The government of Uzbekistan, one of the most repressive to have emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union, has for many years fostered a hostile and dangerous environment for the work of human rights defenders and others in civil society. But in the 18 months following the May 13, 2005 massacre in Andijan, the government unleashed its fiercest crackdown on human rights defenders, independent journalists, and NGO activists, and political activists since independence. More than two dozen human rights defenders have had criminal charges brought against them, and according to the Uzbek human rights group Ezgulik, at least 17 are currently in prison. Many others have endured periods of arbitrary detention, interrogation, house arrest, vigilante attacks, Soviet-style “hate rallies,” increased surveillance, detention of their family members, and interference with their work. One defender was released from prison in October, and many hope the annual amnesty and international pressure could result in more gaining their freedom. Dozens of others have had to flee Uzbekistan, following unrelenting persecution. Among them was Tolib Yakubov, the founder and chair of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, the first human rights group to be founded in post-Soviet Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan’s human rights defenders, like independent journalists and political activists who are also under siege by the authorities, are struggling for transparent, accountable government. The individuals profiled here are among those courageous Uzbek human rights defenders who have been imprisoned in retribution for their work or who are continuing, in the face of persecution, to press their government to adhere to its human rights obligations. Their research and advocacy covers a wide array of human rights violations, ranging from incidents of torture and other ill-treatment in custody, violations of fair trial standards, corruption, violations of farmers’ rights, and the government’s campaign of arresting and imprisoning independent Muslims—those whose religious beliefs, practices are outside official institutions and guidelines. These defenders monitor trials, help ordinary people file complaints to the authorities about abuses, act as public defenders, and bring Uzbekistan’s human rights problems to the attention of the Uzbek public and the international community.
The facebook portrays only some of the individuals involved in the struggle for human rights in Uzbekistan. There are many others who have taken a stand for human rights and are active members and friends of organizations and groups such as: Ezgulik (Goodness), the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, the Human Rights Initiative Center, the Human Rights Movement of Uzbekistan Veritas, the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan, Mazlum (The Oppressed), Mothers against the Death Penalty and Torture, and Ozod Fukaro (Free Citizen), and others. Together these individuals and organizations all work to ensure that the spirit of human rights survives in Uzbekistan.
Key facts about civil society activists in Uzbekistan:
- At least 13 human rights defenders are currently in prison in Uzbekistan. In the past two years, they have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms on politically motivated charges. Another two were sentenced to six and seven years in prison in spring 2007 and later released on parole.
- Jamshid Karimov, an independent journalist, has been held in a closed psychiatric ward since September 2006, while Sanjar Ulmarov, an Uzbek political opposition leader, and other dissidents are in prison.
- Dozens of human rights defenders and independent journalists have had to stop their human rights work or flee the country altogether following threats to their lives and freedom and that of their loved ones.
- The Uzbek government has registered only two independent domestic human rights organizations. These are the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan (registered in 2002) and Ezgulik (registered in 2003). The governmentís refusal to register NGOs severely restricts their operation and renders them vulnerable to harassment and abuse.
- Uzbek authorities have forced the closure of the offices of numerous international NGOs in Uzbekistan. In 2006 alone, the government closed the offices of Freedom House, Counterpart International, the American Bar Associationís Central East European Law Initiative (now American Bar Associationís Europe and Eurasia Division), Winrock International, and Crosslink Development International. BBC and Radio Free Europe have also been forced to leave the country following threats to their offices and staff.