Uzbek human rights activists have plenty of reasons to feel unsafe at home and in exile. Their well justified fears may now spread: A prominent Russian activist who has written extensively about human rights abuses in Uzbekistan says he has received death threats originating in Tashkent.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on Russian authorities to investigate the death threats against Vitaliy Ponomarev, the lead Central Asia expert with the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center, and his family.
His latest report, published on December 26, detailed the Uzbek security services’ interrogations of Uzbek migrant worker Latif Zhalalbaev in a Russian prison: Uzbek operatives have allegedly tortured Zhalalbaev, who was arrested last October on counterfeiting charges, in attempts to extract information on the financing of an Islamist militant group, Ponomarev reported.
On January 12, Ponomarev received three emails within several minutes threatening him and his family. The authors of the emails said they know where Ponomarev lives and specifically threatened to decapitate him. The emails, which came from a single IP address in Tashkent but from different addresses, also warned him against travelling to southern Kyrgyzstan. When Ponomarev publicized the death threats on January 18, he received another threatening email.
Memorial says the emails “used expressions that are specific to a dialect of the Uzbek language found in the Tashkent region.”
Human Rights Watch said Moscow should launch a “prompt and comprehensive” investigation into the threats and Russian authorities “should seek cooperation from Uzbek authorities to ensure its thoroughness.”
Though neither organization knows with certainty where the threats are originating, it would not be out of character for the Uzbek security services – the SNB – to harass a prominent critic like Ponomarev.
The SNB has been linked to killings and attempted killings of Uzbek critics in exile, including in Russia. At home, the SNB routinely uses local authorities to harass activists.
Most recently, police successfully stopped members of the opposition Birdamlik movement from marking the 20th anniversary of Uzbekistan’s Constitution in the capital, Tashkent, on December 8. Some activists were prevented from leaving their homes, while others were briefly arrested on their way to the rally.
The movement’s activist from Khorezm Region, Valeriy Nazarov, seems to have suffered the most for trying to celebrate the Constitution. He disappeared on December 7, the day before the planned rally, and didn’t turn up again until January 17, when he appeared outside his home heavily drugged, confused, and unable to speak. Friends, who had feared he was dead, believe he had been held in a mental hospital.