In its eagerness to counteract Islamic extremism, Uzbekistan has embraced a Cultural Revolution-style naming and shaming exercise.
Parents are being hauled before public meetings to be admonished for the sins of their militant sons and daughters in scenes reminiscent of the public castigations common during the Cultural Revolution in 1960s China.
“This sacred land, where model family relations are rooted, never forgives those who do not care about their children's future,” a doom-laden TV program intoned on January 26, according to a translation by BBC Monitoring.
“Unfortunately, some people, who have forgotten their parental obligations and are bringing up their children as traitors, do not seem to realize it,” the program – broadcast on the main state channel – said.
TV screens were filled with a sobbing elderly couple whose son is allegedly fighting with militants in Syria, filmed at a public meeting held in the Andijan Region in eastern Uzbekistan.
Although other areas of the country were featured in the program, the choice of Andijan as a venue was telling. The city was the scene of fatal unrest in 2005 which the government blamed on Islamic extremists, a version disputed by many survivors and by international human rights groups.
“What are the goals of these traitors? Who are they fighting for and dying for as dogs?” state TV asked rhetorically in its latest broadside against extremists, over footage of burials in foreign war zones.
President Islam Karimov frequently embraces alarmist talk about the threat to Uzbekistan and the wider region of Islamic extremism emanating out of Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan’s foreign minister has begun a round of annual consultations in Washington that happen to follow shortly after Tashkent launched an offensive to recover millions of dollars frozen in a U.S. corruption case involving the Uzbek president’s daughter.
Abdulaziz Komilov began the three-day talks on January 19 with a meeting with Nisha Desai Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent said in an e-mailed statement.
Topics for discussion include the usual suspects: security, political developments, human rights and trade. But one onlie Uzbek media outlet is speculating that Komilov may also be raising another thorny topic behind the scenes.
According to documents recently filed with a U.S. court, copies of which have been seen by EurasiaNet.org, Tashkent has begun pressing for the release of $300 million in assets frozen during a bribery investigation involving the president’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova. The last that was heard of Karimova, she was under house arrest in Tashkent.
The funds are allegedly illicit proceeds from “an international conspiracy to launder corrupt payments” made in Uzbekistan’s telecoms sector, according to a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice last summer.
The $300 million – held in Bank of New York Mellon accounts in Belgium, Ireland, and Luxemburg – were frozen by a U.S. Federal Court order in July.
The lawsuit named two Karimova associates, Gayane Avakyan and Rustam Madumarov, as owners of shell companies “beneficially owned by GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL A.”
Internet users in Uzbekistan look set to suffer an indefinite continuation to the poor service they have been enduring for the past half year or so.
The lingering suspicion is that security services are trying, but struggling, to install cast-iron monitoring mechanisms to keep tabs on users of popular communication software like Skype, WhatsApp and Viber.
State-run Uzbektelecom’s Internet provider division said that the latest decline in the quality of connections would last through to early next month because of maintenance work on the network, Regnum news agency reported on January 6.
The agency said some areas of the capital, Tashkent, might cease to get the Internet altogether.
This has become a routine warning since July, however, and other online providers — Sarkor Telecom, Sharq Telecom, Turon Telecom, ComNet and others — have issued similar statements.
Telecommunications officials have tried to reassure customers that the ultimate aim to all the interruptions in service are to improve quality, but experts are skeptical.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik, has speculated that the ultimate cause may be the National Security Services’ desperate efforts to monitor online traffic.
"It looks like they [the security services] have jumbled up all the Internet traffic settings as they try to set up a monitoring system in the main server, where all international traffic goes through,” an Internet security specialist told Ozodlik on condition on anonymity.
Such claims have no longer been subject of speculation since hackers last year leaked reams of correspondence from an Italian company, Hacking Team, which provides Internet monitoring technology to numerous governments, including Uzbekistan’s.
As the festive season approaches, authorities in Central Asia are getting into the spirit of the Grinch with their characteristically joy-killing edicts and bans.
In Tajikistan, the Education Ministry has banned putting up New Years trees in schools, according to a report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi.
"Cutting down Ne Years trees, or putting them up and decorating them, the use of fireworks and pyrotechnics, and giving gifts and fundraising for New Year celebrations by students is strictly prohibited," education minister Nuriddin Said was cited as saying by Radio Ozodi.
Instead of holding celebrations, schools are being encouraged to mount displays, as well literary and sporting events, to celebrate the festive end of year season.
Meanwhile, in the historic city of Samarkand, in Uzbekistan, restaurants and bars have been banned from opening past 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. Local news site Samarkandsky Vestnik also reported on December 15 that authorities have insisted that parties to mark the arrival of the new year should include no more than 400 guests.
“Considering that the New Year is a family holiday and that everybody should celebrate it within their family circle, on December 31 all dining establishments will be closed,” the website reported.
The battle against foreign-flavored features of the festive season are cast as a rearguard action against the creeping influence of nontraditional customs and values.
In earlier years, there has been speculation in Tajikistan of a possible ban on the appearances of Father Frost — the post-Soviet world’s answer to Father Christmas — on state television.
Germany's air base in Termez, Uzbekistan. (photo: Bundeswehr)
Germany has officially left its air base in Uzbekistan, the German embassy in Tashkent has confirmed, officially ending a 14-year military presence in Central Asia.
In October Germany announced that it would be leaving the base by the end of the year and [insert German stereotype] they have. A closing ceremony at the base was held December 11, a spokeswoman for the embassy, Melanie Moltmann, told The Bug Pit.
The closure wasn't officially announced, which is consistent with the extremely low profile that the base enjoyed; German officials almost never spoke about it until it was about to close.
The base, at Termez on the Afghanistan border, was a logistics point for German troops operating in northern Afghanistan. But the two sides got involved in a dispute over the rent: earlier this year Uzbekistan tried to raise the rent to 72.5 million Euros annually, German media reported; just months before Tashkent had secured a new agreement approximately doubling the rent to 35 million Euros a year.
With the German departure, there are now no foreign military bases in Central Asia other than Russian ones. France's small detachment left in 2013, and the U.S. closed down its base at Manas, in Kyrgyzstan, in 2014.
After almost a quarter of century, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov has decided it is time to shake up the police force.
The force, he said on December 5 during a speech to mark Independence Day, lacks proper regulation and is as a consequence rife with shoddy practices.
“It is not unusual to come across cases of nonobservance and crude violations of legal norms and provisions and principles of justice, as well as sloppy attitudes among law enforcement and regulatory authorities toward their duties. This is a reality and it is impossible not to notice it,” Karimov said, speaking 24 years after Uzbekistan’s Interior Ministry was formed.
Karimov said he was moved to criticism by the flood of public complaints brought to his attention.
“Over the first nine months of this years, 500 complaints have come in from citizens about the law enforcement officials and regulatory authorities,” he said. “Every fifth complaint concerned the unlawful actions of police officers.”
Karimov was eager to convey the impression that the feedback process is working well, however, and said that 96 percent of complaints registered over the phone had been resolved satisfactorily.
“What do these data tell us? They tell us that complainants had every right to be unhappy with the decisions taken by state bodies,” Karimov said.
The claims may cause jaws to drop even among a rights advocacy community already used to egregious whitewashing.
A recent United Nations Human Rights Committee report on Uzbekistan notes that while torture, for example, remains commonplace throughout the criminal justice system, recourse is rarely an option.
The use of child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest is becoming rarer, but there were indications that adults are being press-ganged into service this year, the World Bank has said in a report.
While offering hope of improvement, the report published on November 20 evinced disquiet about the harassment of independent harvest monitors — a sure indication authorities remain nervous about damage incurred to the country’s cotton public image in recent years.
The findings were based on observations by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which was this year asked to broaden its remit by checking for signs of forced labor.
Claims that child labor is on the wane echoes conclusions from independent campaigners since 2012, when the government banned the practice following a punishing cotton boycott by leading western brands.
“Authorities have taken a range of measures to reduce the incidence of child labor and make it socially unacceptable,” the World Bank said.
The assessment is broadly shared.
Apparent efforts by Uzbekistan to reduce reliance on underage workers prompted the U.S. State Department to promote Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to Tier 2 on its watch list in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report.
The burden of meeting harvest quotas has instead shifted to adults, who are often recruited against their will.
“Large numbers of citizens seem to be willing recruits and see the harvest as an opportunity. But organized recruitment of large numbers of people in such a short period of time carries certain risks linked to workers’ rights, which need further work, and certain indicators of forced labor have been observed,” the World Bank said.
Remote control airborne drones are becoming increasingly popular playthings for hobbyists around the world, but not in Uzbekistan.
Officials in Guliston, a town some 100 kilometers south of the capital, found and confiscated four small pilotless drones during what appears to have been a major multi-departmental operation.
The government’s Electromagnetic Compatibility Enforcement Service produced pictures with its November 23 statement that showed several Phantom unmanned aerial vehicles, which are made by Chinese company DJI. The brand is widely available and can be bought over the Internet for less than $500.
The Guliston haul wasn’t exactly massive, despite the many different government bodies involved. The raid included officials from the state communications inspectorate, the customs committee, the tax inspectorate, and the anti-money laundering department.
The ban on drones was introduced on January 1 in what the government says was an effort to ensure aircraft security and avoid the unsanctioned use of Uzbekistan’s airspace.
Such regulations are inexistent in most parts of the world, and in the region for that matter. Drone footage is becoming popular in production of wedding videos in places like Kyrgyzstan.
Still, use of the devices is not uncontentious.
Flying drones over national parks is illegal in the United States, for example.
Across the world, drones are also typically banned around military bases and airport.
Russia too has been looking to tighten use of the vehicles.
About 4,500 Islamist militants are operating in northern Afghanistan near the borders of Central Asia, and are planning to create an "emirate" consisting of much of the territory of the region, Russian officials have said.
"According to the information we have, in that area groups of militants are moving toward the border of the [former Soviet Union], in particular to the borders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan," said Alexander Manilov, coordinator of the Commonwealth of Independent States border guard services, at a meeting on Thursday of the group in Astana. (The CIS is an organization of post-Soviet states.)
"Therefore one of our tasks today is to discuss how to liquidate these threats on the border and that they don't cross into the CIS countries," he said. "According to estimates about the Afghan border, around 4,500 militants, terrorists, are located in the Afghan territories bordering immediately on the CIS countries."
"I believe this is significantly more than it used to be before," Manilov added. "I think there are real threats - from penetrations across the border to attempts to destabilize the states on the [Afghan] border."
For more than two decades, Murod Juraev languished behind bars in Uzbekistan and was subjected to torture and ill-treatment so bad that all his teeth fell out.
All kinds of pretexts were cooked up to extend the political activist’s jail term, including, on one occasion, a charge that he peeled carrots incorrectly.
Now, after 21 years in detention — a timespan that has made him “one of the world’s longest imprisoned peaceful political activists” — Juraev has been released, nine human rights groups said in a joint statement on November 12.
Juraev was a member of the Erk opposition party and a former local mayor in southern Uzbekistan when he was jailed, in 1994.
“The last 21 years have been a living hell that Murod Juraev and his family should never have had to experience,” Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch, said in the joint statement. “The Uzbek authorities should see to it that those who are alleged to have tortured Juraev and arbitrarily extended his prison sentence are promptly investigated and brought to justice.”
Swerdlow was referring to abuse to which Juraev, now 63 years old, was allegedly subjected in jail and to apparently groundless extensions to the original nine-year prison sentence.
Juraev had his jail term extended four times to keep him in jail — in 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2012 — after authorities found he had broken prison rules, including “peeling carrots incorrectly.”