While Uzbek authorities have been granting some staff temporary 30-day visas, in a letter dated December 23, 2010 delivered late December 24, Gayrat Khidoyatov, deputy justice minister, told Human Rights Watch researcher Steve Swerdlow that his long-term accreditation was denied for alleged “lack of experience in cooperation with Uzbekistan and work in the region as a whole” and for a supposed “persistent practice of non-observation of the requirements of national law." Human Rights Watch denied the charges.
Last week, the Uzbek Supreme Court called Human Rights Watch’s Uzbek accountant to say that there will be a hearing today to liquidate the organization’s representative office in Tashkent, registered since 1996.
Swerdlow is the sixth staff member of Human Right Watch (HRW) in as many years to face a visa denial, and his organization’s closure follows the expulsion of a number of other US international organizations from Uzbekistan, such as Freedom House, the American Bar Association and Internews in the wake of the international community’s condemnation of the massacre in Andijan in 2005. In 2009, a HRW researcher, Tanya Lokshina suffered an assault and was subsequently expelled.
Ironically, although HRW staff had failed to get accredited, the group itself remained registered, enabling Uzbek officials to claim disingenuously at various international meetings with diplomats that the problem was ostensibly HRW’s failure to find the right person for the job.
Over the years, for example, Igor Vorontsov, a Russian national, was denied a visa extension for “not understanding Uzbek traditions and culture”; Andrea Berg, a German citizen was registered for a time, evidently due to Germany’s clout with its active military base in Termez, but then she, too, was informed that it was evidently not in the state’s interest to renew her visa. Although Berlin's intervention extended her visa for a probational period, ultimately she had to leave the country. Swerdlow, a lawyer who speaks Russian fluently and has over a decade of experience working in the region, told EurasiaNet he believes that the complaints about staff qualifications are bogus, and the Uzbek government has simply been stone-walling.
At times during the long period that HRW struggled to gain status, officials indicated that the tide was turning in their favor. Last July, an Uzbek official told Swerdlow that “a new chapter was opening up in US-Uzbek relations,” and that Tashkent actually welcomed HRW’s selection of their capital and noted that the organization was still registered. In the month before the rejection letter, Swerdlow said some officials told him privately that the Uzbek government was pleased with HRW’s reporting on atrocities against ethnic Uzbeks in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, and that while other officials wanted to sabotage the relationship with the West, the Foreign Ministry was confident HRW’s accreditation would move forward.
Later, when the rejection letter was issued, Swerdlow felt he had been strung along for weeks until his temporary visa expired and the Christmas holidays ensured he could get little attention to the issue. Even so, he felt the diplomatic process could be worked to try to get a reversal of the decision. Fortuitously, President Islam Karimov was invited by NATO to Brussels January 21, and José Manuel Barroso, president of the EU Commission, announced that he had raised the issue of HRW’s office in Tashkent with the Uzbek leader. US Assistant Secretary for Central and South Asia Robert O. Blake, Jr., also discussed the matter privately in meetings in February with Uzbek leaders.
“While the issue has been raised in closed-door meetings where there is no accountability, the Uzbeks have understood that there are no consequences; they’ve learned by now that there are no consequences,” Swerdlow told EurasiaNet.
During his two month stay in Uzbekistan, Swerdlow met with human rights advocates and torture victims. Subsequently he sought out senior US officials in Washington and embarked on a month-long advocacy trip to European capitals, describing what he saw as a troubling deterioration in human rights in recent years as Western criticism has lapsed and the EU has dropped sanctions, believing they simply didn’t work.
Yet Swerdlow maintains that EU and US diplomats just aren’t trying hard enough.
“The bar has been set so low, expectations have been lowered to such an extent that there’s a readiness to make peace with this deplorable situation, and a kind of desensitization about what we can do,” he commented. Swerdlow said one EU diplomat flatly told him that it was no longer EU policy to openly criticize human rights problems.
While Western diplomats continue to raise certain issues with Karimov, he merely nods and replies, “we're working on implementing the rule of law in numerous ways.“ Then the problem is converted to one of “technical assistance” to help an ostensibly reform-minded government to accomplish what it claims are its goals.
Diplomats also feel they have little leverage, and regarding the Uzbeks, say that “we need them more than they need us,” explained Swerdlow. A WikiLeaks revelation of an alleged US Embassy cable from Tashkent earlier this year described Karimov’s fury when the State Department gave a human rights award to an Uzbek activist. The US ambassador was summoned for a tongue-lashing and Tashkent threatened to pull its cooperation on the Northern Distribution Network, the supply line to the war in Afghanistan.