During a visit to Latvia this week, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov got just what he wanted: recognition from a Western leader and promises of more, without any annoying questions about his well-documented human rights abuses.
Following a meeting with Karimov on October 17, Latvian President Andris Berzins promised that in the first half of 2015, when Latvia holds the rotating European Union presidency, improving relations between the EU and Central Asia would be high on the Baltic nation’s agenda, Latvia's Leta news agency reported.
Berzins also promised to back Tashkent’s bid to join the World Trade Organization.
At least publicly, Latvian officials failed to mention Uzbekistan’s troubled human rights record, instead prioritizing economic and security cooperation. Uzbekistan is critical to the so-called Northern Distribution Network, which NATO uses to supply, and now withdraw from, the war in Afghanistan. Latvia lies at the other end of the vast network spanning the former Soviet Union.
The Baltic nation, a member of both the EU and NATO, has been criticized in the past for offering undeserving prestige to Central Asian autocrats craving attention from Western leaders. Last year Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov met Berzins in Riga. Again, human rights were not publicly discussed. Berzins doubled the tribute with a visit to Ashgabat this year.
Ahead of Karimov's visit to Riga, activists urged Berzins to address human rights.
Critical journalist Sergei Naumov has been freed after serving a short sentence for allegedly abusing a stranger on the street, Fergana News reports. Media outlets and human rights groups throughout the region had campaigned for his release.
Naumov was sentenced to 12 days on September 21 after he bumped into a woman who accused him of "harassing her, grabbing her breasts and insulting [her] with swear words." He denied the charges. He was held incommunicado, raising fears for his safety.
Naumov had been reporting on the use of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s annual cotton harvest, along with corruption and abuse of power by government officials, fostering widespread suspicions that authorities were trying to muzzle him.
“Sergei Naumov’s detention bears all the hallmarks of an illegal, enforced disappearance and appears aimed at silencing his independent reporting,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said on September 24.
Bakhrom Khamroyev, president of the Moscow-based Society for Political Immigrants of Uzbekistan, organized a rally in Moscow on October 2 demanding Naumov’s release, Fergana News said.
Rights activists are calling on Turkmenistan’s government to disclose information about a group of approximately 30 prisoners who have not been heard from for over 10 years.
As part of an OSCE human rights meeting in Warsaw on October 2, activists from the Civic Solidarity Platform, a coalition, and Virginia-based Crude Accountability launched the campaign, “Prove They Are Alive: The Disappeared in the Turkmen Prisons,” Fergana News reported.
On November 25, 2002, a lorry blocked President Saparmurat Niyazov's cortege in Ashgabat and unidentified people opened fire. Niyazov survived the attack and promptly rounded up opposition leaders and alleged critics, including former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who was reportedly planning to run for president. Members of the group were accused of conspiracy, forced to confess during a show trial, and handed long prison sentences. The New York Times characterized the episode as “the most chilling public witch hunt since Stalin.”
The families of the jailed have been unable to obtain information about the fate of their loved ones for over a decade.
The editor-in-chief of the opposition-minded Gundogar website, Bayram Shikhmuradov, son of Boris Shikhmuradov, helped organize the initiative. He criticized Turkmen authorities and the OSCE Center in Ashgabat for failing to attend the hearings, Gundogar reported on October 3.
The lead author of a controversial bill that would label most of Kyrgyzstan’s non-profit organizations “foreign agents” says the country must protect itself from foreign “sabotage” and “sexual emancipation.”
In an interview with EurasiaNet.org this week, MP Tursunbai Bakir uulu, a former human rights ombudsman, said he was inspired by almost identical legislation that came into effect in Russia last November, but that he’d been musing over the idea since 2006. The bill would require organizations that accept foreign funding and supposedly engage in “political activities” to identify as “foreign agents,” a term widely understood throughout the former Soviet Union to denote traitors and spies.
Though President Almazbek Atambayev said on September 19, during a visit to Brussels, that he would not support the bill, Bakir uulu says the president has made a “shallow statement to please the West” and would eventually fall into line.
Noting that the bill mirrors the Russian law, on September 27 a coalition of human rights groups led by the International Partnership for Human Rights, said the sweeping draft law “appears primarily aimed at the same category of groups that has been the main target in Russia, i.e. human rights NGOs and other groups that are inconvenient for those in power.”
Critics have also noted that foreign governments fund parts of Kyrgyzstan’s budget, in effect turning Bakir uulu himself, as a paid government employee, into a foreign agent.
When confronted with this irony, Bakir uulu said the questioning suggested EurasiaNet.org was a foreign agent.
The interview has been translated from Russian and edited for length.
Human rights groups have long urged consumers and apparel manufacturers to boycott cotton from Uzbekistan, the world’s second largest cotton exporter, because it is picked using forced and child labor. But as the number of international – mostly Western – manufacturers pledge to eschew Uzbek fibers, Tashkent is looking east, increasing exports to countries where human rights are less of a concern.
In August, Uzbekistan signed a deal to supply 200,000 metric tons of cotton fiber – about one-third of exports – to Bangladesh annually. Now Beijing is ready to purchase 300,000 metric tons – over half of Uzbekistan’s total cotton fiber exports – a year, Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported on September 25.
"Accords on stable annual supplies to the tune of at least 300,000 metric tons have been achieved by the governments of the two countries. 'Firm' contracts will be signed in October as part of a cotton fair in Tashkent," RIA Novosti quoted a source in the Uzbek cotton industry as saying.
RIA Novosti said that Uzbek cotton exports were expected to total no less than 600,000 metric tons in the 2012-2013 season, slightly less than 620,000 metric tons sold abroad last year.
The new deal means Bangladesh and China will together account for over 83 percent of Uzbek cotton exports. Previously, Bangladesh accounted for 35 percent, China for 15 percent and South Korea for 7 percent, according to RIA Novosti. (Uzbekistan annually produces over 3 million metric tons of raw cotton and over 1 million metric tons of cotton fiber; about 60 percent of the fiber is exported.)
Defying calls from human rights activists, a court in Uzbekistan has sentenced Bukhara-based human rights activist Bobomurod Razzakov to four years in prison on charges his supporters say are fabricated.
On September 24, a court in Bukhara found Razzakov, 60, guilty of human trafficking, Human Rights Watch reports. The New York-based advocacy group says the charges were in retaliation for Razzakov’s human rights activities.
Human Rights Watch had earlier called on Uzbek authorities to immediately drop the case and unconditionally release Razzakov, the leader of the Bukhara branch of Uzbekistan's only registered independent human rights group, Ezgulik ("Mercy").
Uzbekistan often brings trumped-up charges of drug trafficking, rape and extortion against critics in what look like attempts to shut them up.
Razzakov's "prosecution fits a typical pattern of fabricated criminal charges brought to silence human rights defenders and should be dropped immediately," Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a September 14 statement.
A local woman accused Razzakov of forcing her into the custody of a person who pressed her into prostitution. Razzakov maintains that several days before his detention the woman asked him to help find a relative who had gone missing in Russia. His lawyer suggested that Uzbek security services had pressured her into bringing the charges against him, Human Rights Watch said.
In Uzbekistan, where courts are widely believed to bend to the will of prosecutors, sexual assault charges seem like a convenient way to target critics. The charges are difficult to disprove, believable in principle, and have the added benefit of tarnishing the accused's character.
A member of the opposition Erk party, Fakhriddin Tillayev, says a naked female neighbor turned up at his doorstep last week and started screaming that he was raping her, the independent Uznews.net website reported on August 28. The woman said she would seek a medical examination to back up her allegations.
But adding to the impression that Tillayev had been set-up, during the mayhem several unidentified men rushed into Tillayev's apartment where they destroyed his computer and two mobile phones, he said. Tillayev went to his neighborhood committee and police to report the incident: The neighborhood committee did not take it seriously because of the naked neighbor's well-established drinking habits, says Uznews.net, and Tillayev was unable to find a police officer to investigate.
"I am certain that this is a provocation staged by authorities and is linked to Tillayev's public activities," Uznews.net quoted human rights activist Abdullo Tojiboy-ugli as saying.
This isn’t the first time in recent weeks that allegations of sexual assault have come close to an opposition figure.
Prisoners in Uzbekistan may not be able to speak to Red Cross monitors about the conditions of their incarceration, but they may now drink hot chocolate and enjoy live music.
The Interior Ministry has adopted new rules regarding living conditions in the country’s notoriously inhospitable and violent prisons, the semi-official Norma.uz website, which covers legislative issues in Uzbekistan, reported on August 8.
For starters, the rules list foodstuffs prisoners are allowed to purchase and keep: They can now treat themselves to coffee and hot chocolate. Moreover, previously prisoners were allowed to have belongings whose total weight did not exceed 50 kilograms – this stipulation has now been abolished.
The new regulations also allow prisoners to get married or divorced in prison. Though the number of guests at a prison wedding ceremony is limited to two, following the ritual the prisoner will be given a conjugal visit (up to three days, usually inside the prison) with his or her spouse.
Perhaps, the most important change is that a prisoner's close relatives now have the right to obtain written and verbal information about their loved one’s health, and learn about what specific punishments are being applied by prison authorities. Requests are, in theory, to be satisfied immediately.
According to the new rules, prisoners in low-security prison colonies can now wear civilian clothes and shoes and use mobile phones without photo, audio and video features. They can also play musical instruments in specially designated areas.
Hasan Choriyev tried in secret: Human rights activists say Uzbek authorities have set him up on rape charges to punish his son, an exiled opposition leader with designs on the presidency.
The elderly father of an exiled opposition leader is reportedly being tried behind closed doors in Uzbekistan on rape charges that his supporters say are intended to punish his son.
Hasan Choriyev, 71, was arrested on June 17 and later charged with raping a 19-year-old woman. He has been held incommunicado since his arrest over seven weeks ago, the independent Uznews.net website says.
Hasan is accustomed to harassment from officials. He is the father of Bahodyr Choriyev, the leader of the opposition Birdamlik (“Solidarity”) movement, who has lived in American exile since 2004. In November 2012, a local court fined him $11,000 for slander. When he failed to pay the extraordinary sum, his farmland, livestock and house were seized. Earlier, in 2011, authorities fined him $8,500 for “stealing” electricity – that is, using it without meter – after the meter was stolen.
Uznews.net reported on August 5 that the hearings into Choriyev senior’s case started on July 26 behind closed doors but were postponed indefinitely because of the alleged victim’s failure to appear in court.
The defendant’s family has struggled to glean details about the case. Choriyev's lawyer – whom family members fear is colluding with authorities – has cited “investigative secrecy.”
Uzbekistan would supply 200,000 metric tons of cotton to Bangladesh annually under the terms of a new bilateral agreement, Dhaka’s Financial Express newspaper reported on August 5. The deal, which would mark the first time Bangladeshi purchases of Uzbek cotton are regularized, may be signed during an annual industry fair in Tashkent this October, 12news.uz reports.
"Since Uzbekistan is a major source of cotton for us, we want to make the import process easier and uninterrupted. So, we are finalizing the draft of the MoU for signing as soon as possible,” the Financial Express quoted a Bangladeshi official as saying. The memorandum will ensure direct delivery of raw Uzbek cotton “on a regular basis,” the newspaper added.
Human rights groups say deals like this help Tashkent circumvent campaigns designed to end its reliance on forced child labor during the cotton harvest. Uzbekistan, the world’s sixth-largest cotton producer and third-largest exporter, earns over $1 billion from cotton exports annually.
According to the Cotton Campaign, the government forces over a million children and adults to pick cotton each autumn. Over 130 global apparel brands have signed the Responsible Sourcing Network’s pledge not to use Uzbek cotton.