibited by law, the belief that senior positions in government and business are reserved for ethnic Uzbeks is widespread. Some members of minority groups have declared themselves to be ethnic Uzbeks in an effort to improve their employment and other opportunities.
The government severely limits freedom of movement and residence within the country and across borders. There are widespread restrictions on foreign travel, including the use of a system of exit visas, which are often issued selectively. Permission is required from local authorities to move to a new city, and the authorities rarely grant permission to those wishing to move to Tashkent. Bribes are often paid to obtain the necessary registration documents.
Widespread corruption, bureaucratic regulations, and the government's tight control over the economy limit most citizens' equality of opportunity. There has been little reform in the country's large and predominantly centrally planned agricultural sector, in which the state sets high production quotas and low purchase prices for farmers. In October 2003, the authorities adopted tough measures to prevent impoverished farmers from smuggling cotton – one of Uzbekistan's top exports – to neighboring countries for higher prices. A government decree issued the same month requiring that non-food items be sold in stores rather than less costly market stalls and that merchants use expensive cash registers sparked angry protests by merchants in a number of towns.
Women's educational and professional prospects are restricted by traditional cultural and religious norms and by ongoing economic difficulties throughout the country. Victims of domestic violence are discouraged from pressing charges against their perpetrators, who rarely face criminal prosecution. According to a 2003 Human Rights Watch report, mahalla committees enforce government policy to prevent divorce by frequently denying battered wives access to the police or courts and holding them responsible for the abuse they experience. The trafficking of women abroad for prostitution remains a serious problem.