Flight from Uzbekistan

Another dissident begins a life in exile, and wonders how many more.

Flight from Uzbekistan

Another dissident begins a life in exile, and wonders how many more.

Monday, 14 November, 2005


Institute for War & Peace Reporting

In the early morning of August 4, I left my country, bribing my way across a quiet stretch of border into neighbouring Kazakstan and an uncertain future.

I was not able to say farewell to my family, fearing that the authorities would somehow find out about my plans and try to stop me. But I was determined to go, knowing what I might face if I kept the appointment scheduled for me two days later at the office of the prosecutor.

People in Uzbekistan know what can happen to you there. My friends warned me that I could share the fate of the human rights activist Shovruk Ruzimuradov, who died last month in custody, or the Uzbek writer Emin Usman, whose dead body was returned to his family in April this year after only four days in detention.

According to a local human rights organisation, Ruzimuradov was arrested on June 15 this year. His house was searched, and ammunition, drugs and leaflets of the banned Islamic organization Khizb-ut-Takhrir were found. His supporters believe all the evidence was planted by police.

For the past 20 years, Ruzimuradov had been involved in monitoring human rights abuses, first as an independent activist, then as a parliamentary deputy and later as a campaigner with the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan.

Ruzimuradov had recently been engaged in monitoring human rights abuses in his home district of Kashkadaria and in Surkhandaria region, scene of intense conflict between the government and Islamic fighters. The militants have proclaimed their goal of carving out a new Islamic state from Uzbekistan, and in response the government has increased internal repression. Anyone even sporting a beard is under suspicion.

Ruzimuradov made it his brief to attend all trials of prisoners charged with political and religious offences, passing his reports to journalists and human rights groups.

Last year, he was the first to report on the displacement of villagers on the Uzbek-Tajik border accused of collaborating with religious extremists. His stories drew worldwide attention to the plight of local people.

Three weeks ago, his body was returned to his village of Alla Karga, in Kashkadaria, disembowelled and bearing the signs of extensive beating.

Ruzimuradov and Usman both passed through the punitive machine used by the authorities to silence critics: investigation by the security ministry (successor to the KGB), visit to the prosecutor's office, stay in a detention centre, then prison. According to Human Rights Watch, there are reports of dozens of deaths in custody from torture or maltreatment, especially in the notorious Jaslyk prison.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Islam Karimov appealed to his opponents to give him time to implement reform. A decade has passed since then, but there have been no improvements in this country which, with 24 million people, is the most populous in Central Asia.

Nearly 70 per cent of the population lives in the countryside and is below the poverty line. People still work in collective farms for a meagre wage. Their situation is worse than during Soviet times when, if not prosperous, at least they always had bread on the table.

Now in the Jizak region, 150 kilometres from the capital, Tashkent, people are starving. I visited a family which has been living off a hard black bread made from low grade barley, grain husks and animal feed.

People's patience has worn thin. They no longer believe life will get better. With little trust left between ruler and the ruled, President Karimov has dispensed with the carrot and is now resorting to the stick.

Censorship is total. Democratic institutions have ceased to function. The political opposition has been crushed. Mass media have been turned into a propaganda machine.

"We don't need freedom of speech. What we need is a discipline," the governor of my home region of Urgench once said in an interview. He explained that the Soviet Union collapsed because of the policy of glasnost, or openness. "It all started when speeches of the Soviet deputies were broadcast to the public," he said, implying that the same risk could apply in Uzbekistan.

According to Uzbek human rights organisations, there are 5,000 political prisoners in the country. Most are accused of involvement in the activities of religious groups such as Khizb-ut-Takhrir, Wahhabi sect and the armed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

But there is a direct relationship between internal problems and extremist activity. The influence of radical Islamic groups has increased as political dissidents have been silenced. Muhammad Salih, leader of the Erk democratic political party (with which I was associated years ago) and Karimov's main challenger during the first presidential elections, in 1991, is now living in exile.

Last year he was sentenced to 16 years' imprisonment in absentia, accused of the 1999 Tashkent bombing. Several other leading political and religious leaders have also opted for exile.

Authorities are afraid of any crack that may appear in their totalitarian grip. Their paranoia reaches absurd, literal proportions. Last month, Karimov meet with the governor of Kashkadaria complimented him on his office but also pointed to some cracks on the wall, and said it was a bad sign. On a tour of a new college building, the first thing he noticed were cracks in the walls which he said had to be repaired.

I was one of those small cracks. I started to have problems with the authorities when ALC TV, the provincial station I set up in April 1994, began to gain popularity. Our broadcast covered three regions - Urgench, Khorezm and part of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan - with an estimated audience of 3 million.

ALC TV collaborated with international organisations and rebroadcast programmes that unsettled the authorities. We provided entertainment that made people feel good. But we also offered news and information very different from the state media, and they associated closely with us.

Following the 1999 presidential elections, during which media were heavily pressured and censored the station was closed. All efforts to overrule the decision and restore our licence were in vain. Even the 100,000 letters written to the local administration and to the president in support of the station were to no avail - an overwhelming display of popular support that might even have increased their determination to keep us closed.

Subsequently I continued to work as a journalist, covering human rights, media and conflict issues and publishing my work internationally. I am also a painter, and the state security service uncovered an accusation that ten years ago I forged the recommendation letter for my membership to the artists association. This hardly bears commenting on. But then I was called to the prosecutor's office, and knew it was time to go.

How many more will have to leave Uzbekistan?

Shukhrat Babajanov is director of the closed Uzbek TV station ALC and a regular IWPR contributor.

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