Yelena Urlaeva, an activist being held in a psychiatric institution, speaking in a video appeal posted on March 2, 2017. (Photo: YouTube screengrab)
For almost two weeks, one of Uzbekistan’s best-known human rights activists has been forcibly confined to a psychiatric institution in Tashkent, prompting deepening alarm among her supporters.
Yelena Urlaeva, who has fearlessly documented cases of rights abuses in Uzbekistan for decades, was detained by police on March 1 and checked into a hospital against her will, according to her own video testimony. fergana.ru, which has published a petition on its website calling for Urlaeva’s release, reported earlier in the week that the activist has been visited in hospital by representatives from the US Embassy, among others.
Photographer Timur Karpov managed to take a photograph of Urlaeva, which was posted on fergana.ru on March 9, but he was not admitted to see her.
“He was not allowed to see the patient with the excuse that the only days on which visits are permitted are Wednesday and Saturday,” a doctor was quoted as saying by the website.
The renewed harassment against Urlaeva comes as the authorities elsewhere display signs of wishing to soften their ruthless authoritarian rule.
The US Embassy had registered its satisfaction with the recent release from jail of Muhammad Bekjanov, a journalist who served 18 years in jail on likely trumped up charges, and Jamshid Karimov, a journalist, relative of the late president and government critic who had been held in a psychiatric clinic for more than a decade. But that progress has been compromised by Urlaeva’s plight and that of Azam Farmonov, another activist languishing in jail, the embassy noted.
With every minor hint of a concession on human rights, the government in Uzbekistan looks determined to stumble with a worrying violation.
This week, for example, saw the unusual spectacle of a tiny protest picket outside a court building in Tashkent reaching its conclusion without police unceremoniously bundling away participants.
The two-hour vigil was organized by Elena Urlaeva, the indefatigable leader of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, on the morning of December 15 in protest at what she described as an unjustly imprisoned man. While police arrived at the scene during the event, they looked on impassively without taking action.
This is the second picket in Tashkent that has taken place in the past two weeks without being broken up. The first, also organized by Urlaeva and a small number of other activists, was held on December 5 outside the presidential administration.
According to the head of the Uzbek–German Forum for Human Rights, Umida Niyazova, this toleration of minuscule pickets signals only a shift in tactics. Breaking up small and largely inconspicuous rallies typically creates more noise than allowing them proceed unhindered.
But Niyazova warned against allowing such anomalous events to distract from the persistence of systematic rights abuses and lack of access to justice. She mentioned, particular, the plight of Muhammad Bekzhanov, the editor of an opposition newspaper who was jailed in 1999.
Amnesty International issued a statement on December 16 expressing concern that Bekzhanov, who is due for release next month, has been placed in a punishment cell and that this could signal a prelude to his sentence being extended.
Uzbekistan has in a long-awaited move freed a political activist who has languished behind bars since 1992, when he was jailed on corruption charges that rights groups say were politically motivated.
Moscow-based news website ferghana.rureported on November 23 that 72-year-old Samandar Kukanov was met outside prison by his son, Sardor.
Kukanov will remain under supervision for a year after his release, ferghana.ru reported.
Freeing Kukanov represents a notable about-face by the Uzbek authorities.
New York-based Human Rights Watch had issued a statement earlier this month demanding Kukanov’s release and protesting a decision by prison authorities in October to extend his sentence by three years.
Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said at the time that the extension of the prison sentence indicated that acting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev appeared intent on continuing the repressive policies of his late predecessor, Islam Karimov.
As HRW has documented, Uzbek prison authorities have routinely resorted to extending the sentences of political prisoners on spurious grounds.
“The action is often taken just days before the person is to be released, on bogus grounds such as possessing ‘unauthorized’ nail clippers, saying prayers, or wearing a white shirt, and may result in years of additional imprisonment,” the group noted in its recent statement.
An international coalition of rights groups is calling on the European Parliament this week to reject a textile trade agreement between the EU and Uzbekistan that they say would fuel the scourge of forced labor in the cotton industry.
A letter address to the European Parliament Committee on International Trade published on Human Rights Watch’s website on November 7 said adopting the textile protocol would be to “ignore strong evidence of the government’s persistent and continued use of forced labour on a massive, nationwide scale in Uzbekistan.”
The European Parliament postponed a decision on the EU-Uzbekistan Textiles Protocol in December 2011 pending further monitoring of labour conditions in Uzbekistan by the International Labor Organization. The parliament acknowledged that the monitoring was intended to address allegations about the use of children and forced labor during the cotton harvest, but it is set to review its decision this week.
That postponement five years ago appeared to have had the requisite effect since the government in Uzbekistan relatively promptly allowed monitoring of its cotton harvests by the ILO.
A draft report in September from the European parliamentary trade committee signaled its satisfaction. It noted approvingly, citing the ILO’s findings from 2015, that “the use of children in the cotton harvest has become rare, sporadic and socially unacceptable, even if ongoing vigilance is needed.”
There is ample evidence, however, that the reduced reliance on child labor has transferred the pressure onto adults. This does not appear to have been reflected in ILO observations.
A witness at an appeal hearing into the case of jailed rights activist Azimjan Askarov told a court in Kyrgyzstan’s Chui court on November 1 that she was forced to testify against him under duress.
Minura Mamadalieva, who was also Askarov’s co-defendant at the initial trial following ethnic unrest in 2010, said that she yielded to pressure after she and her six-year old son were subjected to mistreatment by the police, 24.kg reported.
Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, was given a life sentence in September 2010 after being found guilty of inciting a crowd to murder a police officer on June 13 that year during deadly inter-communal riots in the southern town of Bazar-Korgon. He has always steadfastly maintained his innocence.
By recanting, Mamadalieva has placed further strain on the state’s deeply compromised case against Askarov, whose plight has drawn indignations from many international organizations and governments.
Speaking to the court, Mamadalieva said she was detained on June 26, 2010, and taken to Bazar Korgon police station, where she claimed she was ordered to stump up $5,000. Mamadalieva also said she was told by police that Askarov had testified against her, somehow implicating her in the violence, so that she do the same and offer testimony placing the activist at the bridge where the policeman is said to have been murdered.
“But I did not see Askarov there, I was not there. They made me sign to all this,” she said. “They said they would put my child behind bars. The police beat us, the detainees, they almost made us eat dirt. Including Askarov. This is the kind of unbridled behavior the Bazar-Korgon police station was getting up to.”
Uzbekistan’s acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev has ratified the International Labour Organization’s Convention No. 87, formally recognizing freedoms of association and the protection of the right to organize.
Tashkent’s prior resistance to adopting the convention has been linked to repressive practices in the country’s cotton industry, which involves the forcible annual mobilization of state workers for weeks of grueling labor in the fields during harvest season.
On the face of it, Uzbekistan adoption of this international standard fits into Tashkent’s ongoing charm offensive following the death of President Islam Karimov in September. The government has been working hard in recent years to persuade the international community that it is attempting to address some of its more unsavory practices.
Still, the significance of a largely bureaucratic move should not be overstated before results are seen and Karimov’s passing was likely only incidental to the development. Uzbekistan’s adoption of Convention No. 87 has been a few years in arriving. Tashkent signed a memorandum of understanding with the ILO in April 2014 committing it in principle to ratification this year.
In July, even prior to Karimov’s death, Mirziyoyev told a government meeting that during this year’s cotton harvest campaign, no school or university students were to be sent out into the fields. The remarks were intended in part to salve the concerns of the ILO, which is now implementing a inspection regime designed to detect abuses. But there is strong evidence to suggest that despite those exhortations, many students were press-ganged into cotton-picking all the same.
Kyrgyzstan’s security services detained the wife of a Tajik opposition figure over the weekend, sparking concern that governments in the region are collaborating to silence one another’s political opponents.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) detained Sobir Valiev’s wife, Janet Khamzaeva, for questioning in Bishkek on October 2 in relation to alleged offenses committed by Valiev.
The GKNB said in a statement on October 3 that Valiev had obtained a Kyrgyz passport illegally. Khamzaeva was released close to midnight on condition she remain in the country, according to Kylym Shamy, a rights group coordinating over her case.
The GKNB stated that there was international arrest warrant pending for Valiev, who currently resides in Poland, in relations to charges of “carrying out criminal acts” in Tajikistan.
Tajikistan has in recent years made ample use of Interpol to pursue its political foes, with the leader of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, Muhiddin Kabiri, the most prominent among recent additions to the international policing body’s Tajikistan list of wanted persons.
Unlike Kabiri, however, Valiev’s name does not appear on Interpol’s website, despite his Group-24 opposition movement being billed a “terrorist group” by Dushanbe after it called on Facebook and Russian social media for Rahmon’s overthrow back in 2014.
According to an RFE/RL report, Khamzaeva was only in Kyrgyzstan briefly to see her sick mother, who resides in Bishkek.
The appearance of a figure convicted in Kyrgyzstan on charges of separatism and inciting ethnic hatred at an international rights forum has enraged politicians in Bishkek.
Ethnic Uzbek entrepreneur Kadyrzhan Batyrov, a native of the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad, spoke on September 20 in condemnation of Kyrgyzstan’s president at an event held by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
Batyrov, who has lived in Sweden for the past five years evading imprisonment over charges he incited ethnic unrest in his home country in 2010, said current plans to tinker with the constitution were part of President Almazbek Atambayev’s plot to permanently usurp power.
He also used the platform to condemn the plight of fellow ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, who he argued are marginalized and underrepresented, and focused in particular on the situation of rights advocate Azimjan Askarov, who is serving a life sentence for his purported involvement in the violence of 2010.
The remarks were like a red rag to a bull to officials in Kyrgyzstan and about as badly timed as could be. Authorities loyal to Atambayev are mounting an intensifying onslaught against opponents to the constitutional reforms, which will likely be put to a referendum on December 4, and Batyrov is being used as the stick with which to beat them.
Even if he had tried, Batyrov could hardly have done more to compromise fellow critics of Atambayev. The Jalal-Abad businessman is referred to regularly in Kyrgyz media with the separatist epithet and the undocumented claim that he sparked the unrest of six years ago by calling for territorial autonomy for Uzbek-populated areas is widely accepted as gospel truth. Being put in the same basket as Batyrov then is political poison for public figures in Kyrgyzstan.
Civil society in Kyrgyzstan has begun a counter-offensive against proposed tinkering to the constitution that critics of the amendments suspect constitutes a move to consolidate the power of the current ruling elite.
The Committee for Civic Control, a coalition 70 nongovernment groups, issued a passionate statement on August 24 urging President Almazbek Atambayev to avoid an attempt to make the same mistakes as his two deposed predecessors, Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
Talk of constitutional reform have been in the air from some time, despite provisions incorporated in 2010 in the last adopted constitution that prohibited any changes before 2020. Atambayev himself spoke for the need to change the basic law as prerequisite for improvements to the justice system.
But the Committee for Civic Control argued that any constitutional amendments would be the thin end of the edge.
“The entire history of independent Kyrgyzstan shows the negative experiences of any changes to the constitution that have been initiated from above. These have always led only to the usurpation of power by those who proposed the changes,” the committee said in a statement.
There are many proposed changes, but the most significant involve a recasting of the state’s obligations toward upholding human rights and enhancing the office of the prime minister.
The language on rights issues signals a marked lurch toward nationalist conservatism
A high-ranking member of a banned opposition party in Tajikistan jailed for purportedly masterminding the hoisting of an Islamic State flag in his town has died in prison, Ozadagon news website has reported.
Ozadagon reported on August 16 that Kurbon Mannonov, who was head of the local branch of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan in the town of Nurek, died at detention facility (SIZO) NO. 1 in Dushanbe overnight. At the time of his sentencing, in February, Mannonov was 73 years old.
Ozadagon cited sources in the IRPT as saying that Mannonov had recently complained of ill-health and bleeding.
A couple of cases involving Islamic State flags over the past year have revealed the new depths being probed by the arch-paranoid government as it seeks to crush all those opposed to its rule. Tajikistan’s Western partners have registered only mute condemnation of the regime embrace of outright authoritarian practices and the United States continues to lavish the government with security assistance.
The Khatlon regional court in February sentenced Mannonov and 12 others to jail terms between 10 and 25 years for putting up the terrorist group’s distinctive black flag. Formally, the group was charged with membership in a criminal organization, public calls for the overturning of the constitutional order and extremist activity.
The group was arrested in August, just as the authorities were beginning to ratchet up their pressure against the IRPT, which has since been banned.