Human Rights Developments

Human rights observance in Uzbekistan in 1997 was marked by a sharp departure from government promises made in 1996 to improve its performance. Initial hopes were confounded by a series of retrograde actions by the government, and some recent improvements, such as the release of twelve prisoners of conscience under amnesty in 1996, were not repeated in 1997. The government continued to violate most civil and political rights and actively harassed or prosecuted Islamic figures and human rights activists. (The government had liquidated the political opposition by 1995.) In light of this, the introduction of new legislation covering various aspects of human rights this year appeared more symbolic than designed to yield actual improvements. The media remained suffocated by state controls, in violation of the constitution's ban on censorship. Hopes were raised in January by the publication of a new newspaper, Hurriyat (Freedom), under an editor, Karim Bahriev, who defied official displeasure by publishing uncensored material. However, by the time the newspaper's sixth issue came out on February 12, mounting pressure from senior media and government officials had forced Bahriev out of his position, and the newspaper was transformed into yet another tame, censored voice of officialdom. Nongovernmental human rights activists struggled to organize, but the government refused to grant them registration. The improved atmosphere surrounding an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe-sponsored human rights seminar in September 1996 had led many to believe that the government would finally register the nongovernmental Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan; indeed, President Islam Karimov invited the Society's chairman Abdumannob Polat to visit the country after three and a half years in exile. However, the Justice Ministry rejected the Society's application in January 1997, citing a number of technical problems in the submitted documentation, but a duly revised application met a final rejection in July. The Independent Human Rights Organization held a founding meeting in Toshkent on August 2, 1997. The Toshkent city council refused even to respond to the group's application to hold this small public gathering, a legal stipulation that in itself indicates how little freedom of assembly exists in Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, it held the meeting and lodged an application for registration with the Justice Ministry on August 29. By 1995, the government had ceased the arbitrary arrest of political opponents and independent Islamic figures on the almost standard charges of illegal possession of arms and narcotics. But the lull in arrests was broken this year with two new arrests on precisely these charges. Rahim Otoqulov, who appears to have been targeted because he taught Islam to pupils at home, was convicted on June 10 and given a three and a half year sentence for possession of drugs and pistol cartridges. Almost a textbook case of politically motivated arrest, his trial in the town of Margilan raised considerable questions of due process. In a very similar case, on June 19, a court sentenced Olimjon Ghofurov, a teacher of Islam from Namangan, to one year in prison for arms and drugs possession. A leading Islamic figure, Toshkent teacher Obidkhon Nazarov, was subjected to constant pressure from state security agents through the first half of 1997. Beginning in 1996, local authorities repeatedly attempted to evict his family from their home, and on April 23 the city prosecutor brought criminal charges against him for alleged slander, based on the flimsy evidence of one cassette recording of unknown provenance and authenticity. As of this writing, no further action had been taken against him, but the charges appeared to be designed to deter him from further exercising his free speech rights. The Muslim community as a whole was affected by restrictive moves undertaken by the authorities, including curbs on the use of loudspeakers for the call to prayer, steps to prevent female students from wearing Islamic headscarfs in schools and colleges, and the closure of official as well as unofficial Islamic teaching establishments (madrasas). Although government officials claimed these closures were temporary measures pending a legal reorganization, none had reopened as of this writing. Muslims were not the only community to suffer from government curbs on their right to worship. A Baptist preacher in the region of Karakalpakistan, Rashid Turibaev, was charged with conducting illegal church services, facing a possible sentence of three years. His congregation, the Full Gospel Christians, was prevented from holding further meetings and was reportedly placed under surveillance. In a move to counter what they regard as illegal proselytizing by predominantly Protestant groups, the Uzbekistan authorities announced in January that they had confiscated 25,000 copies of the New Testament in Uzbek translation, seized while being imported by rail the previous month. The Law on Political Parties, passed on December 23, 1996, came into effect on January 7. According to the law, a party must submit the signatures of at least 5,000 members across eight or more of the country's thirteen regions, an almost impossible task, given the repressive atmosphere in which few would dare label themselves as potential opposition members. Other more liberal legislation introduced in the course of 1997 included laws upgrading the parliamentary commissioner for human rights into an ombudsman, enshrining the public's right to access information, and securing journalists' rights (all three passed on April 24). These laws could potentially strengthen citizens' rights, but, since positive aspects of previous legislation are routinely ignored by the highest authorities in Uzbekistan, these new laws look suspiciously like windowdressing to please western donors and investors. After fighting around the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where a camp for refugees from Tajikistan is located, Uzbekistan closed its border with Afghanistan in May and refused to allow through its territory the repatriation of refugees to Tajikistan. Following high-level interventions from U.N. officials, including Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Uzbekistan authorities eventually allowed some of the refugees passage, but closed the border again in September. Human Rights Watch received scores of reports of police abuses this year. Victims reported systematic physical mistreatment and torture to obtain confessions. In one of the few cases to be raised by a local organization, a lawyer reported being attacked and beaten up in her home in June by uniformed and plainclothes police of Hamza district, Toshkent. Although such cases are rarely pursued, in this case, the regional attorneys' association to which the lawyer belongs lodged a complaint with the Justice Ministry. As of this writing they had received no reply. Prison conditions continued to be atrocious; former inmates and their relatives described overcrowding, unchecked disease, and violence by wardens as some of the problems in the prisons. Kahraman Hamidov's death from tuberculosis in prison on June 12 suggested appalling conditions of detention as well as the frequently arbitrary and unjust reasons for incarceration. Hamidov was leader of Humanity and Human Values (Odamiylik va Insonparvarlik), a Muslim-oriented popular movement operating in Kokand from 1988 until his arrest and conviction in 1992 on apparently fabricated charges of assault.

The Right to Monitor

There was no reported interference in monitoring activities carried out by foreign observers, including a Human Rights Watch representative. However, perhaps the most outspoken and active local human rights advocate, Mikhail Ardzinov, was subjected to overt police surveillance on at least two occasions. In addition, when he applied for an exit visa in December 1996, the Interior Ministry confiscated his passport without explanation. Compounding these actions, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent Mr. Ardzinov a letter informing him that he was on an official list of mentally disturbed persons and must undergo psychiatric testing in order to receive a visa. Police made Mr. Ardzinov's passport available to him only after a delegation from the European Parliament raised the matter with Foreign Ministry officials in May. Ardzinov received neither a visa nor a reason for its refusal. While refusing to register the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, in violation of its pledges to do so, the government nevertheless did not actively impede its monitoring activities.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

On July 12, 1997, the United Nations Development Agency and the Uzbekistan government formally agreed to implement a Program on Democratization and Governance, although in reality some elements of the program began in 1996. The effort emphasizes assistance to law enforcement agencies and other areas of government that have an impact on human rights. Unfortunately, the U.N. has not incorporated any effective means of accounting publicly for the way these organizations use the assistance. For instance, substantial funding has gone to the office of the new ombudsman and to the National Center for Human Rights, neither of which can or will pursue policies independent of the official government stance.

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

The OSCE mission gained a new officer concerned purely with human dimension issues. It held a human rights training session in May and invited official organizations, including the National Security Service, the prosecutor's office, the police and the Justice Ministry, as well as two of the three nongovernmental human rights groupings. The OSCE, however, made no known interventions on any human rights cases in Uzbekistan. By ignoring specific human rights abuses and assisting the organizations that commit them without calling them to account, the OSCE is effectively condoning such behavior.

European Union

After the European Union signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Uzbekistan on June 22, 1996, the European Parliament and its Committee on Foreign Affairs, made serious efforts to ensure Uzbekistan was honoring the PCA's provisions on democratization and human rights. A delegation of Foreign Affairs Committee members visited Uzbekistan in May, met with government and NGO actors in the human rights sphere, and concluded that ratification of the PCA should be suspended until the end of 1997, by which time it hoped to observe some improvement in human rights. The Parliament will reevaluate the situation in the spring of 1998, although an interim agreement will go into effect before that, rendering the temporary suspension of ratification a symbolic and thus ineffective gesture.

United States

The U.S. government was, as in previous years, the major source of pressure on the Uzbekistan government. It also offered direct assistance to nascent human rights bodies. In June the U.S. embassy and the U.S. Information Service disbursed $10,000 each to four organizations—the official parliamentary Commission for Human Rights, the National Center for Human Rights, the nongovernmental Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan and the Committee for the Protection of Personal Rights. The grants were given in the form of computer and Internet equipment and had no strings attached. Embassy officials raised a number of individual cases of abuse with senior government officials. The Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe published a letter on June 12 condemning the trial of pastor Turibaev and the confiscation of 25,000 Bibles. The State Department produced a highly critical assessment of the human rights situation in Uzbekistan in its Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996. However, the U.S. government failed to match its condemnation with sanctions or otherwise insist on compliance with its demands and therefore won almost no concessions from the Uzbekistan authorities.

Relevant Human Rights Watch Report:

Uzbekistan—Violations of Media Freedom: Journalism and Censorship in Uzbekistan, 7/97
This report covers the events of 1997

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