Uzbekistan Can't Muzzle the Messenger

I should be writing this from Tashkent, where for 15 years Human Rights Watch has maintained a field office. Until last month.

Last Christmas Eve, the Uzbek government denied me accreditation to work in the country, and now it has forced us to close our office there, the first time in Human Rights Watch’s 33-years of operation that a government has shut down one of our offices.

The government hasn’t cited any official grounds, but the matter seems to have been decided long ago. It has been clear for years that the government does not want anyone reporting on human rights violations. For the last six years, it has denied or delayed visas and work accreditation to every one of our Tashkent representatives.

In July 2008, the government barred our researcher from the country. The next year, one of my colleagues was deported upon her arrival, and a few months later another was attacked during a short visit, while attempting to meet with human rights activists. After that, I was allowed in for only two months in 2010 before being told to leave.

The Uzbek government has tried to close off not just Human Rights Watch, but any scrutiny of its rights record. Only one active domestic rights group, Ezgulik, is registered, but it faces constant persecution. Uzbekistan’s activists carry on their work despite daily harassment and the constant danger of surveillance, de facto house arrest, beatings, denial of exit visas, punitive civil or criminal charges — or worse.

Thirteen rights advocates and numerous political activists and journalists are in prison. Many are in very poor health and some have been tortured or mistreated. I spent an afternoon with the wives of two of them who were willing to describe their husbands’ situations though we were being watched by security agents. One told how her husband was forced to stand in freezing temperatures for nearly four hours to force him to sign a confession. They implored me not to let the world forget them.

Since 2004 the government has kicked out almost every international nongovernmental organization. It has prevented most international news agencies from reporting in the country, and the few remaining local independent journalists work under threat of defamation cases that can result in crippling fines or prison time.

For years the government has persecuted and imprisoned thousands of people for alleged “fundamentalism,” and tortured many of them. It forces thousands of schoolchildren, some as young as 10, to work on the cotton harvest for two months a year. And torture and ill-treatment are widespread and systematic in pretrial detention and prisons. Yet very recently at the United Nations, the government pointed to habeas corpus reforms as evidence that it is combating torture.

Habeas corpus — judicial review of detention — is considered a crucial bulwark against torture in pretrial detention, but true habeas corpus exists neither in theory nor in practice in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek version doesn’t allow the court to examine whether there’s sufficient evidence to hold someone in jail before trial. And although habeas corpus means “show the body,” not only are the hearings closed to observers, but sometimes the detainees aren’t even present. Even when they are, judges simply rubber stamp detention, routinely ignoring any allegations of ill-treatment or abuse of due process.

One year after adopting the much-vaunted “reform,” the government transferred the power to license attorneys from independent bar associations to the Justice Ministry. The result: Numerous independent lawyers were disbarred, including many who had represented defendants in politically sensitive cases.

Part of the reason Uzbekistan has been able to get away with all this is that the West, which is increasingly pursuing a policy of re-engagement because of Uzbekistan’s border with Afghanistan and deposits of natural gas, thinks the Uzbek government has gained the upper-hand. Human Rights Watch’s expulsion is only further proof.

Office or not, visas or not, we will continue reporting about Uzbekistan’s human rights failings. Recent events in the Middle East show that unconditional support for “friendly autocrats” is short-sighted and counterproductive. The United States and the European Union should rethink their positions and send a clear message to Uzbekistan that brutalizing its own people and stonewalling international reporting comes at a price.

By Steve Swerdlow, the Uzbekistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.

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