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

Uzbekistan: Police Surveillance Fears

A police bid to monitor journalists and opposition activists has further undermined hopes of greater political freedom.
By Bobomurod Abdullaev

Independent journalists and members of opposition parties fear the authorities are planning a fresh intimidation campaign after police anti-terrorist units launched a surveillance operation against them.

Police in the provinces have reportedly demanded the personal details and photographs of certain journalists and party members.

In Namangan province, the drive appears to be connected to an April 6 decree in which the local anti-terrorism section of the internal affairs department ordered police to gather information on all members of the Erk and Birlik opposition parties and on journalists from Radio Liberty and the BBC.

Erk head Atanazar Aripov said the action showed that the authorities had no intention of allowing opposition parties to operate, in spite of public speeches by the country's president, Islam Karimov, which had promised greater political freedom.

Aripov claimed the authorities were determined to link them to international terrorism in order to persecute their members, and added that police were making inquiries about his party members in both the Fergana and Kashkadarya provinces.

"The photographs and information about families is probably required by the police for arrests and, if necessary, to put pressure on family and friends," he said.

Uzbek interior ministry's anti-terrorism department refused to comment on the moves by its provincial counterparts, saying they may have been taken without authorisation from Tashkent. But one official, speaking anonymously, insisted that the police "had the right to demand information about any citizen of Uzbekistan, including journalists, or citizens of Uzbekistan working for foreign radio".

The BBC's Tashkent bureau said it was "surprised" that information about its journalists had been sought by anti-terrorism units. "What do we have to do with terrorism?" asked reporter Bakhtier Imamov.

Nosir Zkair, a Radio Liberty journalist in Namangan, told IWPR that the police had recently taken great interest in his life and had been collecting information about him and his family.

The Erk and Birlik opposition parties fell foul of the country's authoritarian president several years ago. Both were founded in the late 1980s, during the perestroika-era, and were suppressed after Uzbekistan became an independent state.

In 1993, Erk's then leader Muhammad Salekh was forced to leave the country after he contested Karimov's presidency in the 1991 election. While still in exile, he was accused of organising bombings in Tashkent in February 1999. In the autumn of the following year, he was tried in absentia and sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment for terrorism. Birlik's leaders are also in exile.

Both parties lost their official status in 1993 after the state withdrew the registrations that allowed them to carry out political activity.

However, hopes of a more relaxed political climate emerged after a parliamentary session last April when the president spoke of the need to continue Uzbekistan's democratic transformation and strengthen society.

The president publicly called on exiled opposition members to come home - if they were not linked to terrorism - and work with the government. "Freedom of speech and of the press is the most important thing of all. We want to build an open, just, democratic state," he said.

However, Karimov's words seem designed solely for foreign consumption. When Erk tried to hold a plenary session in Tashkent this May, the police arrested Aripov two hours before the meeting.

He was forced to ring his wife and ask her to tell all Erk party members who had come for the session to go home. He was released after seven hours in police custody, following the intervention of the US embassy. Aripov maintains that he was detained purely in order to break up the session.

Party member Dilorom Iskhakova said the authorities had used rougher tactics to break up earlier attempts to hold party meetings - such as raiding the venues with the help of police and taking party members away by bus.

"This time there was not a single policeman around. It was only later that we realised the authorities had found a much simpler and quieter method of stopping the meeting - detaining its leader," he said.

Erk members say the new tactics prove that, once again, the authorities are not living up to their promises.

The campaign to update police lists of Erk and Birlik members and foreign correspondents would seem to show how law enforcement agencies and the government really feel about the role of an opposition and free press.

Bobomurod Abdullaev is an independent journalist in Uzbekistan.