Uzbekistan has proven over twelve years of independence to be one of the most repressive countries in the Central Asia region. Now a key ally in the U.S. led "war against terrorism," Uzbekistan has made some attempts to convince the international community that it is improving its human rights record. However, the situation remains grave, with systematic torture of detainees, persecution of Muslims who practice Islam outside of state controlled structures, and harassment of human rights defenders and opposition members.
- Persecution of Independent Muslims
- Harassment of Human Rights Defenders and Opposition Members
- Key International Actors
In April 2003, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture presented findings from a mission to Uzbekistan to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. He stated that torture was "systematic," and concluded that torture was "pervasive and persistent . . . throughout the investigation process." In response, the government promised a National Action Plan to combat torture, a final version of which was due to be released in late 2003. The preliminary versions, however, were weak, focusing largely on seminars and conferences, and allowed for unjustifiable delays in implementing many of the special rapporteur's recommendations.
Torture remains widespread. Judges routinely ignore torture allegations in court, victims are persecuted for speaking out about torture, and those responsible for torture enjoy almost complete impunity. Human Rights Watch documented four deaths in custody in 2003 that appeared to be torture-related. The government has consistently failed to heed calls of the international community for independent investigations into such deaths.
Persecution of Independent Muslims
The government campaign against Muslims who practice Islam outside of government controlled institutions has resulted in the current imprisonment of approximately 6,000 people, the overwhelming majority of whom are accused of crimes relating to the peaceful expression of their religious beliefs. Religious prisoners are subjected to particularly harsh treatment, including beatings, placement in punishment cells, and deprivation of basic needs such as food, bedding, and heating. Police and local authorities constantly harass relatives of religious prisoners, forcing them to write statements about their own political and religious activities and to promise that they will not be involved in future public protests. In 2003, arbitrary arrests of independent Muslims continued, although at a slower pace than in earlier years of the now six-year campaign. Judges failed to respect international trial standards, including the presumption of innocence and the right to a defense counsel, and routinely convicted independent Muslims on the basis of confessions allegedly obtained through torture.
Harassment of Human Rights Defenders and Opposition Members
Local independent human rights defenders continue to work in a hostile environment where police harassment, including threats and detention, is common. In 2003, prison authorities released four members of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan from custody after the four had spent between ten and thirteen months in prison on what appear to have been politically motivated charges. On August 13, a closed court convicted Ruslan Sharipov, a human rights activist and independent journalist, on politically motivated charges of consensual homosexual acts, involving minors in anti-social activity, and sex with a minor. He later stated that the police had tortured him and forced him to plead guilty. On August 28, Sharipov's public defender, while preparing the appeal, was kidnapped and seriously beaten, suffering a concussion and two broken ribs.
The government's crackdown against the opposition in the 1990s led to the effective destruction of an opposition movement in Uzbekistan. Members of the opposition who continue to be active face possible detention, threats, constant surveillance, and confiscation of written materials such as books, files, and party archives. In one case, in March 2003 the police detained Hasan Kambarov, a member of the youth wing of the opposition Erk Democratic Party, and held him incommunicado for two months, subjecting him to electric shocks, suffocation, and beatings. Police questioned him about his political activities and asked him to name other Erk members. After releasing him in May, the police rearrested him only a few days later, this time denying that he was in their custody.
Key International Actors
Since the start of the U.S.-led campaign in neighboring Afghanistan, the United States and European Union have significantly increased their cooperation with and aid to Uzbekistan. Increased engagement has, at times, led to more international scrutiny of Uzbekistan's human rights record, and international attention to individual cases of abuse. United States supplementary aid to the Uzbek government is now conditional on "substantial and continuing progress" in the field of human rights, and the Bush administration must certify every six months that this condition is being fulfilled. However, the U.S. has failed to take advantage of this leverage to influence Uzbekistan's human rights practices, and sometimes has exaggerated Uzbekistan's progress in meeting the human rights commitments included in the U.S.-Uzbek Joint Declaration in March 2002.
In mid-2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell again certified that substantial and continuing progress had been made in the field of human rights, although he noted that "[t]he Government of Uzbekistan's human rights record remained very poor and it continued to commit serious abuses." In December the State Department decertified Uzbekistan under the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) assistance program, due to the government's human rights record. The assistance, targeted for the dismantling of weapons of mass destruction, will continue to flow to the Uzbek government under a presidential national security waiver.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United Nations Development Program, and individual countries with representations in Tashkent actively participated in discussions on the National Action Plan to combat torture. Many of these interlocutors have promised financial and other support to implement the recommendations of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development set out benchmarks for improvements in human rights and the economy in its yearly country strategy for Uzbekistan, published in March 2003. The Bank indicated that, unless credible steps were taken by the government to fulfill the benchmarks within a year, it would reduce its involvement in the country. During the year, high-ranking bank officials made several visits to the country to assess progress on the benchmarks. The Bank is expected to publish a progress report in March 2004.