Slow Progress in Uzbekistan

By Galima Bukharbaeva in Tashkent (RCA No. 143, 3-Sep-02)

Slow Progress in Uzbekistan

By Galima Bukharbaeva in Tashkent (RCA No. 143, 3-Sep-02)

Monday, 14 November, 2005

The Taleban regime in Afghanistan fell and neighbouring Central Asian states, having been unexpectedly thrust into the centre of international affairs as Washington's new strategic allies in its "war against terrorism", acquired a new status in the world of international politics.

The tragic events in the US have kick-started a new phase in the history of Uzbekistan, with Tashkent one of the first governments to provide the American military with an airbase - Khanabad military airfield, 160 km from the Afghan frontier.

Overnight, Uzbekistan had become a partner and ally of the most powerful country in the world.

Uzbek president Islam Karimov has played host to a procession of high-ranking American officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and, on several occasions, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and US army chief Tommy Franks. In addition, many congressmen and senators have visited the country to express their gratitude for Uzbekistan's help in the campaign.

State Department data indicates that aid to Uzbekistan increased to 193 million US dollars in 2002 - almost half of the total granted to the country over the past decade. Washington explained the rise as a necessary step to shore up security in the region.

Since declaring independence in 1991, Uzbekistan had gained a reputation as an authoritarian state where human rights were routinely violated, political liberties suppressed and dissidents persecuted.

The government failed to liberalise its economy, reforms were stalled and the quality of life for ordinary citizens fell year on year. Uzbekistan's currency is still non-convertible and only a few privileged companies - mostly owned by corrupt officials - are able to enjoy the benefits of the market.

Such a state of affairs has scared off foreign investors and made it difficult for Uzbekistan to join the ranks of the civilised states.

Prior to September 11, the US had reiterated on numerous occasions that while Uzbekistan was within its zone of strategic interests, Tashkent would be kept at a distance until it could demonstrate improvements in human rights and market liberalisation.

Post September 11, priorities are quite different. The Uzbek-US declaration on strategic partnership and cooperation, signed in January 2002, presented Washington with a list of obligations towards Uzbekistan, including the provision of assistance and support towards democratisation and economic reforms and bolstering security.

While there's been no real progress in the democratisation process, there have been some advances in the fields of human rights and freedom of speech, in an apparent attempt to impress the Americans.

According to Mikhail Adzinov, chairman of the Independent Human Rights Organisation of Uzbekistan, IHROU, several encouraging developments are worth mentioning.

In September 2001, the tenth anniversary of independence, an amnesty was granted to prisoners found guilty of political and religious crimes - a first for Uzbekistan. According to the interior ministry, 860 prisoners convicted of being members of the banned Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir were granted early release.

IHROU estimates that the numbers of those arrested for membership of the group over the last year was four or five times less than in 1999-2000.

This, of course, has less to do with a softening of the government's policy towards Hizb ut-Tahrir than the fact that more than 4,000 suspected members are already behind bars.

Women accused of links to the group are not being treated as harshly as male suspects - nine women prosecuted in the first six months of 2002 received only suspended sentences. In July 2002, Musharraf Usmanova, who had led a protest by the wives and families of imprisoned men allegedly held in appalling conditions, was convicted of being the leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir's women's wing in Tashkent. She was handed a conditional two-year prison term - the fact that she was pregnant and had six young children cited as reasons of the relatively lenient sentence.

According to IHROU - which was finally registered recently, four-and-half years after its creation - there are currently more than 30 women in prison for membership of Hzb ut-Tahrir. If it were not for improved relations with the US, the nine prosecuted this year may well have joined them.

In an unprecedented case, four interior ministry police officers received 20-year prison sentences for torture. Nyriddin Boboev, Shavkat Rakhmanberdiev, Mukhiddin Nagimov and Yashin Gafurov from the Sabir-Rakhimov police unit in Tashkent were convicted of torturing Ravshan and Rasul Khaitov after they were detained on October 17, 2001, on suspicion of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir. Ravhsan died within 12 hours of his arrest and his younger brother was left disabled.

In June, three National Security Service, NSS, officers were convicted of murder. The Uzbek military court sentenced Abdushukur Mirzaev, Bobur Fazylov and Khamidhoja Saidov to between five and 15 years for killing 24-year-old detainee Alimuhammd Mamadaliev, yet another Hizb ut-Tahrir suspect. The trial was the first to involve personnel from the NSS personnel - the most powerful state security organ and heirs to the dreaded KGB.

A significant development in the area of freedom of speech was the forced "retirement" in May 2002 of Uzbekistan's main censor, Erkin Kamilov, chairman of the state press committee.

Karim Bakhriev, a lawyer for Internews-Uzbekistan, said it would be virtually impossible to find a more zealous custodian of state secrets than Kamilov. It is believed he was removed because he personified all the most negative aspects of the state press committee, which is now a symbol of Uzbek censorship.

May also saw the dissolution of the department for the protection of state secrets, of which Kamilov's press committee was part.

But the Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, which visited the country in June, said the abolition of censorship in Uzbekistan was in essence a fiction and had not resulted in positive changes in the Uzbek press.

Alexander Lupis, CPJ Coordinator of Programmes in Europe and Central Asia, said at a press conference in Tashkent on June 10 that the regime had "preserved all other mechanisms for pressuring journalists".

According to CPJ, at the same time as the censorship organs were being disbanded, the authorities sent out warnings to the editors of newspapers, magazines and broadcasters that if undesirable material appeared they would be held responsible. This has promoted self-censorship and all but cancelled out the need for state bodies.

CPJ research indicates that the authorities continue to use all available resources - threats, persecution, arrest and imprisonment - to subdue journalists who write critical material or highlight the serious problems besetting Uzbekistan.

However, Bakhriev believes that the removal of the department for the protection of state secrets has had a beneficial effect. "Publication of this or that material used to be the decision of one man - Kamilov - but today it depends on hundreds of editors, each of whom has a different degree of fear and independence," he said.

"One may decide that the material can be published while another thinks that it should not, but opportunities are still there."

Bakhriev pointed out that the abolition of censorship had allowed the publication of poems by Rauf Parfi - a poet persecuted for eight years for his membership of the opposition party Erk - in the Tashkent newspaper Mokhiat. The same newspaper also published an article by Bakhriev, his first published piece in five years, and began raising important social issues such as unemployment, public discussion of which used to be forbidden.

Mokhiat and Vremya i my (Time and Us) have been punished for daring to report about such issues, but at least the opportunity remains to let critical material through.

Despite some small concessions in the area of human rights and freedom of speech, the Uzbek authorities have maintained the machinery of authoritarian government.

In a nationwide referendum in January, the electorate voted overwhelmingly to extend the presidential term from five to seven years and reform parliament.

Prior to the vote, the authorities were at pains to assure voters that the extension would only come into effect after the next elections in 2005 and did not therefore apply to Karimov personally.

Nevertheless, at its first session, the new assembly voted to postpone parliamentary and presidential elections to December 2004 and 2007 respectively, giving Karimov almost eight years in office.

"The referendum itself and how its results have been used indicate that Uzbekistan is not on the route to democracy", said Matilda Bogner, a representative of Human Rights Watch in the country.

The parliamentary vote coincided with a US Senate visit. When asked to respond, one senator said, "Uzbekistan provided assistance to us in the anti-terrorist coalition and proved to us that it is our good friend. If our friend is not ideal, that doesn't mean that he can't still be our friend."

Clearly, there is still no room for genuine political opposition, freedom of speech or respect for human rights. And it appears neither the US nor other members of the anti-terror coalition are prepared to make any attempt to change this state of affairs.

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR director in Uzbekistan

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