Interview

Uzbek Jails More Political Prisoners Than it Frees - Activist

  • Nadezhda Ataeva, head of the Human Rights Association in Central Asia. (Photo courtesy of N. Ataeva)

A leading Central Asian human rights defender says the international community is not doing enough to pressure Uzbekistan to free political prisoners.

Nadezhda Ataeva, head of the Human Rights Association in Central Asia, spoke to NBCentralAsia ahead of a four-country regional tour by Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy representative.

In a recent statement, the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch urged the EU official to use her November 26-29 visit, which will include Uzbekistan, to “publicly call for the release of wrongfully imprisoned activists."

NBCentralAsia: How many political prisoners are there in Uzbekistan, according to your figures? Who are they, and what is the maximum length of their sentences? 

Nadezhda Ataeva: Information about the number of political prisoners is kept strictly confidential. The penal service is subject to the control of a special department in the National Security Service [SNB]…. Human rights defenders have recorded more than 2,000 political prisoners.

Nor are there figures for length of sentence. Uzbekistan’s criminal code sets out terms of up to 20 years for convictions on political or religious grounds – articles covering libel of the president, anti-constitutional activity, and membership of banned groups preaching religious extremism orseparatism

NBCentralAsia: It’s recently been reported that Murad Joraev, a prominent political prisoner whose health is at risk, was charged with another offence, just as his current term was coming to an end.

Ataeva: His fourth term expired on November 13, but was not released. Between October 10 and 22, he was held in solitary confinement near the town of Almalyk, on a disciplinary charged.

Joraev’s lawyers have not been given access to his case files in 18 years. It’s possible there’s no evidence there.

In 1995, his [12-year] sentence was cut by three years, so he should have been freed nine years later, in 2003. But he received another three-year term for disobedience…. He was given another three-and-a-half year term in 2006 for taking his coat off while peeling carrots…in 45-degree temperatures.

NBCentralAsia: What about the families of political prisoners?

Ataeva: They face continual discrimination. Joraev's children cannot find jobs because their father is classed as an “enemy of the people”.

It’s hard for the relatives of convicted of anti-constitutional activities; their children face constant reproach.

Former political prisoner Gulbahor Turaeva is another good example. International organisations successfully secured her release. But she’s been denied work since, on secret instructions from the SNB…. She writes that her neighbours are afraid of talking to her and her four children. She told reporters that she saw about 500 bodies with gunshot wounds in the days after Andijan [1995 massacre] – she is still suffering the consequences.

NBCentralAsia: Why don’t we hear calls for the release of political prisoners so often when western officials meet their Uzbek counterparts?

Ataeva: Since 2009, the EU’s dialogue on human rights with Uzbekistan has been a pure formality.

Neither the EU nor the US Department of State list former parliamentarian Joraev, Erk newspaper editor Muhammad Bekjon or Mamadali Mahmudov as political prisoner. They are a particular irritant to President Islam Karimov, so foreign diplomats find it awkward to bring their names up.

The Uzbek government releases two or three political prisoners a year, and this is hailed by the EU and the US. But a far great number of dissidents are going to prison.

Uzbekistan announces new legislation and comes up with elaborate national strategies, all to no effect.

The last US State Department report listed 27 political prisoners in Uzbekistan, while human rights groups know the identities of more than 2,000, and there are probably three times that number.

As long as the EU and the US continue to note positive changes because of the unlikely pledges made by the Uzbek government, it would be naïve to expect substantive change.

This article was produced as part of News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

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