Andrew Stroehlein: Letter to Gulnara Karimova
Gulnara Karimova makes like she knows nothing about torture - only dresses, yoga and jewelry.
After an exchange on Twitter with Gulnara Karimova, Andrew Stroehlein, Communications Director at International Crisis Group, has written an open letter to the daughter of the Uzbek president. He highlights human rights violations, including the lack of political freedom and imprisonment of civil society activists, torture, forced labour, the Andijan massacre and restrictions on freedom of expression. Andrew Stroehlein calls on Gulnara Karimova as Uzbekistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva to address these issues.
Following our Twitter conversation last week, I am sending below the details of some human rights issues in Uzbekistan which can and should be addressed. All these matters fall under your purview as Uzbekistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva.
Given the nature and scale of the problem, it is difficult to know where to begin with this, but what I’ve tried to do below is highlight some general issues, provide lists of some individuals and then go into greater detail for a few of their cases. I hope you will look into these matters and the specific cases mentioned and respond appropriately as you promised to do.
Of course, these are just a few examples of human rights abuses in Uzbekistan that are all too common and that that deserve to be addressed. If we start with these and make some progress, perhaps you would look in to other cases as well.
In preparing this text, I have relied on detailed reporting from United Nations bodies, government reports on human rights practices, and the reports of leading human rights groups. I have quoted from them extensively and linked to the original materials.
I hope this conversation and dialogue leads to some concrete improvements for the individual victims below.
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ISSUE 1: Complete Lack of Political Freedom and Imprisonment of Civil Society Activists
In the 20 years since Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union, there has not been a single election deemed even remotely “free and fair” by international monitoring bodies. According to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2011 report, President Islam Karimov uses “the dominant executive branch to repress all political opposition.” No genuine opposition political parties are allowed to participate in the political process, and political opponents of President Karimov have either been forced to flee the country or are languishing in prison. Uzbek authorities do not tolerate dissent of any kind; even tiny public demonstrations in Uzbekistan are ruthlessly suppressed.
As part of this intolerance of alternative views, the state has imprisoned dozens of human rights defenders, numerous journalists, political activists, and leading religious figures for no reason other than their legitimate and peaceful civil society activism. Recently, nine leading human rights organisations called on your government to release imprisoned human rights defenders and other peaceful activists from prison. The human rights defenders in prison are:
-- Solijon Abdurakhmanov
-- Azam Formonov
-- Mehrinisso Hamdamova
-- Zulhumor Hamdamova
-- Isroiljon Holdarov
-- Nosim Isakov
-- Gaibullo Jalilov
-- Abdurasul Khudoinazarov
-- Erkin Kuziev
-- Ganihon Mamatkhanov
-- Zafarjon Rahimov
-- Yuldash Rasulov
-- Dilmurod Saidov
-- Akzam Turgunov
-- Gulnaza Yuldasheva
Also, the journalist Jamshid Karimov was reported to have been released in 2011 from a psychiatric ward where he was forcibly confined but has disappeared, prompting fears that he was detained again and is being held incommunicado.
Several of these individuals are in serious ill health, and at least seven have suffered torture or ill-treatment in prison. United Nations (UN) bodies and a recent report by Human Rights Watch have found that torture and ill treatment are systematic and widespread in places of detention.
Other prominent writers, intellectuals, and opposition figures in jail on politically motivated charges include:
-- Isak Abdullaev
-- Azamat Azimov
-- Muhammad Bekjanov
-- Batyrbek Eshkuziev
-- Ruhiddin Fahruddinov
-- Khayrullo Hamidov
-- Bahrom Ibragimov
-- Murod Juraev
-- Davron Kabilov
-- Matluba Karimova
-- Samandar Kukanov
-- Jamol Kutliev
-- Mamadali Mahmudov
-- Gayrat Mehliboev
-- Yusuf Ruzimuradov
-- Rustam Usmanov
-- Ravshanbek Vafoev
-- Akram Yuldashev
We can examine the imprisonment of Human Rights Defender Akzam Turgunov in particular, as Foreign Policy magazine did recently, saying:
Turgunov, 60, has been detained since 2008. He founded Mazlum (“The Oppressed”), a human rights organisation in Tashkent that advocates on behalf of political prisoners and protests the use of torture. He also served as director of the Tashkent section of Erk (“Freedom”), an opposition party. Prior to his most recent detention, Turgunov was working as a lay public defender in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, investigating corruption of local officials. Turgunov was arrested on extortion charges by the very police department he was investigating for corruption. They then held him incommunicado for 18 days, during which time an officer poured boiling water down his back, causing him to lose consciousness and suffer severe burns. Though Turgunov revealed his burn marks in open court, the judge accepted police statements that they had tortured him, and also denied him the right to examine the evidence against him or to cross-examine witnesses. He is serving a 10-year sentence in a remote work camp, where he toils 12 hours a day making bricks. As a result of the detention, he weighs approximately 100 pounds (45 kilograms) and is in poor health. Prison officials ignore complaints about his health and deny him access to medical care. Many organizations and governments have called for Turgunov’s immediate and unconditional release including the United States, European Union, Freedom Now, International Federation for Human Rights, Frontline Defenders, and Human Rights Watch.REQUEST 1: Look into this issue, examine these specific cases, and actively use whatever influence you have to secure the immediate and unconditional release of all wrongfully imprisoned human rights defenders, journalists, members of the political opposition, and other activists held on politically motivated charges.
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ISSUE 2: Systematic Torture in Uzbekistan’s Police Stations and Prisons
As documented year after year by the U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, a number of UN monitoring bodies, and a range of international organisations, torture in Uzbekistan is widespread and systematic in all stages of the criminal justice system, and impunity for torture is the norm. Police and security agents use torture and ill-treatment to coerce detainees to implicate themselves or others, and confessions obtained under torture are often the sole basis for convictions. Judges routinely fail to investigate torture allegations that defendants make when they appear before court. Methods used include beatings with truncheons, electric shock, hanging by wrists and ankles, rape and sexual humiliation, asphyxiation with plastic bags and gas masks, and threats of physical harm to relatives. Credible reports about suspicious deaths in custody, believed to be a result of ill-treatment and torture, continue to emerge.
In its December 2011 report, “No One Left to Witness: The Failure of Habeas Corpus, and the Silencing of Lawyers in Uzbekistan”, Human Rights Watch examined one specific and particularly horrific case, which involves the gang rape of sisters in pre-trial custody in 2009. The Uzbek government’s failure to pursue justice for the victims illustrates the culture of impunity for torture that still persists in Uzbekistan despite the introduction of legal reforms.
Three sisters, Rayhon, Nargiza, and Khosiyat Soatova, were detained on May 9, 2009, after a physical altercation with the mistress of Nargiza’s husband. The sisters’ brother, Abdusamat Soatov, told Human Rights Watch:
On May 9 we gathered at our apartment for a family celebration like we do every year on the national holiday [Day of Memory and Remembrance]. Police showed up and arrested Nargiza, and an hour later more police came and took my two younger sisters. I went to the police station but they wouldn’t let me in to see my sisters, saying it was “closed for the holiday.” Around 8 p.m. a guard finally let me in and I was able to see the eldest sister, Nargiza, for about 10 minutes. She was crying and said she had been beaten up. I asked if she had seen our two sisters and she said ‘no.’ All the officers around us had been drinking.
Rayhon and Khosiyat were originally detained as witnesses and not as accomplices to any crime. All three sisters were later accused of being involved in the altercation and charged with robbery, intentional damage to property, and unlawful acquisition of documents. The three women were held overnight at the Mirzo-Ulugbek police station, questioned separately, and released in the evening on May 10, 2009. According to Abdusamat, Khosiyat requested a lawyer during questioning and police hit her with a criminal code book. The family was able to secure their temporary release the next day:
They let my sisters go at 8 p.m. that evening. Nargiza cried out that she had been raped and beaten at the police station. At first, I didn’t believe her but then she showed me bruises on her arms and legs. All of my sisters were crying hysterically.
According to family members, both Nargiza and Rayhon were raped that first night in custody. Rayhon told her family that two officers brought her upstairs from the basement cell where she was being held for further questioning. Rayhon remembered a tall man entering the room and calling her a prostitute. He and two other officers raped her before she lost consciousness. Rayhon also told her family that police threatened to rape her sister Khosiyat and then rape her if she did not write down exactly what they dictated to her.
Five days later, Nargiza, Khosiyat, and Nargiza were again placed under arrest and taken into custody and then brought before a court for a habeas corpus hearing. The court did not examine whether they had been tortured in pre-trial custody. The case was passed from the jurisdiction of the Mirzo-Ulugbek police station to the Tashkent City Department of Internal Affairs (GUVD).
Abdusamat stated that all three sisters were beaten and tortured again while in GUVD custody and were provided a state-appointed defense lawyer who openly assisted the prosecution:
Rayhon was raped …. while in a GUVD cell on June 24, 2009…. Umarkhonov suggested we hire a lawyer for the case and I went to speak with him. The lawyer told me that I should give them [the police] a lot of money. If I didn’t, he said, ‘things would be difficult for my sisters.’ The investigator and the lawyer were working together.
On September 22, 2009, Nargiza, Rayhon and Khosiyat Soatova were convicted of hooliganism and robbery and sentenced to between six and eight years in prison. Khosiyat was eventually freed but so badly beaten that she spent two months in a hospital recovering before being released on bail.
In October 2009, authorities of the UYa 64/TX prison, where Rayhon was serving her sentence, confirmed that she was 20 to 21 weeks pregnant, having conceived the child in mid-May 2009, which coincides with the time when she reported being raped by police officers. Rayhon gave birth on December 17, 2009, to a child roughly two months premature.
In response to calls for an investigation by the Soatov’s family and the human rights organisation Ezgulik (Goodness), authorities eventually opened a criminal case in January 2010 against twelve police officers. At that time, the UN special rapporteur on torture reiterated his request—outstanding for seven years—to be invited to Uzbekistan to investigate this case along with other torture allegations.
Four months later, however, the Uzbek government dropped the investigation, stating that Rayhon could not positively identify the perpetrators and that DNA evidence had failed to establish a connection between the alleged policemen and the baby. (“Charges Dropped Against Uzbek Police in Alleged Gang Rape”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 22, 2010, accessed August 28, 2011).
Uzbek authorities continue to refuse access to the country to the UN special rapporteur on torture.
Ezgulik and the Soatov family, however, believe that authorities dropped the investigation to cover-up the reality of torture in the country. Abdusamat and his family are still seeking answers. “Of course Rayhon had trouble identifying the men. She was traumatized and was in a dark room. We’ve written to the president, the prosecutor general, and the Senate. Nothing has been done.”
REQUEST 2: Look into torture and ill-treatment and the accompanying culture of impunity. Use whatever influence you have to implement in full the recommendations of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and the Committee Against Torture, and review the cases above specifically.
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ISSUE 3: Continued Lack of Cooperation with United Nations System of Special Procedures
Last month, in November, it was ten years since the then-Special Rapporteur on torture, Theo van Boven, was able to visit Uzbekistan as the first and, as it turns out, only Special Procedure to visit the country. Since then, no fewer than 11 other requests for visits have remained ignored.
Uzbekistan’s systematic failure to respond to requests for country visits addressed by Special Procedures makes it one of a very small number of states that have demonstrated such a low level of cooperation with the system of Special Procedures, and indeed with the UN as a whole. As of December 2012, Uzbekistan is the only country having denied access to 11 special procedures in almost 11 years.
The eleven UN special procedures who have requested such access include: the special rapporteurs on torture, on the situation of human rights defenders, on freedom of religion, on violence against women, on the independence of judges and lawyers, on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, on contemporary forms of slavery, on freedom of association and assembly, the Working Groups on arbitrary detention and on enforced disappearances.
As UN ambassador you have a responsibility to address the continued lack of cooperation demonstrated by the Uzbek government. We encourage you to allow all mandate holders with pending requests to visit Uzbekistan.
REQUEST 3: Use your influence and position as Uzbekistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva to ensure the country allows unhindered access for independent monitors, including UN special procedures that have been unable to visit due to the government’s refusal to issue the required invitations, and implement recommendations by independent monitoring bodies, including UN treaty bodies and special procedures.
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ISSUE 4: Forced Adult and Child Labour
Forced adult and child labour in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan remains a serious concern, despite a formal ban on child labour and the government’s ratification of two International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions against child labour. Information from throughout Uzbekistan’s cotton-growing regions shows that the government continues to orchestrate the mass mobilisation of children and adults to harvest cotton.
Each autumn, with the tacit endorsement of the government, local authorities direct the closure of primary, but increasingly, secondary schools in most areas and instruct local education departments to mobilise schoolchildren to harvest cotton, Uzbekistan’s main export commodity. Children and adults forced to help with the cotton harvest live in filthy conditions, contract illnesses, and work daily from early morning until evening for little or no money. Hunger, exhaustion, and heat stroke are common. In the meantime, the government continues to refuse access for monitors from International Labour Organization.
REQUEST 4: Speak out against forced adult and child labour in the cotton sector and use your influence to allow independent monitoring by the International Labour Organization, and involve independent nongovernmental organisations in assessments of forced labour and child welfare, particularly as they relate to the cotton sector.
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ISSUE 5: The Andijan Massacre
On May 13, 2005 Uzbek government forces fired into a crowd of mainly unarmed protesters in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan, killing hundreds. I have several good friends who were there on that day and witnessed these events first hand.
Ignoring repeated calls from the international community, including by the European Union, the Bush Administration, Senator John McCain, and other Members of the U.S. Congress, for an independent international investigation, Uzbek authorities instead sought to silence criticism by launching an intense crackdown in Andijan. Several hundred individuals who were convicted and sentenced in closed trials in 2005 and 2006 are believed to remain in prison serving lengthy sentences.
The Uzbek government continues vigorously to seek out and persecute anyone it deems to have a connection to or information about the Andijan events. Intense government pressure -- taking the form of interrogations, surveillance, ostracism, and in at least one case an overt threat to life -- has continued to generate new refugees from Andijan, years after the massacre. In April 2010, authorities sentenced to a 10-year prison term an Andijan refugee, Diloram Abdukodirova, who had returned to Uzbekistan following assurances to her family that she would not be harmed.
REQUEST 5: Use your influence to ensure accountability for the Andijan massacre and secure an international independent investigation, while ceasing harassment and other abuses of returned refugees and families of refugees who remain abroad.
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ISSUE 6: Restrictions on Freedom of Expression
Uzbek authorities severely restrict both freedom of information and freedom of expression. Websites containing information on sensitive issues or that are critical of the government are routinely blocked within Uzbekistan. The few independent journalists who continue to work in the country do so at great risk and are forced to self-censor due to harassment and threats of imprisonment. (Pervasive self-censorship driven by fear of the secret police was a key theme of a speech I delivered at a conference in Tashkent in 2008.)
At least ten journalists are in prison simply for doing their job. In the last two years alone, Uzbek authorities are known to have used spurious criminal defamation charges to silence at least five journalists. In October 2010, for example, Abdumalik Boboev, a correspondent for Voice of America, was convicted of defamation, insult, and preparation or dissemination of materials that threaten public security. He was fined $11,000—a very large fine by local standards. Ironically, he had reported on restrictions on freedom of expression, arbitrary detentions, and unfair trials of journalists and human rights defenders.
REQUEST 6: Speak out clearly in favour of freedom of expression in Uzbekistan and use whatever influence you have to protect journalists there from state harassment and imprisonment, and lift restrictions on websites routinely blocked by the state.
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ISSUE 7: Access for Expelled International Organisations and Media Outlets
Since 2004, the Uzbek government has expelled or forced the closure of numerous international organisations and media outlets, including Freedom House, Counterpart International, and the American Bar Association. It has also prevented most international news agencies from reporting in the country, forcing out Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and many others. The government also continues to deny access to UN Special Rapporteurs, eleven of whom have sought country visits. (see issue 3 above)
There is only one active registered independent domestic human rights organisation in the country, Ezgulik and those operating without registration are subject to constant harassment. In its increasing crackdown on activists and journalists, Uzbek authorities, in March 2012, deported two well-known international journalists, the BBC’s Natalia Antelava and Viktoriya Ivleva of Novaya Gazeta, when they arrived at Tashkent international airport, attempting to visit the country. On February 8, 2012, the government-controlled bar association upheld a lower commission’s ruling to disbar one of the country’s leading human rights lawyers, Ruhiddin Komilov.
The expulsion of Human Rights Watch is a case of particular interest. In March 2011, the government closed Human Rights Watch’s Tashkent office, bringing to an end the 15-year-long presence of the last remaining international human rights monitoring organisation in the country. The U.S. State Department, the European Union, the European Parliament, and numerous international and local human rights groups have expressed concern about the impact the forced closure of Human Rights Watch has on Uzbekistan’s beleaguered and increasingly isolated community of human rights activists, who continue to face unrelenting harassment, intimidation, threats or worse simply for pursuing their human rights activities.
Uzbekistan is the only country in Human Rights Watch’s 34-year history in which the government has forced the closure of one of its permanent field offices. In December 2010, the Uzbek government denied accreditation to Human Rights Watch’s Tashkent office director, making it impossible to maintain a continuous presence in Uzbekistan. Since 2004, as with many other international organisations and media outlets, Uzbek authorities have obstructed Human Rights Watch’s work by denying visas and/or accreditation to virtually every single Human Rights Watch staff member, even threatening criminal charges against one. Even short-term visas have only been granted after many months of delay.
Uzbek government claims that Human Rights Watch ignores Uzbek legislation follow years of similar excuses to deny accreditation. This reasoning is implausible and used as a pretext to prevent Human Rights Watch, like many other organisations, from maintaining a presence in the country. Human Rights Watch has not abandoned investigating human rights abuses in Uzbekistan and continues to expose human rights problems in Uzbekistan.
REQUEST 7: Use your influence to ensure the country allows domestic and international human rights organisations to operate without government interference, including by promptly re-registering those that have been liquidated or otherwise forced to cease operating in Uzbekistan, and issuing visas and accreditation for staff of international nongovernmental organisations, including Human Rights Watch. Grant visas to international journalists, and allow media outlets to report freely from within the country.