Screws Tighten on Uzbek Rights Groups

Activists fight back by seeking legal loopholes to justify demonstrations.

Screws Tighten on Uzbek Rights Groups

Activists fight back by seeking legal loopholes to justify demonstrations.

Friday, 2 October, 2009
Human rights groups in Uzbekistan have to tread a thin line between staging public protests and the inevitable trouble with the police, or the alternative – staying at home, remaining silent and disappearing from public view, as the authorities would like them to do.

Never granted legal recognition, their members frequently harassed, Uzbek human rights groups live in the shadow of a powerful police state.

Members interviewed by IWPR report a range of tactics deployed against them, from overt surveillance to assault and arrest.

One leading activist in Jizak region says he and his colleagues live under perpetual surveillance, which intensifies if they come out with a statement critical of the authorities.

“Cases where human rights defenders are persecuted by the security forces have recently been growing more frequent,” he said.

One of his colleagues was recently summoned by the National Security Service or SNB for what is euphemistically termed a “preventive chat” – in reality an interview combining intimidation with the offer of incentives if she agreed to stop her human rights activities.

The activist said another colleague reported that unmarked cars were parked outside his home round the clock, and that plainclothes officers sitting in it stopped anyone on their way to visit him and told them that if they had any issues to raise, they should address them to the proper authorities.

To make matters worse, he said, the security services also employ more sophisticated methods, using agents to infiltrate the embattled human rights community and sow discord among its members.

“We live under tough conditions,” he said. “The state agencies do everything they can to spread all kinds of slanderous rumours in order to set human rights defenders against one another.”

In one case, he said, a member of the group was summoned for questioning, and the authorities then put it about that she had sold out. “Rights defenders start mistrusting one another,” he said.

Despite the atmosphere of fear, rights groups continue to stage occasional protest in a bid to raise public awareness of their concerns.

That brings them into direct conflict with Uzbekistan’s repressive laws on public assembly.

Prior permission is required to hold an open-air protest meeting, and this is routinely denied to human rights groups and others. Police intervene quickly if an attempt is made to hold an unsanctioned event.

In an attempt to get round this, activists stage smaller actions which they term “pickets”, the idea being these are not explicitly banned under the law.

However, participants still face reprisals – those involved in picketing the prosecutor general’s office in Tashkent last December were rounded up and taken to a police station, even though their action passed off without any trouble.

When the authorities have advance warning of a protest, they take action to prevent it happening. A plan to congregate and lay flowers at the Monument to Courage in Tashkent on May 13 this year, in commemoration of the fourth anniversary of the Andijan tragedy, was foiled with some activists detained beforehand and others prevented from leaving their homes.

Two individuals got as far as laying their flowers at the monument and were promptly detained by police.

The date was passed over in silence by the authorities. On May 13, 2005, Uzbek security forces opened fire on a demonstration in Andijan in the eastern Fergana valley, killing hundreds of civilians and injuring many more. The wave of arrests that followed targeted anyone suspected of attending the demonstration.

Two rights activists from different parts of Uzbekistan questioned the value of holding protests, suggesting that it was not enough and might even be counterproductive

“If you go at it from a legalistic angle, government agencies and district governors can’t get out of it,” argued one. “But coming out into the streets and sounding the alarm doesn’t solve anything. Quite the reverse – even people who are inclined towards us will rapidly distance themselves.”

Despite an apparent thaw in relations, the government’s hostility to western states which demanded an independent investigation into the Andijan violence still colours the way in which officials treat human rights groups.

“Human rights defenders are agents of the United States and other western powers,” said a policeman serving with the interior ministry division responsible for combating terrorism and radical Islam – an agency traditionally responsible for dealing with dissidents as well. “They receive large grants for every action they stage.”

He said police were under instructions to deal “roughly” with protesters even when they offered no resistance.

“We are taught that they are enemies of our people and agents of western influence,” he added.

Political scientist Komron Aliev dismisses the concept of wealthy foreign-backed groups as a myth.

Stories of “massive riches obtained by human rights defenders are just preposterous,” he said. “If you really want to, it’s just as possible to identify agents of Turkish, Pakistani Japanese and even Mongolian influence as well as American.

“It’s invented by the security service in order to create the image of an enemy, and set the people against human rights defenders and democrats in general. I don’t know of any human rights defenders living in luxury, in contrast to many of their opponents in local government and the police.”

(Names of some interviewees withheld out of concern for their security.)
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