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

Uzbekistan: Human Rights Defender Fights Back

Police threaten to send a prominent human rights activist back to a mental hospital - but she says she won't give up.
By Viktor Krymzalov

It's normal for police to intervene the moment anyone causes a stir in Uzbekistan. So when a group of human rights activists set off to hold a small demonstration outside the presidential offices in Tashkent on April 17, it was no surprise when police headed off the vehicle in which they were travelling.


It would be standard practice to threaten the activists with a jail term. But this time the police chose to warn one of the activists, Elena Urlaeva, that they could get her locked up in a mental hospital for the third time in two years.


Together with five other people, Urlaeva was taken to a police station where they were held for questioning.


During the interrogation, the deputy chief at the police station, Bahodir Userbaev, warned her, "We will commit you to a mental hospital. You are wrong in the head".


Interviewed by IWPR, Urlaeva said that she and her group, members of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, have no plans to stop gathering outside government buildings to demand improvements in the authorities' record on human rights.


"We do regular protests because it is the only way to change things in this country, where there are systematic abuses of human rights," said Urlaeva.


Urlaeva knows that the policeman's talk of having her locked up in a mental hospital is not an idle threat.


She has twice been forcibly taken to Uzbekistan's main psychiatric institution and held in a locked ward, and forced to take drugs for what the authorities say is a mental condition.


In April 2001 Urlaeva was taken to the hospital after she took part in several protest meetings outside government buildings in Tashkent. Over the next three months she claims she was subjected to a cocktail of psychiatric drugs.


The Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan called her forced internment in the hospital "a return to the Soviet nut-house as a way of dealing with dissidents".


Ulraeva was only released under pressure from international human rights organisations and western embassies. But in August 2002, she was taken back to the same hospital after trying to organise a protest at the justice ministry in central Tashkent.


Witnesses said that as soon as she unfurled a banner demanding an end to human rights abuses, a car pulled up and a group of men forced her to get in.


Urlaeva spent another four months in the hospital. Olga Krasnova, another human rights active who is head of the Committee for Social Monitoring, said that Urlaeva received around 400 different injections of strong drugs during this second spell in the hospital.


After her release, the local prosecutor's office sought a court order to have her declared mentally unsound, opening the way to an indefinite incarceration. The move was based on the conclusions of a panel of Uzbek experts who ruled that Urlaeva "represented a danger to herself and the people around her". They said she suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.


Urlaeva has filed for damages of seven million sums (around 7,000 US dollars) against the Tashkent hospital for wrongful incarceration and treatment. This court case is continuing.


In a bid to get a more objective assessment of her state of mind, Urlaeva travelled to Moscow in March to undergo an independent examination by Russian doctors. Her trip was supported by Russian and US human rights organisations.


Specialists at the Independent Psychiatric Association of Russia examined Urlaeva over several days and concluded there were "no grounds to deprive her of the right to answer for her own actions." They said she was not in need of psychiatric treatment.


Olga Krasnova, who travelled with her, said that these leading Moscow doctors utterly condemned the way she had been forced to take drugs. "A leading psychiatrist, Yury Savenko, said the use of such strong drugs over such a long period was a crime," said Krasnova.


Krasnova said she hoped the Russian psychiatrists' conclusions will strengthen Urlaeva's case for damages, and deter the Uzbek authorities from using mental hospitals to get rid of someone they regard as a troublemaker.


But psychiatrists in Uzbekistan continue to insist that they have done nothing wrong.


The head doctor at the Tashkent mental hospital, Khairullo Husankhojaev, said, "I very much respect the Independent Psychiatric Association of Russia. But I think some of their conclusions have a political purpose," he said.


The latest incident ended peacefully - Urlaeva and her colleagues were released from the police station after several hours.


Before letting her go one of the officers at the police station, a plainclothes man who gave his name only as Karimov, asked her why she couldn't just stop annoying the authorities.


"Why do you stick your nose in where it's not needed? Don't you want Uzbekistan to get investments?" he asked.


The police officer is clearly up on the news. On May 4-5 Uzbekistan is playing host to the annual meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, EBRD.


The choice of Tashkent as venue is a controversial one, given Uzbekistan's consistently poor record on human rights. The EBRD's mandate says that it must only work in countries that are committed to democratic principles. Yet its latest strategy paper for Uzbekistan, published in March, raises concerns about systematic violations of human rights, arbitrary detention and torture, and the development of multi-party democracy.


No wonder the police are getting even jumpier than usual.


Viktor Krymzalov is an independent journalist in Tashkent.


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