President Islam Karimov’s would-be hosts in Prague say the Uzbek strongman has postponed his trip to the Czech Republic, according to a local news outlet. The announcement follows concerted pressure on Prague from dozens of human rights groups concerned that the February 20-22 visit would allow Karimov to whitewash his brutal record.
Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek confirmed the news to the Respekt.cz news website on February 13.
It seems unlikely we'll ever know who initiated the postponement, Karimov or his Czech counterpart Milos Zeman. Both may have bowed to the pressure, fearing the visit could become a PR nightmare.
But only two days ago, Zeman was defending the visit, telling the umbrella group of watchdogs to butt out of his affairs.
The Uzbek Foreign Ministry wasn't immediately available for comment on February 13. If the visit is cancelled, it is unlikely they will say much, since Uzbekistan’s tightly controlled media use Karimov’s rare trips abroad to enhance his prestige and make him appear as a recognized elder statesman.
The last time Karimov visited the West was in January 2011 when he was invited by NATO to Brussels.
With Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov scheduled to visit the Czech Republic next week, a coalition of human rights organizations has been urging his host, President Milos Zeman, to deny Karimov the "prestige and recognition associated with an official state visit." Today they are horrified by Zeman’s blistering response.
In a February 10 open letter, international watchdogs including Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists reminded Zeman that Karimov runs one of the most repressive governments in the world and has been "rightly shunned by most western leaders," particularly after Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of civilians in Andijan in May 2005. For Uzbekistan's refusal to allow an independent international probe into the Andijan killings the European Union, including the Czech Republic, had imposed targeted sanctions on the Uzbek government between 2005 and 2009, the letter noted.
Should he meet Karimov during the scheduled February 20-22 visit, the activists urged Zeman to push the Uzbek leader on his regime’s gross human rights violations and to hold a joint news conference to allow journalists to question Karimov. (Karimov hasn’t taken questions in public for years.)
Clearly irritated, Zeman fired back in an open letter February 11 that the visit was a “diplomatic courtesy,” the invitation for which had been issued by his predecessor (translation by Czech NGO People in Need):
Second, President Islam Karimov recently held talks with senior officials of the European Union in Brussels. I did not think you were protesting against the visit.
Third, the United States evaluated Uzbekistan as an ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. I did not think you protested against this American view protested.
Gay and bisexual men in Kyrgyzstan are routinely subject to violence, sexual abuse, and extortion by police, a report by global watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) published on January 29 found.
“Gay and bisexual men are easy targets for abuse due to deep social conservatism," HRW said. “Pervasive homophobia in society and widespread police corruption contribute to these abuses.”
Many of the 40 men interviewed for the study “reported ill-treatment in police detention, including being punched, kicked, or beaten with gun butts or other objects,” HRW said.
Some “reported sexual violence by police officers, including rape, group rape, attempts to insert a stick, hammer, or electric shock device inside the victim’s anus, unwanted touching during a search, or being forced to undress in front of police.” On occasion the abuse “rose to the level of torture.”
HRW released disturbing video of men recalling their ill-treatment at the hands of police in Kyrgyzstan, which decriminalized consensual sex between men in 1998. “They detained me, drove me to their office, undressed me, abused me in many ways, hit me, tormented me with a beer bottle, a coffee can, metal hangers, and they kicked me,” one interviewee, Mikhail Kudryashov, recalled. “I still have a lot of scars and marks from the beating.”
Kudryashov – who was fired from his job, disowned by his relatives, and threatened with excommunication by his church after information about his sexual orientation became widely known – took his case all the way to the Supreme Court to try and prove he was tortured, but failed to gain legal redress.
A man in northern Kazakhstan who was the victim of police torture has won a seven-year legal battle for damages, after a court upheld a ruling that he is entitled to financial compensation for his injuries.
The ruling was handed down by an appeals court in Kostanay on January 23, local newspaper Nasha Gazeta reported. Police must now pay some $13,000 in compensation to 44-year-old Aleksandr Gerasimov for injuries they inflicted by beating him up and suffocating him with a plastic bag in police detention to extract a confession in 2007. Gerasimov was arrested after going to a police precinct looking for his stepson, who had been rounded up during a murder investigation.
The court upheld a lower court ruling issued in November which came after Gerasimov, supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative and the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, won his case at the UN Committee Against Torture in 2012, the first ever brought from Central Asia. [Editor’s note: The Open Society Justice Initiative and EurasiaNet.org are separate entities operating under the auspices of the Open Society Foundations.]
“This ruling is an important step in redressing unjust actions from which victims of the most terrible violations of human rights such as torture continue to suffer,” Roza Akylbekova, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, said in remarks quoted by Nasha Gazeta.
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.