2001 Scores

Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 6.5
Civil Liberties: 6
Political Rights: 7


Amid renewed attacks by the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in August 2000, the government continued to use the threat of armed Islamic extremists to justify its repression of independent Muslim groups and political opponents of the regime. Some analysts speculated that the ongoing crackdown on moderate religious Muslims and dissidents, combined with widespread poverty and unemployment, might lead to growing public support for the IMU, which controls valuable narcotics routes throughout Central Asia. In a vote strongly criticized by international observers and opposition leaders in exile for virtually guaranteeing a victory for the incumbent, Islam Karimov was overwhelmingly reelected in the country's January presidential poll.

Located along the ancient trade route of the famous Silk Road, Uzbekistan was conquered by Genghis Khan in the thirteenth and Timur (Tamerlane) in the fourteenth century. By the late 1800s, the territory had been incorporated into the Russian empire. 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, the country's independence was endorsed in a popular referendum by more than 98 percent of the electorate. 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. His rival, a prominent poet and the chairman of the Erk (Freedom) Party, Mohammed Solih, officially received 12 percent. However, Erk members charged election fraud, claiming that Solih actually had received more than 50 percent. The largest opposition group, Birlik (Unity), was barred from contesting the election and later refused legal registration as a political party. 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. In 1997, the government moved to eliminate religion as a potential source of political opposition after the murder of several police officers in the Fergana Valley, an area regarded as a center of militant Islam. The authorities arrested hundreds of alleged suspects, many solely for their supposed affiliation with unofficial Muslim groups.

The Uzbek government used a series of deadly car bombings in Tashkent in February 1999, which it labeled an assassination attempt on President Karimov by Islamic militants, as a pretext to intensify mass arrests and trials targeting religious Muslims and members of political opposition groups. Hundreds of defendants were eventually convicted and imprisoned for their alleged involvement, including some who were given the death penalty. As a result of the crackdowns, many Uzbeks, including members of the IMU, a radical group seeking to overthrow Uzbekistan's secular government and replace it with an Islamic state, fled to neighboring countries. In August, two groups of militants, most of whom appeared to be IMU members, attempted to enter Uzbekistan by crossing from Tajikistan into neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where they took several villages hostage. Uzbekistan agreed to a request by the Kyrgyz government for assistance in fighting the rebels, who released the last of their hostages in early October.

Of the five parties that competed in December's parliamentary election, all supported the president and differed little in their political platforms. International monitors, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), noted numerous irregularities, including the interference of local governors in the nomination of candidates and the conduct of the elections, and the suspiciously high voter-turnout figure of more than 90 percent.

The January 9, 2000, presidential elections resulted in an expected victory for incumbent Islam Karimov, who defeated his only opponent, Marxist history professor Abdulhasiz Dzhalalov, with 92 percent of the vote. Voter turnout was a reported 93 percent. Karimov's former party, the PDP, from which he resigned in 1996, nominated its first secretary Dzhalalov with Karimov's consent, while Karimov ran as a candidate of the recently established Fidokorlar party. Uzbekistan's government refused to register genuinely independent opposition parties, nor did it permit members of those parties to stand as candidates. Dzhalalov, a public supporter of Karimov's policies, was quoted during the campaign as stating that he himself intended to vote for Karimov. The OSCE, which had refused to send observers, stated that the election could not be considered competitive, as voters had no genuine choice.

In August, IMU militants engaged in armed clashes with government troops in southeastern Uzbekistan. While Tashkent alleged that the guerillas had entered Uzbek territory from bases in neighboring Tajikistan, Dushanbe denied the charge. Uzbekistan also accused Afghanistan's ruling Taliban of harboring many IMU members. The following month, the U.S. government placed the IMU on its list of international terrorist organizations for its reported links to the Saudi financier Osama bin Laden, whom the U.S. has accused of masterminding several terrorist attacks around the world.

In what Human Rights Watch termed a political show trial, Uzbekistan's supreme court in November found 12 men guilty of involvement with the IMU and of treason and terrorist attacks, including the February 1999 Tashkent bombings. Two of the defendants, prominent IMU leaders Juma Namangani and Tokhir Yuldash, were sentenced to death, while the other 10 suspects, including exiled Erk leader Mohammed Solih, were given between 12 and 20 years in prison. Nine of the 12 accused, including Namangani, Yuldash, and Solih, were not present during the proceedings. According to Human Rights Watch, the trial violated international law forbidding trials in absentia, the prosecution failed to provide concrete evidence of the defendants' guilt, and the peaceful opposition was condemned along with militants.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Uzbekistan cannot change their government democratically. President Karimov and the executive branch dominate the legislature and judiciary, and the government severely represses all political opposition. The primary purpose of the 250-member rubber-stamp national legislature is to confirm 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.

The state severely restricts freedom of speech and the press, allowing virtually no criticism of the authorities, particularly President Karimov. Consequently, self-censorship among print and broadcast journalists is widespread. The country's few private broadcast and print media outlets avoid political issues, are generally local or regional in scope, and suffer from administrative and financial constraints.

Under the pretext of fighting armed Islamic extremists, the government continued its harsh campaign against religious organizations, particularly Muslim groups, not sanctioned by the state. Over the last several years, thousands of pious Muslims have been arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of anti-constitutional activities, while their family members are frequently harassed and persecuted. Authorities have targeted members of the banned and highly secretive Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) Islamic group for engaging in unregistered religious activity, which is a crime in Uzbekistan. The 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations imposes strict registration criteria and severely restricts proselytizing, teaching of religious subjects without official permission, and wearing religious garments in public. Revisions to the criminal code in May 1998 and May 1999 increased penalties for violating the law and other statutes on religious activities. Officially approved Muslim and Jewish communities, the Russian Orthodox Church, and some other Christian denominations face few serious restrictions on their activities.

Permits for public demonstrations, which must be approved by the government, are not routinely granted. No genuine political opposition groups function legally or participate in the government. A 1997 law prohibits parties based on ethnic or religious lines and those advocating war or subversion of the constitutional order. Members of unregistered opposition groups, including Birlik and Erk, are subject to harassment and discrimination or have gone into voluntary exile abroad. The country's two leading human rights groups, the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU) and the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan (NOPCHU), have been denied registration repeatedly and have faced ongoing harassment by the authorities. In 1999, two of the country's most prominent human rights advocates, Mahbuba Kasymova and Ismail Adylov of NOPCHU, were sentenced to five and six years in prison on politically motivated charges. On December 22, 2000, Kasymova was suddenly released from prison, apparently as a result of pressure from international human rights groups and the U.S. government, although Adylov remained incarcerated at year's end.

Although a 1992 trade union law guarantees the right of workers to form and join unions, it does not mention the right to strike. The Council of the Federation of Trade Unions (CFTU), which is the successor to the Soviet-era confederation, is the country's sole trade union group and remains dependent on the state.

The judiciary is subservient to the president, who appoints all judges and can remove them from office at any time. Police routinely physically abuse suspects to extract confessions, which are routinely admitted by judges, and arbitrary arrest and detention are common. Law enforcement authorities reportedly often plant narcotics, weapons, and banned religious leaflets on suspected members of Islamic groups or political opponents to justify their arrest. Prisons suffer from severe overcrowding and shortages of food and medicine. The Jaslik labor camp in the northwestern region of Karakalpakistan houses thousands of prisoners convicted for their political and religious beliefs in appalling conditions.

Widespread corruption, bureaucratic regulations, and the government's continued tight control over the economy limit most citizens' equality of opportunity. Women's educational and professional prospects are restricted by traditional cultural and religious norms and by ongoing economic difficulties throughout the country. According to Human Rights Watch, police discourage women from filing complaints of domestic abuse and fail to conduct investigations when reports are made, while judges are generally lenient in the prosecution of domestic violence cases.

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