Uzbekistan's Thin Line of Human Rights Defenders
“Why do people turn to human rights defenders?” asks Vladimir Husainov. “Because they can at least do something, even though they have no official powers or authority.”
Husainov is one of a handful of courageous activists in Uzbekistan who stand up for the rights of people in trouble.
They investigate various kinds of abuses ranging from the routine practice of torture in detention to the use of child labour in the cotton fields. Sometimes they help people claim their welfare benefits, or write letters for prisoners and their relatives.
The unregistered Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan is frequently approached by people who have run out of other options
“We are often the last straw that people who have no rights can clutch at,” the alliance’s head Yelena Urlaeva said.
“Human rights defenders in Uzbekistan are a bit like the partisans, for instance when they have to hide in the cotton fields with a camera to document forced labour,” she said. “Sometimes we are the victims of lawless actions ourselves. We are assaulted, arrested, put on trial and thrown in jail.”
There are perhaps ten functioning human rights groups in Uzbekistan – the Human Rights Alliance, the Human Rights Society, Ezgulik (Compassion), Najot (Salvation), among others.
Most of these groups are denied official registration, which means they have no formal status or recognition, and their members are vulnerable to harassment and detention by Uzbekistan’s powerful police force.
Shuhrat Ghaniev, head of the Humanitarian Rights Centre in the western city of Bukhara, has given up trying to get registered.
“Every time [we applied], they found errors in our charter, or else they said I had missed the deadline,” he said. “The main reason they gave for turning us down, though, was that there were enough NGOs in our region.”
Human rights defenders also have to fight for the rights of colleagues – an estimated 30 or more rights activists, independent journalists and others are locked up in Uzbekistan.
Although criminals are eligible for early release under periodic amnesties, Ezgulik leader Vasila Inoyatova says human rights activists “do not benefit from amnesties; on the contrary, new charges are manufactured so that they get extra prison terms”.