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

Uzbek Activist in Starvation Protest

Authorities show no sign of compromising as hunger striker seeks to highlight human rights abuses.
By Nigora Sadykova

Uzbek human rights activist Mutabar Tajibaeva is getting weaker by the day, but she is determined to continue her three-week hunger strike in protest against the government.


"I have sent a telegram to the president, the ministry of internal affairs, the prosecutor-general's office, the health ministry… demanding the resignation of the heads of the government," said Tajibaeva, looking pale and thin on a hospital bed.


She hopes her protest will draw President Islam Karimov's attention to human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, the misuse of power by officials, and the authorities' inability to provide citizens with a decent standard of living.


"Mutabar Tajibaeva's life is in danger, her current condition can be said to be very serious," said Adkhamjon Boborahimov, the head doctor of the Margilan city hospital in the Fergana valley. "She has to eat something."


Boborahimov said doctors failed to persuade Tajibaeva to end her hunger strike, and 12 days into it they were forced to inject her with glucose to keep her alive.


Tajibaeva, 41, is head of a women's rights organisation called Ut Yuraklar (Fiery Hearts), and is a prominent human rights campaigner in the Fergana valley.


She began her hunger strike on August 20 after being beaten up while trying to stage a demonstration in her home district, Alty-Aryk, near Margilan. The protesters were calling for the resignation of a district prosecutor whom they accuse of corruption and failure to prosecute known criminals.


But as soon as the protestors arrived at the prosecutor's office and produced their placards, a crowd of about 50 women surrounded them and began insulting and attacking them. One of the demonstrators, Yulduz Ruzieva, told IWPR that the women assaulted them with stones and bricks after tearing up their placards.


Matluba Azamatova, a correspondent for BBC radio who came to report on the protest, says she too came under attackr. "At first I didn't understand what was going on," she said. "It was all so unexpected. The women beat Mutabar Tajibaeva, tearing her clothes, and then started beating the protestors I interviewed. They started punching me, took away my bag and tore it to pieces. They took my cassettes and broke them, took away my dictaphone, and broke my microphone and earphones."


Eyewitnesses say that prosecution service staff stood by and watched the violence as it unfolded. So did police - who in Uzbekistan generally intervene at the slightest sign of public disturbance. They briefly detained two of the protestors, Mavjuda Atakulova and Adkham Hazratkulov, but did not question the attackers. This has led the protestors to suspect that the attack was orchestrated by the authorities, using rent-a-crowd techniques.


Tajibaeva was seriously injured in the attack, and was taken to Margilan hospital. Doctor Murojon Ashurov confirmed that she had concussion, and also many haematomas on her body caused by hard objects.


She began her hunger strike immediately, saying this was one last attempt to speak out against officials on whose order peaceful protestors are beaten up. She was joined by Mavjuda Atakulova, who called for the resignation of top internal ministry officials.


Most local observers think it unlikely that the government will make any concessions, even if the two women's condition deteriorates.


"The government itself is prepared to liquidate leaders of the people, and they get rid of fighters for the truth, using the lowest methods to do so," said Abdusalom Ergashev of the Independent Human Rights Society.


So far the main response from local authorities has been to trash Tajibaeva's reputation. Obidkhon Jamoliddinov, who works with her, attended a public meeting in Margilan, one of several organised across the Fergana region by officials from the provincial government to denounce the human rights campaigner.


"Administration representatives and other 'conscientious' citizens told people that Mutabar Tajibaeva was an enemy of the state, that she was the same as Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan leader Juma Namangani, that a criminal case had been opened against her, and that she would soon be arrested," Jamoliddinov told IWPR.


Tajibaeva confirmed that she has been officially warned that she will face a criminal case on public order charges once she is released from hospital.


The Fergana regional prosecutor Murodil Fozilov has promised to pursue the people who attacked the demonstrators, too, but he says this will be hard because no one knows who they were. According to Tajibaeva, this is nonsense since dozens of police and other officials witnessed the attack.


"This is just further confirmation that I have to fight, and continue my protest against this blatant humiliation of us, of our people," she said.


Nigora Sadykova is the pseudonym of an IWPR correspondent in Fergana.


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