Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Hard Times for Uzbek Charities

Crackdown on rights activists as government seeks to stifle even the most innocuous NGOs in the wake of the Andijan killings.
By IWPR staff

Charities and other non-government groups in Uzbekistan’s Fergana valley say they have come under mounting pressure since the Andijan violence in May.

Human rights activists in the region have been harassed and detained as part of a government campaign to crack down on debate about what happened in Andijan.

Human rights groups say hundreds of civilians died in a massacre when crowds of protesters gathered in the city centre on May 13 came under fire from security forces. The government insists 187 people died in a legitimate crackdown on an uprising by Islamic militants.

But non-government organisations, NGOs, with no involvement in political or human rights issues, are being forced to close down under pressure from government officials.

“Events in Andijan provided a pretext for galvanising [government] action against NGOs funded by international organisations. It was an added bonus for the government,” said the head of one group, who did not want to be further identified for fear of persecution.

This NGO is now being forced to close, and when it inquired about the reason it was told the move was all about politics.

“They told us at the justice ministry that the government was justifying its actions by saying that all the events [revolutions] in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan were funded by NGOs – so that threat had to be averted,” said the NGO head. “I tried to explain that my NGO didn’t work on political issues at all, but they replied that this wasn’t important – all that mattered was that we were an NGO.”

The post-Andijan clampdown is a continuation, in much intensified form, of a longer-running campaign to curb the activities of organisations operating outside government control.

“The NGOs have grown into a major force, and the state has been alarmed about this since as long ago as 2003. It was then that they started working out careful plans to paralyse the NGOs’ activities,” said a senior government civil servant who did not want to be named. “It had to be done in such a way that Uzbekistan didn’t look like a country that persecutes NGOs. To that end, a number of government orders were issued to place obstacles in the way of NGO activity.”

This policy, said the official, is now “bearing fruit”, “NGOs are [effectively] forced to be in breach of current legislation – that’s why it was drafted in the first place.”

Once they run into trouble with the authorities, the options run out for NGOs.

“You only have to give them a slight scare and they’ll announce they are closing down all by themselves – no court, no complaints and no comments from the international community,” continued the official.

A member of a different NGO, who resisted this pressure to close down “voluntarily” said, “We refused to announce that we were closing our organisation, so they took the matter to court. I don’t know what they’ll think up – but it’s pretty likely the court will be biased.”

The head of a third group recounts how pressure was also applied on it to close down, “They rang me from the [local] department of the justice ministry and said I had to come in so as to close down my organisation.

“At first I didn’t understand what was going on and thought it was a mistake. Suspecting nothing, I went along and…in the course of the discussion they told me I must submit a statement saying the NGO was closing, because there were orders from above to liquidate all NGOs.”

When this person refused, one official said “it would get difficult, and the case would be sent to court. One of them started threatening me, saying I’d better close down and stay closed if I didn’t want to have problems – they’d close us all down anyway”.

After this encounter, the NGO head rang round other groups and found they were all buckling under the pressure and had agreed to close, but said, “ I am not going to sign such a statement – I will stand out till the last.”

The new cold wind issuing from Tashkent has damaged relations between NGOs and local government even where the latter previously welcomed their engagement, to fill the gaps where it lacked sufficient resources.

“The social projects our NGO implemented, with foreign funding, helped solve problems in our society in areas to which the state was not paying attention, or chose not to,” said the head of one such group working on social-sector issues. “You can’t say local officials failed to pick up on what we were achieving - they used to listen to our views and invite us to all the important meetings.

“But this year the attitude has changed radically. We can’t get a single initiative past the district administration – they tell us they’ll definitely look at the proposal, only later on. I’ve a feeling they are simply ignoring us.”

The end of the Fergana valley’s non-government sector is deeply disappointment for NGO staff. “I’ve put years of my life into making my organisation,” said the same NGO head. “We started from nothing…I was able to convince my team and the wider community that we could change our society.

“When I think about the people [we help], I will never be able to bring myself to issue a statement saying we’re stopping our work.”

One of the curious features of Uzbekistan is the presence of groups jocularly known as GONGOs - “government-organised non-government organisations”.

Unsurprisingly, these groups have been exempted from the general clampdown.

A group of NGOs – Women’s Assembly, the Forum for the Culture and Art of Uzbekistan, and the Mehr Nuri Fund – are sponsored by Gulnara Karimova, who happens to be the president’s daughter.

Karimova was in the Ferghana valley last month to promote these organisations, but in a surprising step – given the general atmosphere of hostility to NGOs – she took time out to meet other groups as well.

Members of these were encouraged by the move, although some admit that officials took them aside before hand and briefed them on what they could and couldn’t say to the president’s daughter.

“After the meeting with Gulnara Karimova, I was left with an extremely pleasant impression – she was an educated, cultivated person, basically someone it was interesting to talk to,” said a participant in the discussions.

However, the meeting did not result in a tangible improvement for these groups.

The same individual reported, “Right after the meeting with this high-level delegation, NGO leaders in the [Fergana] valley started, out of the blue, submitting statements that they were closing their organisations.”

Press and broadcast outlets in the Fergana valley – which like all media in Uzbekistan are heavily controlled by the state – used to be able to carry uncontroversial stories about local NGOs.

But starting roughly at the beginning of 2005, even the most innocent topic became off-limits. As a local journalist said, “We used to happily include news about NGOs in our Society Section – it used to liven up what was otherwise a mass of dull official reports. Recently, however, the editors started banning coverage of NGO reports.”

There was almost an unfortunate incident at the newspaper when the blanket ban came close to being imposed on one of Gulnara Karimova’s groups. “It got to the point where they were about to stop us reporting a recent event involving Mehr Nuri – they lifted the ban only when it became clear that this NGO is under the wing of the president’s daughter herself,” recalled the journalist.

The Uzbek government is saying nothing about the clampdown. The silence is so profound that the authorities have quietly waived the statutory requirement that legal entities such as NGOs must place an announcement in the press for the benefit of creditors when they are liquidated.

For former employees, closure comes as a sad end to their hopes.

“When our director came and told us we were closing we thought is was just a joke in poor taste. But the told us at a staff meeting that he’d signed the declaration for our own safety. Lots of the girls started crying, and I was incensed at the justice ministry and the whole of the state,” recalled a former NGO worker.

“It was the only organisation where I was able to work for the good of people and see the fruits of my labour. And now it’s gone.”

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