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

Uzbek Government Repression Feeds Instability

By News Briefing Central Asia
  • Vitaly Ponomarev. (Photo: V Ponomarev)
    Vitaly Ponomarev. (Photo: V Ponomarev)

Uzbekistan has more political prisoners in Uzbekistan than the rest of the former Soviet Union put together, according to leading rights activist Vitaly Ponomarev.

Ponomarev, who heads the Central Asia programme of the Moscow-based Memorial group, authored a report just released on Political Repression in Uzbekistan in 2009-2010 (available in Russian here), which contains exhaustive lists of people arrested and jailed on political charges.

NBCA: In your view, how many people have fallen victim to political repression in Uzbekistan, and what are they charged with?

Vitaly Ponomarev: There are several thousand political prisoners in Uzbekistan, more than in the rest of the post-Soviet states added together. The appendix to our report lists over 500 individuals sentenced for political reasons in 2009 and 2010. We know of over 300 more whose identities have yet to be established. From previous experience, I’d say we generally get information about less than half the total number of cases of this kind.

Almost all of them were charged with the offences of membership of a banned organisation, distributing literature that threatens public security, anti-constitutional activity or setting up an illegal religious organisation.

The report looks at the legal framework in which repression takes place. The wording of the relevant articles in the criminal code does not comply either with international standards or with Uzbekistan’s international obligations. Terms like "fundamentalism" and "extremism" are not really defined. When it comes to terrorism, the law makes no distinction between direct involvement, indirect complicity and assisting the perpetrator. The result is that large numbers of people are charged with terrorism.

NBCA: What militant groups are active in Uzbekistan, as far as you known?

Ponomarev: Since 2009, the term "jihodchilar" [jihadists] has come into use in criminal cases, and is now the label used in place of the old "Wahhabi".

In 2009 and 2010, there were no trials of alleged members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan [IMU], except that of one suspect extradited from Ukraine. Many analysts cite IMU involvement in violence in Uzbekistan, but trial documentation doesn’t support this. Apart from one attack in May 2009 in Andijan region, there’s no reliable evidence that jihadist groups based abroad like the IMU and the [related] Islamic Jihad Union have been implicated in violence in Uzbekistan over the last two years.

Our report takes a new approach by attempting to measure the government’s response against the real threats posed by terrorist groups. Our conclusion is that the response is not commensurate with the risks, and is thus unjustifiable; and that repression itself is the major destabilising factor and poses greater risks to regional security than groups like the IMU do.

NBCA: Do you see any changes to the way political cases have been handled over 2009 and 2010?

Ponomarev: There have been some changes, including to the way criminal charges have been formulated.

NBCA: Have you been able to obtain court verdicts? What were your sources of information?

Ponomarev: We tried to obtain copies of verdicts, and succeeded in a number of cases. The report also reviews previously unseen documentation, for instance relating to the May 2009 attacks…. We interviewed refugees and labour migrants from Uzbekistan residing in other countries, who are also important sources of information about arrests and trials.

The information is nevertheless incomplete. Over the last two years, the human rights and journalistic community have been unable to get information about political trials in half the regions of Uzbekistan. Sometimes the only source of information about a trial is the reporting in the official media.

NBCA: What is the dynamic of repressions over the two years your report covers?

Ponomarev: Starting from mid-2008, we’ve seen a growing trend towards politically-motivated criminal cases. There was an upsurge after violence in Andijan and subsequently in Tashkent in 2009.

The level of repression is now higher than in its previous peak period of 2004 to 2006. I believe there is a repressive mechanism at work that fabricates collective cases in which grave charges are levelled at dozens of defendants. The substance of the charges is mostly based on nothing more than informal Islamic teaching, religious debates, or communication between acquaintances.

NBCA: What are the likely consequences of such widespread repression for the people and the government?

Ponomarev: For more than a decade, the deployment mass repression as a core instrument of state policy has been a major source of instability not only for Uzbekistan, but also Central Asia as a whole. It’s liable to have fairly serious consequences for the security and stability of the region.

Under certain circumstances, we could see a Middle East-type scenario unfolding. And Uzbekistan is most likely to experience the Libyan scenario rather than the Egyptian one. Its partners both in the West and in the former Soviet Union need to strive to exert pressure on Tashkent to change this.

This article was produced as part of IWPR’s News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.