19.5.17

The Uzbekistani authorities should accept responsibility for the death of Uzbek lawyer Polina Braunerg.

Association for Human Rights in Central Asia - AHRCA is deeply saddened at the news that human rights lawyer Polina Braunerg died today, on 19 May 2017, in hospital, seven days after being admitted to hospital after suffering a stroke.

The Uzbek authorities’ refusal to give Braunerg permission to leave the country undoubtedly played a role in the deterioration of her health as she was in need of urgent medical examination and treatment abroad. Over the last three years Braunerg applied several times to the Ministry of Internal Affairs for an “exit visa”, permit to exit the country given for two years, a practice inherited by the Karimov regime from the totalitarian past. But her requests were refused without explanation. Polina Braunerg complained to the Prosecutor’s office but in July 2016 her passport was returned to her and the authorities’ threatened her with arrest if she did not write a statement officially withdrawing her application for an exit visa.

In February 2017, under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev Polina Braunerg again applied for an exit visa but did not get a positive response.  Had Polina been allowed to travel for medical treatment it is possible that she would be with us today and able to continue her important work.

Polina BRAUNERG was born on 11 October 1948 in Kazakhstan.  She studied law and then moved back to Uzbekistan and worked for three years as an investigator in the police department in Almalyk before pending the next 40 years working as a lawyer.  Polina was one of the first human rights lawyers in Uzbekistan to support the initiative to abolish the death penalty in Uzbekistan.

In 2002, she met with the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Theo van Boven during his official visit to Uzbekistan, and briefed him on cases of her clients who included victims of torture, forced sterilization and contemporary forms of slavery, political prisoners, persecuted human rights defenders and independent journalists.  Even when her personal safety was at risk, she raised issues of human rights violations in Uzbekistan and provided invaluable information to international human rights bodies. Polina represented several well-known civil society activists who were subjected to political repression, including imprisoned human rights activists Fakhriddin Tillayev and Nuraddin Djumaniyazov, as well as former political prisoners Murad Djuraev and Muhammad Bejhanov.

She continued her human rights work, despite the difficult conditions in Uzbekistan, where she was often subjected to harassment by the authorities because of her professional activities, as they attempted to isolate her from the outside world, three times refusing her permission to travel to attend the OSCE Human Dimension civil society conference from 2014 to 2016.  The ban on Polina Braunerg going abroad for treatment, her isolation, persecution and the pressure on her by law enforcement agencies led to a serious deterioration in her health.

The pressure exerted by the Uzbekistani authorities on citizens who dare to speak out about human rights abuses, including the shameful practice of restricting freedom of movement, has regrettably not noticeably changed since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power.

Association for Human Rights in Central Asia - AHRCA extends its deepest sympathies to Polina Braunerg‘s relatives, colleagues and friends.





12.5.17

Uzbekistan: UN Official Calls for Rights Reforms


Envoy Presses for Justice for Andijan Massacre

(Geneva, May 13, 2017) – The United Nations high commissioner for human rights called on President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan on May 10 and 11, 2017, to turn his government’s pledges for reform into concrete human rights improvements and fulfill its obligations under human rights law, eight human rights groups said today. The rights groups endorsed the high commissioner’s recommendations, calling on Mirziyoyev to end ongoing abuses and deliver on Uzbekistan’s human rights commitments in full.

UN High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein met with the president, government officials, and representatives of nongovernmental groups in Tashkent and Samarkand. He urged the government to release political prisoners, cooperate with UN rights monitors, and work to end systematic torture, among other issues. He emphasized that the “successful implementation” of human rights reforms could have a “transformational impact” on Uzbekistan’s future. 

“While welcoming President Mirziyoyev’s indicated willingness to engage on Uzbekistan’s abysmal rights record, the UN high commissioner rightly called on him to turn positive rhetoric into concrete action,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The burden of proof now lies with the Uzbek government to make good on its promises for reform.” 

The rights groups are the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, Civil Rights Defenders, the Cotton Campaign, Human Rights Watch, International Partnership for Human Rights, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Reporters Sans Frontières, and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights. 

Hussein’s visit was the first by a UN high commissioner for human rights to Uzbekistan. It came on the heels of Tashkent’s recent efforts to step up engagement with various intergovernmental organizations and financial institutions, such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

Hussein acknowledged certain positive developments, such as Mirziyoyev’s newly adopted Action Strategy, which includes pledges to improve public administration, strengthen protections for vulnerable segments of the population, and liberalize the economy, as well as new legislation to strengthen the independence of the judiciary. But the high commissioner stressed that “frameworks and plans are one thing, and results are another.” 

“In recent months President Mirziyoyev may have directed the government to pass laws and regulations that, at face value, carry great potential,” said Brigitte Dufour, director of International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR). “But the proof of change is when we start seeing all wrongfully imprisoned activists released from prison, UN human rights monitors and human rights organizations able to visit the country, an end to forced labor, and independent civil society and media able to function without harassment.”

In his remarks, the high commissioner urged authorities to allow a strong, vibrant, and dynamic civil society and media to operate without fear of repression or reprisal, and to release political prisoners as soon as possible. The rights groups have documented the imprisonment of thousands of people on politically motivated charges in Uzbekistan, including dozens of human rights defenders, journalists, and political activists.

He cited torture as “one of the issues that has been most damaging to Uzbekistan’s international reputation.” And he said the government should allow independent monitoring of Uzbekistan’s prisons and other places of detention with the aim of eradicating torture and other forms of ill-treatment and urged it to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. The protocol creates a monitoring system and requires that independent entities responsible for such monitoring be able to enter detention facilities at any time, unannounced. In 2013, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) halted its monitoring of Uzbekistan’s prison facilities, citing interference by authorities.

“The high commissioner’s visit brings hope for positive change,” said Ivar Dale, senior adviser at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, “but will only have lasting significance for Uzbekistan’s 32 million citizens if President Mirziyoyev opens the country to the credible scrutiny of rights activists, journalists, and international monitors who have been unable to do their critical work for so many years.”

Hussein also recommended that Uzbekistan cooperate with UN human rights bodies, noting that none of the 14 human rights monitors who have asked to visit the country had been allowed to visit since 2002. The high commissioner announced that an invitation has been extended to the UN special rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief.

The visit came just before the anniversary of the May 13, 2005, Andijan massacre, when government forces shot and killed hundreds of largely unarmed protesters in the city of Andijan. In his public remarks, he underlined the importance of ensuring justice and accountability for the “terrible events” in Andijan that day. “While it is important to look forward, it is also important to come to terms with past events and ensure that victims are not forgotten and their grievances are addressed,” he said.

Before dawn on May 13, 2005, armed men broke into the prison in Andijan, a city in the Fergana Valley in eastern Uzbekistan. The gunmen freed 23 local businessmen who had been sentenced for “religious extremism” and took over local government buildings. Throughout the day, thousands of unarmed peaceful protesters flocked to the town’s central square to speak out against poverty, unemployment, and government repression. Government forces in armored vehicles and snipers fired indiscriminately on the crowd, blocking off the square as people attempted to flee, killing hundreds. Government troops then moved through the square and executed wounded people where they lay.

“There is no statute of limitations for the mass killings of hundreds of innocent civilians 12 years ago in Andijan,” said Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. “We fully support the high commissioner’s call that the Uzbek government ensure accountability for these terrible events, which should include a review of the criminal sentences of the hundreds imprisoned in the aftermath of the massacre, an end to harassment of witnesses to the killings, and access for human rights organizations to investigate.”





10.5.17

Statement regarding DOS attack on the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia's website



On 10 May 2017 the Russian version of the website of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia  http://ahrca.org/  underwent a DDos attack, resulting in the website being inaccessible for several hours. The attack occured after the publication of the public statement "The Role of Organized Crime in the Political Life of Uzbekistan"

Access to the site has now been restored. 





9.5.17

Uzbekistan: Harassment, detentions and mass surveillance restrict citizens’ rights

The information for this update published by the CIVICUS Monitor, an initiative aimed at tracking civic space worldwide has been provided by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (AHRCA).
 
EXPRESSION
 
In its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Uzbekistan at 169th of 180 countries, dropping the country three places from its 2016 ranking. Media outlets in Uzbekistan continue to operate under close control by the authorities and independent journalists are at risk of severe reprisals for their professional activities. As reported previously, the few local independent journalists who contribute information to foreign media outlets, civil society activists and other critical voices are highly vulnerable to intimidation and harassment by the authorities.
 
JOURNALISTS, BLOGGERS AND HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVISTS FACING HARASSMENT
 
A number of recent cases of concern documented by IPHR and AHRCA include the following:
 
On 14th April 2017, independent journalist Aleksei Volosevich was detained for 18 hours by police in the town of Gazli in the Bukhara region after he took photos of the city’s landscape. He was careful to avoid getting too close to the legally permitted half kilometre around the prison colony in the town, which is a structure of strategic importance. Nonetheless, he was detained by police and taken to the regional police station in Romitansky district of Gazli, where police took his fingerprints, questioned his motives, erased the photos in his camera and confiscated his memory cards. He was informed that he had been detained “for taking photos without permission”, although this is not in violation of the law. He was put in a hostel overnight and taken to Bukhara police station the next day for further questioning before finally being released at midday. No charges were ultimately brought against the journalist. Volosevich has previously been arrested on several occasions in connection with his professional activities.
 
On 23rd April 2017, artist and social media blogger, Alexander Barkovskii, was attacked and beaten by two unknown people while taking photos of a street artist at Yangiabad market in Tashkent. The attackers shouted insults at Barkovskii and accused him of spying and publishing photos on the internet. He did not report this incident to the police.
 
Farruh Yusupov, an exiled Tajik correspondent for Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), has been harassed in what is believed to be in retaliation for his participation in an ongoing official investigation into corruption involving late President Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova. A film recently shown on Fergana regional television accused him of treason and drug -trafficking. The film also stated that since he sought asylum in Uzbekistan during the 1992-1997 civil war in Tajikistan, he should not criticise the state that has granted him refuge. This is not the first time that Yusupov has been publicly discredited. Yusupov’s family members in Uzbekistan have also been subjected to surveillance and harassment because of his professional activities. In August 2016, his brother Aziz Yusupov was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment on drug-related charges. His family says he was forced to make a false confession and that he is innocent. Uzbekistan frequently brings narcotics-related charges against those who are critical of the regime and their family members.
 
On 18th April 2017, a number of unknown assailants entered the home of 75 year-old Shukurdjan Madrakhimova and insulted and threatened her. The incident occurred after Shukurdjan’s sons, two exiled journalists that work at Radio Ozodlik, the Uzbek service of RFE/RL, were involved in covering a story about the dismissal of a school director and doctor who attempted to cover up the rape of a schoolgirl. The individuals implicated in trespassing on Shukurdjan’s property are believed to be the relatives of those involved in the sexual abuse scandal. The citizen’s complaint service initiated by President Mirziyayev subsequently responded to an online appeal submitted by the elderly woman about the incident and an investigation has been launched by the Department of Internal Affairs in the Korezmsky region.
 
As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, human rights defender Elena Urlayeva was forcibly confined to a psychiatric hospital in Tashkent on 1st March 2017. She was released on 23rd March 2017. She had been held against her will and without any court order sanctioning forced treatment of her alleged condition. Urlaeva was detained prior to a meeting with international organisations to discuss the issue of forced labour in Uzbekistan.
 
SURVEILLANCE BEYOND BORDERS
 
The Uzbekistani authorities continue to carry out unlawful systematic surveillance of its citizens, not only inside but outside the borders of Uzbekistan. In a March 2017 report, Amnesty International stated that “an environment of suspicion” prevails in Uzbekistan, which affects human rights defenders, journalists and political activists. Even when such people live outside Uzbekistan, their families in the country become targets of harassment and intimidation. Methods used to carry out surveillance include telephone surveillance, hacking private emails and publishing personal data in the public domain. In Uzbekistan, the legal framework allows for state access to telecom data and furthermore, many types of surveillance do not require legal authorisation.
 
TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS FOR DISSIDENTS
 
Uzbek citizens critical of the authorities continue to be restricted in their freedom of movement. In particular, people with links to international human rights organisations, independent journalists, former political prisoners and their relatives, and people who have publicly criticised the authorities often encounter problems obtaining exit visas to travel outside the country. Uzbekistan is one of the few countries of the former Soviet Union that still requires citizens to obtain official permission from the Ministry of Internal Affairs in order to leave the country. The authorities’ policy has not changed since the death of former President Islam Karimov last year. Some people have reported being denied exit visas for extended periods. For example, human rights defender, writer and former political prisoner Mamadali Makhmudov, who was released from detention in 2014 after serving a 14-year sentence, has not yet been granted an exit visa.
 
In some cases, former political prisoners also face difficulties in obtaining new passports, which also limits their freedom of movement and prevents them from travelling abroad to undergo medical treatment or rejoin their family members who have fled the country. For example, Muhammad Bekjanov, former editor in chief of the opposition newspaper Erk who was released in February 2017 after 18 years in prison, is currently under state supervision and has not yet been issued a passport.
 
As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, former MP and political prisoner Samandar Kukanov is on conditional release until 24th May 2017. He is prohibited from leaving the Tashkent region and is also under curfew from 20:00 to 6:00.
 
PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
 
As previously featured on the CIVICUS Monitor, protests in Uzbekistan are rare due to fears of reprisals. Only occasional protests on socio-economic issues take place. During a visit by President Shavkat Mirziyayev to Navoi region on 28th March 2017, dozens of women and elderly from the village of Tasmachi in Khatirchinsky region traveled by bus to meet him and protest over the issues of insufficient electricity supply, high food prices and local corruption. However, the villagers claimed that the local authorities and traffic police blocked the roads out of the village to prevent them from meeting the president. The local authorities denied the protesters’ claims.



8.5.17

The role of organised crime in the political life of Uzbekistan

Presentation by Nadejda Atayeva at the European Parliament at an event entitled " How can the EU help in returning stolen assets?" 3 May 2017.

Dear Sirs,

Salimbay "Mafia boss"
I address those who are present here with respect for your principled position and would like to express my gratitude for this opportunity to speak before you.

Our discussion is essentially searching for effective mechanisms of eliminating the sources of corruption. Therefore, I want to draw your attention to a topic that has been studied very little so far – the role of organised crime in the political life of Uzbekistan. I would like to illustrate this topic with examples of the leaders of organised crime: Salimbay Abduvaliev and Batyr Rakhimov. They are known to the public as super-rich people
Batyr Rakhimov, 
Uzbekistani oligarch 
and debutant singer
with unlimited resources, and over many years they have managed to get preferential treatment from the Uzbekistani head state, which they have used for their personal enrichment. They maintain a monopoly over the most profitable spheres of the Uzbekistani economy, which serve as sources of corruption as well as other crimes.

According to Wikileaks, diplomatic cables of the former US Ambassador to Uzbekistan Jon Purnell state that Abduvaliev trades in public positions, whereas ministers of Uzbekistan, give generous gifts to Abduvaliyev's relatives, and the wives of state officials are seen to attend Abduvaliyev's celebrations. Information available to us confirms these observations.

President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyayev (on the left) 
and "mafia boss" Salimbay shaking hands. 
Photo from internet
Salimbay Abduvaliev 
- this photo was circulated during 
the presidential campaign in 2016
There are signs that Abduvaliyev remains in the circle of individuals close to the ruling elite in Uzbekistan. He demonstrated active support for Shavkat Mirziyoyev in the last presidential elections. A photo of the mafia boss Salimbay and the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev shaking hands has been circulating on the Internet for almost half a year. Their handshake in public is a clear signal to society that Mirziyoyev gave the criminal boss the right to engage in his “business” under his patronage and on behalf of the state. It is worth noting that soon after the public handshake Salimbay was appointed to the position of Deputy Chairman of the Olympic Committee. Salimbay obtaining an official governmental position can be perceived as granting an official license for racketeering. The existence of a relationship between President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Salimbay makes it clear that the new president of Uzbekistan has links to the transnational mafia.

Arguably, one of the reasons that Salimbay is able to continue his activities is his close ties with the National Security Service of Uzbekistan (SNB). He carries out tasks relating to the behind-the-scenes operations of this institution. The attempted assassination of the religious figure Obid Qori Nazarov in 2012 in Sweden demonstrates that the SNB supports Salimbay as a candidate for the position of leader of the sporting organization which serves as a cover for operations aimed at eliminating opponents of the ruling regime living abroad. 

Assassin Yury Zhukovsky (on the left) 
and Umid Aminov (Tigran Kaplanov)  
Photo from Eltuz.com website
Abduvaliev acts through other figures of the underground business world, in particular Batyr Rakhimov. His name deserves special attention. A professional killer by the name of Yuri Zhukovsky was sentenced to life imprisonment in Sweden for the attempted murder of Obid Qori Nazarov. He confessed that he received $ 200,000 from Umid Aminov, (from the city of Bukhara), who is also known as Tigran Kaplanov on his Russian passport, for the attempting to assassinate the religious leader who had fallen out of favour. It transpired that for many years Kaplanov-Aminov has been on the payroll and in the close circle of the oligarch Batyr Rakhimov, who in turn is associated with Salimbay.

The attempted assassination of Obidkhon Nazarov by criminal elements at the orders of the Uzbekistani special services is not an isolated case. In October 2007, hired killers acting on the
Salimbay Abduvaliev 
and Batyr Rakhimov
instructions of the National Security Service killed the well-known journalist Alisher Saipov in Osh (in southern Kyrgyzstan). In Turkey in 2014 Uzbek special services organised the murder of another religious figure, Imam Mirzagolib Khamidov, known among his followers by the name of Abdullah Bukhari. In all these cases, the names of two people come up: Kaplanov and tycoon Batyr Rakhimov.

As he works in the field of Uzbekistani sports Salimbay and members of his network can easily obtain visas and enter foreign countries, including the countries of the West where Uzbek refugees live. The visas also provide them with opportunities to take illegally acquired assets abroad. Salimbay or his subordinates arrange Schengen visas for these assassins under the guise of these sporting organizations and their international links. 

Organisations such as Interpol, Europol and law enforcement agencies of countries where Uzbekistani refugees live should pay careful attention to these supposed sports officials and take adequate measures against them, as well as against the representatives of the Uzbek authorities associated with them.

Thank you for listening.




Uzbekistan: civil society activists are released selectively

Since the beginning of his term, the new President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyayev a total of four political prisoners have been released: Bobomurod Razzokov, Samandar Kokanov, Rustam Usmanov, Muhammad Bekjanov and Jamshid Karimov. However, with the exception of Jamshid Karimov, all had served their full prison terms, and, in the case of Bekjanov and Usmanov even more than one additional prison term. Their releases were not brought about by thelast amnesty of the Senate of the Oliy Majlis of Uzbekistan.

However, even though they have served their full prison sentences they remain under administrative supervision, which limits their rights, including the right to the freedom of movement. Administrative orders provide that people under supervision are forbidden to leave their homes in the evening, travel outside their city of residence, and they are obliged to register  with the Internal Affairs Department (OVD). So far, none of these five men have received a passport and they are not able to travel abroad for medical treatment. For example, during the investigation into the charges against him Muhammed Bekjanov was illegally deprived of his Tashkent residence permit and his property was confiscated by the state, despite the fact that his underage children were registered in this apartment.
 
Some observers have called the release of these political prisoners in Uzbekistan the beginning of a political thaw. This is far from truth. In fact, repressions against critics of the regime and civil society activists continue.

Most importantly, those whom United Nations international independent experts and international human rights organizations researchers call prisoners of conscience and persons convicted on politically motivated sentences remain imprisoned. The latest amnesty for prisoners, announced in Uzbekistan by the Senate of the Oliy Majlis of the Republic of Uzbekistan was not applied to them in any way.

The following prisoners of conscience remain in the penitentiary institutions of Uzbekistan:

1. Azam Formonov, 1978. (Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan - HRSU);
2. Mehriniso Hamdamova, 1960. (Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan - HRSU);
3. Zulhumor Khamdamova, 1969 (Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan - HRSU);
4. Gaybullo Jalilov, 1964 (Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan - HRSU);
5. Chuyan Mamatkulov, 1970. (Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan - HRSU);
6. Zafarjon Rakhimov, 1968 (Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan - HRSU);
7. Yuldash Rasulov, 1969 (Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan - HRSU);
8. Isroilzhon Kholdorov, 1951 (Society for Human Rights of Uzbekistan "Ezgulik");
9. Dilmurod Saidov, 1962 (Society for Human Rights of Uzbekistan "Ezgulik");
10. Agzam Turgunov, 1951 (Human Rights Center Mazlum);
11. Fakhriddin Tillaev, 1971. (Human Rights Center Mazlum);
12. Nuraddin Jumaniyazov, 1948 (Human Rights Center Mazlum);
13. Ganikhon Mamathanov, 1951g. (Committee for the Protection of Individual Rights of Uzbekistan);
14. Solidzhon Abdurakhmanov, 1950 (Independent journalist);
15. Gayrat Mikhliboev, 1979 (Independent journalist);
16. Yusuf Ruzimuradov, 1958 Correspondent of "Erk" newspaper of the opposition party "Erk" of the same name;
 
also:

17. Botirbek Eshkusiev, 1978 Employee of the scientific and educational public journal "Irmok";
18. Bahrom Ibragimov. Employee of the scientific and educational public journal "Irmok";
19. Davron Kabilov 1973. Employee of the scientific and educational public journal "Irmok";
20. Davron Todzhiev 1981. Employee of the scientific and educational public journal "Irmok";
21. Ravshanbek Vafoev 1971. Employee of the scientific and educational public journal "Irmok";
22. Dilorom Abdukodirov 1966 Witness of the Andijan tragedy in 2005;
23. Erkin Musaev, 1967. The UN employee, in the past worked in the Department of Foreign Trade of the Ministry of Defense, engaged in international cooperation programs with Western governments, including the US and the EU.
   
We hope that international organizations, as well as governmental and intergovernmental structures of democratic countries will take this information into consideration and will put every possible effort to exert pressure on Shavkat Mirziyayev’ s regime for the release these political prisoners.





13.3.17

Despite releases, conditions remain dire for civil society in Uzbekistan

https://monitor.civicus.org/
On the basis of information provided by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and its partner the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (AHRCA), the global CIVICUS Monitor initiative has published an overview of the current state of civil society in Uzbekistan. This overview discusses the conditions faced by citizens who attempt to associate with one another, protest peacefully, communicate freely through the media and undertake human rights activism in the country. It highlights the continued dire conditions for civil society engagement in the country, despite a number of recent releases of government critics:

Expression

Article 29 of the Uzbek Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and the right to seek and disseminate information, as well as freedom of the press; however, the Uzbek authorities have maintained tight control over the media and independent voices. The country currently ranks 166th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

The government has a well-established mechanism for curtailing freedom of expression. The authorities have used surveillance against human rights activists, independent journalists and government critics who speak out and voice their opinion or opposition to government policy. Such individuals are routinely subjected to police interrogations, arbitrary arrests and prosecution as well as imprisonment on trumped-up charges.

Though President Mirziyoyev has mostly followed late President Karimov’s heavy-handed rule, several government critics imprisoned on politically-motivated grounds have been released in the past few months. In October 2016, human rights defender  Bobomurad Razzokov was released due to poor health, and a month later political activist, Samandar Kukanov, finally walked free after 24 years in prison. More recently, on 22nd February 2017, Muhammad Bekjanov, former editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Erk was released from prison. Fellow journalist, Yusuf Ruzimuradov, who was sentenced with Bekjanov, remains imprisoned after his sentence was arbitrarily extended in 2014 for allegedly violating prison rules. No news has been received about his condition for some time now. On 1st March 2017, independent journalist, Jamshid Karimov, nephew of the late President Karimov was released from the psychiatric hospital in Samarkand, where he had been forcibly and secretly held since 2006.

Though the release of political prisoners is a welcome development, many more remain under government control. Human rights defender  Shukhrat Rustamov was diagnosed by Tashkent City Court as being “mentally incompetent” in August 2015 after he sent numerous complaints on human rights issues to the Uzbek authorities. For the last two years, he has been at risk of forcible incarceration in a psychiatric hospital. On 1st March 2017, well-known and outspoken human rights defender, Elena Urlaeva, was detained by law enforcement authorities and forcibly placed in a psychiatric clinic, without her relatives being informed.

Human rights activists’ monitoring and reporting on the forced labour used during the cotton harvest have come under particular pressure from the authorities. Activist  Uktam Pardaev was given a three-year suspended sentence in retaliation for his work monitoring the conditions of labourers during the harvest. Another activist working in the same field, Dmitry Tikhonov, was forced to flee the country in 2016 due to persecution.Uzbekistan still requires exit visas for its citizens to travel abroad, and authorities often withhold these visas to punish those critical of the regime. Uzbek citizens banned from travelling abroad in recent years include human rights activists Shukhrat Rustamov, Said Kurbanov, Elena Urlaeva and Uktam Pardaev.

Human rights defenders and critics who have fled Uzbekistan also face ongoing pressure and intimidation from the Uzbek authorities, and many have reported receiving threats of reprisals against their relatives still living in Uzbekistan.

Association

The Uzbek constitution ensures the right to freedom of association and a 2007 law protects the activities of non-governmental and non-profit organisations. This law also prohibits the government from interfering in the work of NGOs. Nevertheless, in practice, the right to freedom of association is strictly controlled and restricted by the government.

The authorities claim that there are over 6,000 NGOs operating in the country; however, an overwhelming majority of these are supported by or affiliated with the government. The few independent groups working on human rights issues continue to face serious obstacles, including cumbersome registration processes. While registration is mandatory, most of the few independent human rights groups in the country have been unable to get registered. The Code of Administrative Responsibility regulates NGOs and the authorities can fine and penalise domestic and international organisations that fail to obtain all the proper permissions to conduct their activities. In 2015, the UN Human Rights Committee criticised the “unreasonable, burdensome and restrictive requirements for registration and the other obstacles to the work of human rights NGOs” in Uzbekistan.

Uzbek authorities strictly control the independent practice of Islam. Restrictive legislation on religion regulates religious clothing, the possession of religious literature and places mosques under the de facto control of the state. Over the past two decades, the state has arbitrarily imprisoned thousands of Muslims and key independent religious leaders who practiced their religion outside strict state control. In recent years, authorities have become increasingly suspicious of migrant labourers returning from abroad who may have had access to information on Islam which is censored or banned in Uzbekistan, resulting in an increased number of arrests and prosecutions for alleged “extremism.”

Peaceful Assembly

Article 33 of the Uzbek constitution and the Law on the Guarantees of Citizens’ Electoral Rights protect the right to participate in meetings and demonstrations, which the authorities can only prohibit if there are security concerns. In 2014, however, the government tightened its control over participation in such events by issuing a decree with the requirements and procedures for organising public events with more than 100 attendees, such as conferences, religious celebrations and cultural or sporting activities. Non-compliance with the required procedures is punishable by fines and detention of up to 15 days.

The country’s history of protest is marred by injustice and excessive force. To date, the Uzbek authorities have yet to carry out an independent and impartial investigation into the events of 13th May 2005, when law enforcement and security forces indiscriminately fired at a crowd of protesters in Babur Square, Andijan. Demonstrators had peacefully gathered to voice their grievances over repressive government policies and economic hardships. According to officials, 187 people were killed, but unofficial estimates put the number at between 500 and 1500. None of the officials involved in the shooting have been brought to justice.

Within such a repressive environment, many citizens are fearful of the possibility that the government will again crack down on protests, and are therefore reluctant to participate in demonstrations. In January 2017, however, a group of elderly men and women took to the streets of Denov, a town in the southern Surkhondaryo Province, petitioning the government to issue their pensions in cash payments, rather than in debit cards.