Steve Swerdlow, a researcher for countries of Central Asia at the international human rights organisation HRW, was subjected to a provocation by a group of people in Tashkent, coordinated by a certain Sardor Kamilov, whose name is linked to the pro-government online resource called «SAYYOD.COM».
As it transpired, on 13 June 2019, a man, posing as Sardor Kamilov, asked a hotel receptionist to call Steve Swerdlow’s room and allow him to talk to the HRW employee because he allegedly needed to report human rights violations. Steve Swerdlow decided to respond to the request to meet the unknown person showing interest. As soon as he descended to the breakfast area of the hotel, Kamilov and four unidentified persons met him in the lobby of the hotel where Swerdlow was staying. This group of individuals showed hostility towards him (#хейтеры, #hayter) and harassed him (#харассмент, #harassment).
Within seconds, Steve Swerdlow was surrounded by unfriendly people who, without permission, began filming him, and aggressively commenting on his attempts to find out what was happening. Steve Swerdlow clearly could not hide his confusion and in response also began recording the unknown haters in video. Observing the manifestations of the vulnerability of the human rights activist Swerdlow, Sardor Kamilov offered him cynically valerian and stigmatised him for criticism, calling it anti-Uzbek propaganda and disrespectful attitude towards Uzbekistan. Employees of the hotel observed what was happening and were practically inactive, even after having seen that Steve Swerdlow was surrounded by people whose behavior looked unpredictable.
Two episodes from this video footage have been circulated on the webpage of «SAYYOD.COM» on Facebook and on YouTube, which caused a widespread public reaction.
A representative of the government of Uzbekistan, who became aware of the incident, expressed regret and said that this incident would not be ignored.
This psychological attack on Steve Swerdlow, a representative of a reputable international human rights organization, has some signs of being an ordered job. It is possible that the provocation was coordinated by influential forces in the government of Uzbekistan, clearly wanting to intimidate and provoke a security threat to a foreign guest. Alternatively, the State Security Service of Uzbekistan has to recognise its inability to ensure the security of not only Uzbek human rights defenders, but now even foreign ones.
What happened to Steve Swerdlow should be noted by all independent observers, diplomats, first of all members of the UN Human Rights Council and journalists, especially those who have been asking for permission to visit Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan is a country that has an equal voice in the United Nations and other international organizations, the government has ratified many international conventions in the field of human rights. Evidently, Sardor Kamilov does not yet understand that the role of a human rights activist is precisely to give an independent assessment of the fulfilment of the obligations that the state assumes when signing each agreement, and the investment climate in Uzbekistan, as well as the credibility of the reforms that were announced by the government of Uzbekistan depend on this assessment. Steve Swerdlow received permission to visit Uzbekistan as an employee of HRW, which has ECOSOC status.
If anyone disagrees with the assessment of a human rights activist, this can be challenged in a civilized manner, excluding any attacks for the criticism, without degrading human dignity and exclusively in a legal manner. However, recently some authors, hiding behind freedom of speech, have declared themselves to be journalists and bloggers; they make accusations in violation of the principle of the presumption of innocence, intimidate, blackmail, invade private space in violation of principles of protection of the personal data, manipulate facts and commit fraud, use illegal means of collecting information, and they do it all fanatically and maniacally. This is a criminal practice and criminal liability is provided for such actions in many countries, including Uzbekistan. Even if this attack on human rights activist Steve Swerdlow was carried out without the coordination from the security services and not commissioned by officials who are especially intolerant of criticism, the inaction of the law enforcement and judicial authorities does not exempt them from the responsibility of the state in whose territory such illegal actions took place.
The Association for Human Rights in Central Asia also encountered a hater attack by a group of people and has been in the process of litigation against them for more than two years (2017-2019). Such actions cannot be ignored; every effort must be made to hold those responsible for this kind of pressure on critics accountable.
We express our support for Steve Swerdlow. There is no doubt that he will feel the support of many citizens of Uzbekistan and of his colleagues these days. The behavior of Sardor Kamilov and other participants in this psychological attack is the exception rather than the rule.
Steve Swerdlow and the HRW team enjoy great confidence and in any difficult and dangerous situation they retain their integrity and independence. The HRW mission was the first to visit Uzbekistan, in the hope of a constructive dialogue in the field of protection of human rights, after President Shavkat Mirzieyev came to power. The official position of HRW in respect of the incident.
We hope that Tashkent will find it possible to express its position on what happened to the HRW employee during his visit to Uzbekistan and explain to the public the following:
— How did “blogger” Sardor Kamilov and others find out which hotel human rights activist Steve Swerdlow was staying in?
— Why did the hotel not offer adequate protection to the guest, who was legally staying in its territory?
— Why the prosecuting authorities thus far failed to qualify the actions of Sardor Kamilov and other participants of this attack?
— Did Sardor Kamilov and other participants of the attack have the opportunity to hold a discussion on all issues in conditions of openness and mutual respect?
Official representatives of the government of Uzbekistan declare from high tribunes of international meetings their commitment to the respect of human rights and their preparedness for a dialogue. However, what happened with the HRW employee, Steve Swerdlow, shows that thus far Uzbekistan failed to provide safe conditions for the participants of this process.