Human rights groups are calling on Uzbekistan’s government to use a Constitution Day amnesty to release political prisoners, not just petty criminals.
Authorities often mark Constitution Day, December 8, with a mass prisoner release, freeing convicts accused of minor crimes who are not considered a threat to national security. However, those jailed on politically motivated charges are rarely released as part of these amnesties.
“Journalists, rights defenders, writers, and opposition and religious figures held solely on account of their peaceful activities shouldn’t be in prison in the first place,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a December 6 statement signed by nine groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Fiery Hearts Club. “Freeing political prisoners for Constitution Day is an opportunity for President Islam Karimov to show Uzbekistan’s people and international partners that he’s willing to take a genuine step toward reform.”
Last week, a leading activist said Uzbekistan is holding more than 2,000 political prisoners.
Nadejda Ataeva of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, one of the signatories, described how, when political prisoners’ terms are almost up, they often are charged with new transgressions. Ataeva pointed to the the case of Murad Juraev, a former member of parliament who has been jailed since 1994 and is reportedly gravely ill with tuberculosis:
His fourth term expired on November 13, but was not released. Between October 10 and 22, he was held in solitary confinement near the town of Almalyk, on a disciplinary charge.
Juraev’s lawyers have not been given access to his case files in 18 years. It’s possible there’s no evidence there.
In 1995, his [12-year] sentence was cut by three years, so he should have been freed nine years later, in 2003. But he received another three-year term for disobedience…. He was given another three-and-a-half year term in 2006 for taking his coat off while peeling carrots…in 45-degree [Celsius] temperatures.
The international community used to pressure Uzbekistan on its human rights abuses, and even secured the release of a few political prisoners. But the West has effectively hushed up because of Tashkent’s support for the NATO war in Afghanistan, the statement says.
While Uzbek authorities have released a few human rights defenders over the last several years, the pace of releases has slowed since the EU and the US moved to normalize ties with Uzbekistan, lifting sanctions in 2009 and 2012 respectively, seeking to secure the Uzbek government’s cooperation on the war in Afghanistan.
“For the constitution to have any meaning the government must immediately release all those who have been imprisoned for exercising these fundamental rights,” said Patrick Griffith, an attorney with Freedom Now, one of the signatories.
Last year Human Rights Watch released a report documenting widespread and systematic torture in Uzbekistan’s prisons and detention centers.