Are the Uzbek authorities interested in a genuine dialogue with human rights groups?
On 2nd September, after receiving an invitation from the Uzbek government, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) delegation visited Uzbekistan for the first time in seven years. HRW called on the government both publicly and in official meetings to release all those imprisoned on politically-motivated charges, put an end to torture and other forms of ill-treatment in places of detention, and cease the use of forced labour in the country’s cotton fields.
As part of the HRW delegation, Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at HRW, declared:
"This is a real moment of hope for the human rights of the Uzbek people. The key is for the Uzbek government to transform the modest steps it has taken thus far into institutional change and sustainable improvements”.
In a statement on 18th July, the Minister of Foreign Affairs said that Uzbekistan is open for official visits from other international human rights organisations, in addition to HRW. Despite this positive development, information in the following sections demonstrates that reform remains piecemeal and much remains to be done to end systemic repression of civic space in Uzbekistan.
A selective approach to citizens’ complaints
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has declared 2017 the "Year of Dialogue with the People and Human Interest", thereby issuing a Presidential Decree requiring state institutions to make more efforts to observe citizens' human rights, freedoms and interests, and to respond in a timely manner to citizens' appeals.
The virtual reception service initiated by the president of Uzbekistan is gaining popularity among the general public as the only efficient way of providing information on human rights violations to the Presidential Office. In cases related to foreign policy and which would impact the country's image in the eyes of the international community, authorities have taken concrete measures to address such appeals. Appeals addressed to the president through other channels have also been given due attention, such as in the following case of a former Uzbek citizen residing in the U.S.
A former Uzbek citizen living in the U.S. recently appealed to President Mirziyoyev through the Uzbek service of Radio Liberty-Ozodlik with a complaint about the country's diplomats withholding permission for him to visit Tashkent. A message subsequently appeared on the website of the Foreign Ministry stating that:
"Uzbekistan has paid attention to the 1 September 2017 article on radio Ozodlik website under the heading - 'A complaint to the President about Uzbek diplomats in USA'… we inform you that the responsible officer of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic, Kadamba Sultanov, based in Washington, has been given permission to meet and discuss the issues with the author of the letter”.
This reaction by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan provides a positive example for other government agencies and organisations, and if the practice is continued, it may lead to increased public trust in the government. The example also illustrates a possible change of attitude within the government towards independent media, notably radio Ozodlik, which is still blocked in Uzbekistan.
A genuine process of civic engagement, however, is still in its early stages; other state agencies are reportedly more selective and reticent in their responses to complaints. For example, complaints and appeals from entrepreneurs and business people to official bodies often go unheeded, especially if they are critical of heads of administrations, tax departments and judicial bodies. For example, over the last three years, Tashkent-based entrepreneurs Elena Agibalova and Dinara Latipova have been seeking justice through the courts for the illegal seizure of their property and charges which they claim were fabricated in retaliation for them lodging an official complaint about a tax inspector who was demanding bribes from them. They reportedly have received threats of violence for making these statements.
Although there have been some positive steps towards increased press freedom in Uzbekistan over the last few months, the impression of some civil society activists is that these steps are more cosmetic in nature, rather than indicative of a government commitment to systemic reform. For example, in April 2017 state television aired a programme called “International Press Club”, during which current problems were discussed live. However, after one episode in which the actions of the Prime Minister were criticised, the programme was taken off the air and is now pre-recorded before broadcasting. State media journalists told RFE/RL that on 22nd August that Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov ordered an end to all live broadcasts, except the news. The director of Uzbek National Television and Radio Company Bobur Alikhonov was dismissed in the wake of the controversy, making him the third head of the state broadcaster to lose his job since President Shavkat Mirziyoev came to power.
State agencies have also recently begun to provide public information on issues which were previously taboo, such as criticism of state bodies, including judicial and prosecutor’s offices; cases causing public outcry; the situation of some political prisoners; and corruption-related incidents. They have also begun to post information on their websites about their policies and positions. This information has been followed and disseminated by online media publications outside Uzbekistan. Previously, the state-controlled mass media in Uzbekistan had rarely covered such sensitive issues.
One specific example of how the media have grown more emboldened to report on sensitive or controversial issues is the media coverage of the criminal case against Gulnara Karimova, eldest daughter of the late President Islam Karimov. On 28th July 2017, the Office for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption of the General Prosecutor's Office issued a press release regarding her arrest in connection with a second criminal case against her. The first criminal case was opened on 24th October 2013 and concerned allegations of tax evasion among members of the Terra Group LLC, Prime Media LLC and Gamma Promotion LLC. The investigation found that under Gulnara Karimova’s supervision of these companies a number of crimes were committed in the period 2001-2013. In August 2015, Karimova was sentenced to five years’ detention by the Tashkent Regional Court. On 31st July 2017, Karimova's lawyer, Grégoire Mangeat, confirmed in a letter to Ferghana that the eldest daughter of former Uzbek President Islam Karimov is currently not under house arrest, but in custody.
STATE ACTIONS TOWARDS CRITICAL VOICES
On 22nd August, Erkin Musaev, a former Uzbek government official and UN employee, was released from prison after serving 11 years. He was initially sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in 2007 after an unfair trial, during which he was found guilty of spying. He was allegedly tortured and forced to sign a confession of guilt after threats were made by security officials against his family.
LIFTING THE EXIT VISA REQUIREMENT
In August, the Uzbek authorities announced that starting 1st January 2019, Uzbek citizens will no longer be required to apply for permission from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to leave the country and travel abroad. The use of exit visas is an old Soviet-era practice that has already been abolished elsewhere. A black list of those who are banned from travelling abroad has posed persistent problems in Uzbekistan in recent years. In the meantime, however, as highlighted in the July update from IPHR and its partners, former prisoners on politically-motivated charges, Murad Dzhuraev and Muhammad Bekjanov, as well as others who have spoken critically of government policies, such as artist Vyacheslav Akhunov, remain banned from traveling abroad.
In an incident on 22nd August, two elderly Uzbek citizens were doused with cold water as they peacefully protested outside the presidential administration building. According to the online news outlet Fergana.ru, 85- year-old pensioner Nina Sahartseva and 80-year-old Yulia Syavich from Tashkent were standing with signs asking President Mirziyoyev to meet them to hear their complaints, After the women had stood there calmly for two hours, officials from the presidential administration came out and one grabbed the elderly women roughly by the hands and doused them with water.
Earlier in August, Fergana reported that on 15th August a spontaneous rally was held by hundreds of people outside the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan. Angered by the long wait for appointments with the chairman of the Supreme Court, Kozimzhon Kamilov, the crowd of several hundred people reportedly began pushing on the iron gates in front of the court, eventually breaking it down. Fergana quoted an eye witness as saying,
“You should have seen what power these people demonstrated – they went into the court yard and building... the guards were running around everywhere... people’s nerves are exhausted”.
Authorities respond to public outcry over the case of Zhasurbek Ibragimov
IPHR and its partners continue to monitor progress on the criminal investigation into the case of the 18-year-old student Zhasurbek Ibrahimov, whose death, allegedly at the hands of fellow students, sparked public protest actions demanding a thorough investigation. The Mirabad district Ministry of Internal Affairs responded to the public outcry over the case by opening a criminal investigation into the deliberate infliction of grievous bodily injuries that resulted in the student's death. To that end, on 13th August a meeting was held at the Ministry of Health of Uzbekistan involving some 40 doctors and medical specialists as well as representatives of the Tashkent City Prosecutor's Office. One of the six alleged perpetrators remains in custody at the time of writing.