Uzbekistan: Taking No Chances

The opposition Erk party says harassment of activists is increasing as election approaches.

Uzbekistan: Taking No Chances

The opposition Erk party says harassment of activists is increasing as election approaches.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

As Uzbekistan heads towards a general election in December, one thing is fairly certain – no opposition parties will be allowed to stand.

Deprived of legal status and with their leaders in exile, neither of the two opposition parties – Erk and Birlik – appear to present much of a threat to the government.

But recent legal proceedings against Erk activists suggest the authorities are taking no chances.

There are half a dozen political parties loyal to President Islam Karimov and barely distinguishable from one another, which will no doubt field candidates and win seats in parliament.

Neither Erk nor Birlik has been granted official recognition for a decade, and in the months that remain before the poll there is little chance either will get the green light to take part, despite western governments interceding on their behalf.

Erk’s general secretary, Atanazar Arifov, is concerned that the government is intent on further disabling his party by pursuing the heads of its regional branches.

On May 17, the head of the Namangan branch in the eastern Fergana valley region, Ghulomjon Kholmatov, was summoned to police headquarters in the city. After a short interrogation, the 70-year-old Kholmatov was placed in custody in a cold and damp cell.

According to his son Ghairat, police searched the family home the next day and found no incriminating evidence. But they later searched the garden and found a number of cannabis plant shoots.

The deputy chief of police in Namangan, Rahim Karimov, told IWPR that 183 cannabis plants were found, and Kholmatov was charged with two offences of growing and storing a prohibited narcotic.

Kholmatov, who was released on bail on May 20, told IWPR that he had not planted the cannabis, but was trying to get rid of it as it was growing as a weed. Cannabis occurs naturally in Uzbekistan.

“The agents who took part in the search could see there was freshly-mown grass with cannabis in among it. I always got rid of it but I must have missed a few plants,” he said.

Kholmatov is convinced the authorities are deliberately trumping up charges against him to stop him taking part in Erk activities.

Another leading Erk office-holder, Nasrullo Sayid, is also under investigation. Sayid, who leads the Bukhara regional branch in the west of the country, is charged with mis-spending funds two years ago when the building firm he ran was working on a government contract.

Arifov disputes this allegation, saying the authorities have no way of proving it.

A third regional head, Fahriddin Tillaev in the southern Surkhandarya province, is on the point of being formally charged. He is regularly summoned by police to account for his possession and distribution of Erk party literature and books by the party’s chairman Muhammad Salih.

Salih is reviled by the Karimov government, which accuses him of subversion and terrorism – charges that he strongly denies. He was forced to flee the country in 1994 after daring to stand against Karimov in a presidential election.

According to Arifov, the arrest and interrogation of leading Erk members are a deliberate ploy to intimidate them and to store up material against them so that they will always have the threat of prosecution hanging over them.

Arifov says the police exploit schisms in Uzbekistan’s fractured opposition to prevent them organising. He cites as an example a meeting of opposition groups in Tashkent on 9 May, which ended in scuffles as eggs were thrown at him and the head of the recently-created Ozod Dehkan party, Nigora Khidoyatova.

“All these scandalous scenes are orchestrated by the interior ministry to discredit the Uzbek opposition, and make us look ridiculous in front of our foreign partners and diplomats,” said Arifov. “That’s clearly their aim.”

Erk was active, together with Birlik, in the early years of Uzbekistan’s independence, but was driven underground as the government consolidated its power and made it impossible for opposition groups to be active in politics.

In 2000, Muhammad Salih was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in jail for what the authorities said was his complicity in a series of bomb explosions in Tashkent the previous year. He has always denied this.

Arifov sees an ominous connection between the accusations brought against Salih in 1999 and the current election campaign. “Like this year, 1999 was a presidential election year, but after such accusations we couldn’t even think about standing in the poll. This year too the authorities will almost certainly try to do something to prevent Erk taking part,” he said.

Despite the long absence of both Erk and its leader Salih from the political stage, and the appearance of Islamic groups with far more radical agendas than the old secular opposition parties, the Uzbek authorities reserve a particular hostility for them.

At a press conference on May 21, justice minister Abdusamat Palvanzade warned international organisations against working with non-registered political parties, specifically Erk and Birlik.

According to a report on the website, Palvan-zade recalled that Salih had been convicted of terrorism.

“International non-government organisations may not know what they are doing – committing gross violations of Uzbek laws and effectively offering dangerous criminals their protection and patronage,” said Palvan-zade.

Arifov says the authorities’ attempts to stifle opposition groups and cut off their links to the outside world is a sign of weakness rather than strength.

He says his party is determined to put candidates forward for the parliamentary election, nominating them as independents rather than party candidates.

“Ahead of us lies a difficult year and a tough fight,” he said.

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