I fled Uzbekistan in 2000, five years before the Andijan massacre, when government forces opened fire on civilian protests against the country’s repressive regime and failed economic policies. The vast majority of protesters were unarmed, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men, women and children were killed as they tried to flee.
Today, it is ten years since the massacre, one of the most savage acts of government repression in the former Soviet Union.
No one has been held accountable. Many of the dead were buried in mass graves, or thrown into the Karasu River on the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. Their families continue to be persecuted.
In Uzbekistan, my father was the head of the state agency responsible for grain suppy and manufacture. His bosses at the Cabinet of Ministers misreported to Karimov that Uzbekistan has achieved the grain independence and there is no need to import grain anymore. Against this, my father during 18 months tried to reach out to Karimov and warn him that without grain import the Uzbekistan’s grain security will be soon under therat. He worried that people would starve as a result and tried to contact President Karimov. But at the end, instigated by the corrupt officials who hided the truth abouy the grain supply the investigators from the Interior Ministry arrived and told him to sign a confession stating that it was him who misreported to President and embezzled the public funds. . We ran, but for a long time no one would believe our story.
Then the Andijan massacre happened and people began to pay attention to Uzbekistan, for a while. I was granted asylum in France where I live now. It was a revelation for me to see the power of citizen activism in France in the wake of the massacre; for so long, politics for me had meant the whim of one person, I had never known anything else. But ten years later, memories of Andijan have faded for many in France and elsewhere, except us Uzbeks, at home and abroad, who still live in fear.
In many ways, life in Uzbekistan is worse than in 2005. Uzbekistan’s poor human rights record and corruption are epic: No civic freedoms; nearly 12,000 political prisoners; a prison system that relies on torture and even boiling prisoners alive in the past; forced labor in which millions, previously including children, pick cotton; no political opposition. The president’s glamorous and Twitter-friendly daughter, Gulnara Karimova, once looked like a possible successor to her father. Following some very public disagreement with her father she is now fallen from grace and under house arrest in Tashkent.
The flow of refugees from Uzbekistan continue to grow but escaping the country is not an end to your troubles. Thousands of Uzbek citizens have been illegally placed on Interpol’s watch list by the Uzbek authorities, many of them eyewitnesses to the Andijan massacre. Some Uzbek citizens have been forcibly returned to Uzbekistan from European countries. Norway returned a group of Uzbek citizens in 2014 ; they were subsequently tortured and sentenced to 12 years in jail. Sweden, Latvia, Poland France and Britain have also recently begun to ignore overwhelming evidence of torture and repression in their consideration of asylum claims from Uzbekistan.
As life gets worse for Uzbeks, life just gets better for President Karimov and his close circle. In March, Karimov, who has governed the country since 1989, was “re-elected” for an unconstitutional fourth term. The elections, as ever, were a charade. Instead of censure, Karimov received congratulations from President Obama and other major dignitaries. Karimov and his close circle continue to profit handsomely from the country’s cotton industry, which runs on forced labor.
Foreign investors such as General Motors and the Scandinavian Telecoms giant TeliaSonera are now shaken down to provide money and labor for the harvest, the proceeds of which then disappear into an extra-budgetary slush fund controlled by Uzbekistan’s top leadership.
I know I am not safe in France. Uzbek diplomats in Europe are involved in the monitoring of Uzbek dissidents abroad. Over half of the Uzbek diplomatic service is linked to the Uzbek National Security Service; Uzbek embassies in France and elsewhere in Europe coordinate the intelligence activities of Uzbekistan in the EU.
Each day I understand that I could be abducted. Every time I leave France, people advise me not to go, to be extra careful. I do not telephone people in Uzbekistan anymore because if I do, they will be questioned. In July 2013, I was sentenced to six years in jail in absentia. There is no evidence that I have ever committed a crime, and I’ve never signed a confession.
In the face of this growing authoritarianism, the EU needs to reconsider its stance towards Uzbekistan. France can help this happen. EU sanctions toward Uzbekistan were lifted in 2009 and yet the situation has only worsened.
France can demand the Uzbek government reinstate the accreditation of Human Rights Watch; that the OSCE mission is allowed to conduct its work; and the establishment of a UN Special Rapporteur on Uzbekistan given the country’s ongoing abuse of human rights.
For me and for many others, the hardest part of being in France, and not at home, is psychological. I wake up each morning in my old bedroom in Tashkent. A colleague, a human rights defender, illegally crossed back into Uzbekistan when he heard his mother was seriously ill. He has since disappeared. I could never risk such a trip. We hoped things would change after Andijan; we were wrong. In Uzbekistan, we have returned to the Soviet period, maybe worse.