European Parliament must raise human rights issues with Uzbekistan
In connection with the upcoming meeting between Abdulaziz Kamilov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan and the European Parliament, the NHC is one of the signatories on an open letter initiated by the International Human Rights Association adressed to the chairman of the European Parliament Mr. Elmar Brook, where we challenge him to adress the serious and systematic human rights violations that are happening every day in Uzbekistan. Read the letter below.
Open Letter in Advance of the Uzbek MFA’s Meeting at the European Parliament
March 17, 2014 . Paris, France
Mr. Elmar Brok, Chairman,
Committee on Foreign Affairs European Parliament
Dear Chairman Brok,
In advance of your meeting with Mr. Abdulaziz Kamilov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan, we write to encourage you to urge the Uzbek government to sincerely address the serious, systematic and ongoing human rights violations of the Uzbek people, including the situation of civil society activists, religious prisoners, transparency and openness in the EU-Uzbekistan dialogue, the recent undemocratic initiatives of president Karimov to amend the Uzbek Constitution, and state-orchestrated forced labour of children and adults during annual cotton harvesting season.
The situation of civil society
In your meeting with Mr. Kamilov we urge you to raise the situation of imprisoned civil society activists who make up one of the most vulnerable categories of inmates in the Uzbek penitentiary system. The number of imprisoned civil society activists has remained almost unchanged for many years because of two reasons: there are not so many independent civil society activists operating in Uzbekistan because of the government’s continued repressive policy and ongoing persecutions against the activists, and in place of one released imprisoned activist the government tends to send to jail two more civil society activists. Different independent observers and international rights groups mention from 15 to 30 civil society activists who remain in prison.
Our organization has studied well the cases of at least the following civil society activists who were sent to jail under trumped up criminal cases and who are serving their lengthy prison terms: Murod, Juraev, Solijon Abdurakhmonov, Azam Farmonov, Mehriniso Hamdamova, Zulkhumor Hamdamova, Isroiljon Kholdorov, NosimIsakov, Gaybullo Jalilov, Abdurasul Khudoynazarov, Ganikhon Mamatkhonov, Zafarjon Rakhimov, Yuldash Rasulov, Dilmurod Saidov and Akzam Turgunov.
Whereabouts of journalist Jamshid Karimov who has been kept forcedly in a psychiatric clinic for five years and then released in 2011 is unknown. Soon after his release from the psychiatric clinic he has disappeared. His colleagues suggest he has been forcedly placed into the psychiatric clinic again.
We urge you, Mr. Chairman to raise the issue of the above mentioned political prisoners in your talks with the Uzbek Minister and call on the Uzbek government to immediately release those civil society activists from prison out of urgent humanitarian concerns.
But specifically we urge you to request immediate release of the following imprisoned civil society activists who are elderly and experiencing dire health problems: Murod Juraev, Dilmurod Saidov, Solijon Abdurakhmonov, Agzam Turgunov, Ganihon Mamatkhonov and Mehriniso Hamdamova. In February several human rights defenders from Uzbekistan were allowed by the authorities to visit Murod Juraev, Dilmurod Saidov, Solijon Abdurakhmonov and Agzam Turgunov in prison.
The visits have confirmed their poor health conditions and lack of access to proper medical treatment in prison. The fact that the Uzbek activists were allowed by the authorities to visit the imprisoned colleagues is unprecedented but we don’t yet what underlying reasons have pushed the Uzbek authorities to do so. Nevertheless we can accept this fact as a good sign.
Ganikhon Mamatkhonov, another elderly human rights activist, who was convicted under trumped up criminal charges in 2009 to 4,5 years was expected to leave the prison on March 10, 2014 because his prison term ended. But on the eve of his release the prison administration has accused him of disobeying orders and rules of prison administration and put into a solitary confinement. Mamatkhonov has experienced heart attack three times, the last time it happened during his detention. We think the Uzbek authorities have deliberately accused Mamatkhonov of disobeying prison orders and rules and sent him to a solitary confinement in order to prolong his prison sentence.
This is a popular method used by the Uzbek authorities to keep “unwanted” inmates in prison under prolonged sentences. For instance, an opposition activist Murod Juraev was convicted to 12 years in prison in 1995, but his sentences ever since been prolonged up to four years each time in 2006, 2009 and 2012. An inmate accused of disobeying prison orders and rules becomes automatically non eligible for annual amnesty acts.
Mehriniso Hamdamova is a women religious scholar and activist convicted to 7 years in prison in April 2010. She has hysteromyoma and needs an urgent surgery. This type of surgery and post-surgery medical treatment can’t be provided in prison. Mehriniso Hamdamova’s disease makes her eligible for annual amnesty act but she hasn’t been amnestied.
The Uzbek authorities adopted their latest annual amnesty act in December 2013. According to the amnesty act, the amnesty should have been in force for three months after the date of adoption. Now the last amnesty act is already outdated. The authorities haven’t released any political prisoners, except one indeed elderly human rights activist and another elderly father of one of the Uzbek opposition leaders who were put into prison under trumped up criminal charges for their activism.
During your talks with Minister Kamilov we urge you to call on the Uzbek authorities to immediately release the above mentioned small group of political prisoners out of humanitarian concerns. We also take this opportunity to stress that the Uzbek authorities keep sending more civil society activists to prison under clearly trumped up charges. In 2013 Bobomurod Razzakov of “Ezgulik” Human Rights Society was sent to prison. In March 2014 two members of “Erk” political opposition party Fakhriddin Tilloev and Nuriddin Jumaniyozov were convicted to 8 years and 3 months in prison.
Under religious prisoners or prisoners of conscience we understand those inmates who are convicted for religious extremism, fundamentalism, terrorism, crimes against the constitutional system. Today religious prisoners are the most vulnerable massive group of inmates in Uzbekistan. Numerous accounts of independent observers point out that the vast majority of the religious prisoners were convicted to lengthy prison terms as a result of self-incriminating confessions extracted under torture and similar ill-treatment. Among them there are many family members and close relatives.
The government policy against religious extremism targets in most cases peaceful religious practice and is based on a primitive maxim that if there is one religious extremist in the family, then all members are automatically labeled as extremists. For most religious prisoners torture and similar ill-treatment continues even when after they are convicted and sent to prison facilities for serving their sentences. They rarely fall under annual amnesties, in most cases the authorities accuse them of disobeying prison orders and rules and prolong their sentences.
Independent observers think there are from 6.000 to 10.000 religious prisoners but this data can’t be corroborated because the penitentiary system in Uzbekistan is completely closed. The issue of religious prisoners and gross human rights violations they are facing does rarely become a subject of discussions between Uzbekistan and its international interlocutors because of its sensitive character but we think the EU should be concerned with this issue as well if the bloc cares about the security situation and human rights in this Central Asian nation.
The Uzbek authorities have been increasingly pushing other CIS countries to detain and extradite back to Tashkent peaceful Muslims originating from Uzbekistan who had to leave the country under the persecutions of the Uzbek law enforcement agencies. Those Muslims together with their family members were labeled by the government as religious governments and terrorists. The government opened criminal cases against those persons in absentia. For instance, in June 2011 in response to Uzbekistan’s request the Kazakhstani authorities detained and extradited 29 Uzbekistani Muslims from Kazakhstan back to Tashkent.
Our organization is well aware of this case, as we have been engaged in preparation and submission of individual complaints on the cases of some of the members of this group of Uzbek citizens seeking asylum through Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan extradited the 29 Uzbekistani Muslims in violation of the requests to hold on extradition until the individual communications of the refugees were under review at the UN Human Rights Committee. The Uzbek authorities have steadfastly convicted the extradited refugees to lengthy prison terms. We believe most of them were tortured and forced to give self-incriminating testimonies. By doing so both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have grossly violated their international obligations.
When the UN Committee against Torture questioned Kazakhstan’s conduct on this case later on in 2012 the Kazakhstani and Uzbekistani authorities have decided to save their faces by arranging a visit of Kazakhstani diplomats to the Uzbek prisons where the convicted 29 former Uzbekistani refugees were serving their prison sentences. The Kazakhstanis diplomats allege that they met only 18 out of 29 former refugees. According to Kazakhstani diplomats the Uzbek authorities have postponed meetings with the remaining prisoners because they were allegedly still undergoing pre-trial investigation. Although we doubt that reason – most probably the remaining prisoners either didn’t agree to meet Kazakhstani diplomats and sign necessary pre-arranged statements denouncing torture and ill-treatment against them in Uzbekistan after extradition. It is also possible that the remaining prisoners whom the Kazakhstani diplomats haven’t met during their visits to prisons had obvious marks of torture on their bodies which made the Uzbek authorities shy away from showing them to their Kazakhstani counterparts. All of those prisoners whom the Kazakhstani diplomats have allegedly seen signed pre-arranged written statements in which they denounce torture and ill-treatment against them by the Uzbekistani law enforcement agencies. The Kazakhstani diplomats passed those statements to the UN Committee in response to criticism on violation of Kazakhstan’s international obligations.
Most of the 29 refugees extradited to Uzbekistan by Kazakhstan were prevented by the Uzbek authorities from hiring a lawyer of their own choice to represent their cases. Upon conviction they and their relatives were not given copies of the official documents and court decisions. One of the 29 Uzbek refugees whom the Kazakhstani diplomats haven’t met during their visit Ulugbek Ostonov’s whereabouts is not known now. His relatives are not informed if he was convicted at all and if yes, where he is serving his prison term.
Another refugee also extradited by the Kazakhstani government to Uzbekistan Khayrullo Tursunov whose case we represented in an individual complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee was sent to a special prison for inmates with TB while he had not TB himself. We think all above mentioned cases illustrate very clearly how the Uzbek authorities are dealing with the issues of religious extremism and the situation of religious prisoners in the country.
In its dialogue with the Uzbek government the EU should be careful to be dragged too much to different ends affected by the various views among the EU member-states. This trend could continuously affect the implementation of the EU strategy towards Uzbekistan because of the lack of precise set of benchmarks which makes independent monitoring / evaluation difficult. Moreover, we are afraid that the whole process of the dialogue between the EU and Uzbekistan has mostly been an “insiders’ game” and elite driven, neither the EU nor the Uzbek government have consulted members of the civil society organizations (CSOs) in Uzbekistan. Lack of public information over the EU strategy and relations with Uzbekistan logically leads into a virtually non-existent public awareness of it in Uzbekistan. Information on the EU – Uzbekistan dialogue is kept behind closed doors meetings.
While pointing to human rights, democracy, good governance and rule of law as one of the first priority issues, senior EU officials (e.g. the EUSR and his staff) are at the same time careful in avoiding “double standards” by singling out less criticism on human rights record in Uzbekistan. This, however, from local viewpoint means that in terms of democracy and human rights even longer patience is needed as the strategy does neither pressure the Uzbek regime nor advises to ease the social tension by adopting new practices.
Such an attitude merely allows Tashkent choosing among priorities what fits to their own policy path, Thus Tashkent can continue playing its own regular role in a new framework as well: each time an important international interlocutor (e.g. the UN or EU) adopts a set of specific recommendations addressed to the Uzbek government, the Uzbek authorities respond by adopting a National Action Plan on the implementation of the recommendations. No practice changes in the end.
We would also like you to know that annual grants and financing for the projects of the Uzbek NGOs supported by the EU programs are disbursed in a non-transparent way. In most cases the request for proposals for the EU funds are announced, project proposals are gathered and assessed for funding decisions through the local government organized national NGO umbrella associations like the National Association of NGOs and the Institute for Civil Society Studies of Uzbekistan. Projects are cherry-picked by the pro-governmental umbrella associations which always make sure that independent NGOs are not part of the process. The project proposals are assessed through the criteria of to what extent they are in unison with the government ideology and programs and thus far from addressing real problems in most cases.
Both daughters of president Karimov are active in the NGO sector of Uzbekistan with tens of pro-governmental NGOs they have created and funded using the administrative resources of the government and forced money collections from the Uzbek businessmen. There have been moments when even the NGOs of the presidential daughters have become recipients of the EU funding in the past. In 2011 the EU decided to grant the National Center for Social Adaptation of Children – an NGO created and run by one of the presidential daughters Lola Karimova-Tillaeva 3.7 million Euros. We think such practices should stop and the EU funding for NGOs should be disbursed on a transparent and open basis.
In advance of elections Uzbek president aims at amending the Constitution again
In advance of expected parliamentary and presidential elections in December 2014 and March 2015 Uzbek president Karimov has initiated amendments to articles 32, 78, 93, 98, 103 and 117 of the Constitution. The government controlled mass media reported about the president’s initiative on March 14, 2014 but the substance of suggested amendments to the constitutions was missing in publications. However quick analysis of the suggested amendments demonstrate that the president is most probably aiming at amending the constitution to allow himself to be appointed as a life-time president through a referendum. Moreover, he has already used such tactic of entrenching himself in the power in the past several times during presidential elections and referendums he has himself orchestrated in the past. There is also a bad precedent in the Central Asian region – Nazarbaev of neighboring Kazakhstan has appointed himself a life-time leader through similar constitutional amendments without any hesitation several years ago.
We think the EU should be concerned seriously with such trends in the political life of Uzbekistan which further entrenches an authoritarian system in the country and further increases political uncertainty with security situation in this Central Asian nation.
Mr. Chairman, we appreciate your attention to these matters and welcome the opportunity to discuss them with you.
President of International Human Rights
Association “Fiery Hearts Club”