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

Uzbek Human Rights Fears

Western governments keep silent as number of disputed convictions rise.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Uzbekistan’s human rights record appears to be deteriorating in spite of stern warnings from a leading international funder earlier in the year.

The recent conviction of journalist and human rights activist Ruslan Sharipov is the latest in a long line of “politically motivated” trials and arrests, according to analysts and opposition figures.

Sharipov was sentenced to five and a half years’ imprisonment on August 13, on charges of sodomy - which is a criminal offence in Uzbekistan - and also of having sexual relations with minors.

The conviction was the most controversial case since the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, EBRD, met in Tashkent in May this year.

At this meeting, the EBRD leadership said it would develop its programmes in Uzbekistan only if the republic improved its human rights record, and warned that it would monitor the situation throughout the year.

But as soon as the meeting was over, the human rights situation appeared to deteriorate even further, with several disputed convictions leading up to the trial of Shairpov this month.

Tashkent’s Mirzo-Ulugbek district court sentenced Sharipov, who had refused the services of a defence lawyer, after he unexpectedly admitted guilt.

Until the confession, the charges had been unproved in court and forensic evidence presented by law enforcement officials appeared to support Sharipov’s innocence. However, an IWPR source within Tashkent prison revealed that the journalist had confessed under torture.

Matilda Bogner, the Human Rights Watch representative for Uzbekistan, said that the Uzbek authorities had succeeded in silencing one of their most vocal critics.

“Sharipov wrote a great deal and even kept working while he was being held in Tashkent prison, but now he does not write any more.This is what the authorities wanted, and now they have achieved it,” she told a conference, organised by local and international non-governmental organisations, in Tashkent on August 22.

“Further cases such as that of Sharipov can be expected as the government was successful with this experiment, and there was no reaction from western countries,” warned Azizullo Gaziev, a political analyst with the International Crisis Group, ICG, at the gathering, whose aim was to lobby for Sharipov’s release and protest against the treatment of journalists and opposition activists in the country.

“Democratic forces in Uzbekistan, independent journalists, human rights activists and politicians must mobilise their forces and create a single platform to protect democracy and themselves.”

After the conference ended, a group of human rights activists held a protest outside the Uzbek internal affairs ministry building, demanding that Sharipov be released immediately.

While some officials left the building to see the protest and talk briefly to journalists, many did not hide the contempt they felt for the demonstration. Activist Elena Urlaeva told IWPR that one high-ranking official had torn up a banner she was displaying, and branded the protest itself as “stupid”.

The ICG’s Gaziev believes that western countries are keeping silent on the clear deterioration of the human rights situation in Uzbekistan in return for Tashkent’s support for the US-led campaign against extremist organisations. Uzbekistan has provided military bases for the US and Germany, and backed coalition forces in Iraq.

“After the September 11 attacks on America, western countries’ foreign policies changed,” said Gaziev. “Now it is a global fight for geopolitical interests, and human rights and freedom of speech have fallen victim to these interests.”

For this reason, he said, not a single western government has commented on the Sharipov case, despite extensive publicity about the political motives behind the trial, “No one has stood up to protect the interests of a person who shares the West’s principles of democracy.”

Far from speaking out against the Tashkent authorities, the US State Department appears to believe that Uzbekistan is making “real progress”, according to a May 14 report on granting further aid to the republic.

“What is the point of supporting human rights activists and journalists if at the same time the West, by its silence and courting of Uzbekistan, provokes the government to suppress democracy?” said Gaziev.

So far, 2003 has been a worrying one for activists in the former Soviet republic. Six people were executed in May, prompting an investigation by the United Nations human rights commission and resulting in a moratorium on capital punishment.

In June, Bakhrom Khamraev, one of the leaders of the Uzbek opposition movement Birlik (Unity), was arrested in Moscow. According to his colleagues, this arrest was a joint operation by the Russian and Uzbek special services on the eve of President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Uzbekistan.

The following month, Samarkand journalist Khairullo Ernazarov was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment on charges of involvement with the Wahhabist extremist religious organisation.

Also in July, Abdukayum Yuldashev, editor of the Tashkent newspaper Mokhiyat resigned citing “creative differences” with the owners of the newspaper.

Furthermore, there has been an increase in the number of arrests and convictions of people suspected of belonging to the banned Islamic organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR’s project director in Uzbekistan