Despite increasing pressure from Uzbek authorities on independent journalists and human rights advocates, Vasila Inoyatova, chair of the non-governmental group Ezgulik (Mercy), is among the civic leaders of Uzbekistan determined to continue working, the activist said in a recent interview with EurasiaNet in Warsaw.
As the Uzbek government is cracking down on activists, Inoyatova is concerned that Western governments have grown weaker in their protests, forced to cooperate with Uzbekistan in the interests of energy and security, particularly in the maintenance of the Northern Distribution Network to enable supplies to NATO's troops in Afghanistan.
Last week, Inoyatova attended the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Review Conference in Warsaw, hoping to draw attention to a number of cases, including libel charges her own group is facing related to the same case for which human rights monitor Sukrat Ikhramov was sentenced. The OSCE Centre in Tashkent was able to support her airfare, but before her departure, an official of the Centre warned her "not to be emotional" and to watch what she said -- a message the Kazakh chair-in-office delegation reinforced by telling NGOs at the conference “not to defame the state”.
Inoyatova appeared calm as she described a recent event that had hit close to home -- the slashing of her son, Jamshid, in a road-rage incident that authorities appear to have exploited. Inoyatova is concerned that Jamshid, who also works for Ezgulik, may not regain the full use of his hand. Police claimed her son was intoxicated, but Inoyatova countered that he was fasting for Ramadan and preparing for an international boxing event, and was able to beat back the false charges -- this time.
Ezgulik is the only human rights group in Uzbekistan to have been registered-- due to international advocacy. "Ezgulik's registration is a way to keep tabs on us," says Inoyotova. Despite constant pressure, officials aren't likely to close Ezgulik, as they like to be able to claim they tolerate such NGOs. Even so, the group has constant troubles particularly with its local chapters, which have not been registered, and local administrations often cite pretexts to prevent meetings.
In a worsening human rights climate, Ezgulik has plenty of work. "About 80 percent of the complaints that Ezgulik gets are related to police brutality and abuses by the Ministry of State Security and the Prosecutor General's office, including the use of torture," says Inoyatova. Ezgulik took up the case of Rayhon Soatova, a woman reportedly raped by police in pre-trial detention, and has continued to urge police to publicize the results of DNA testing. Ezgulik has worked on behalf of political prisoners such as Dilmorad Sayid, a journalist imprisoned on false charges who is ill with tuberculosis, and who also suffered the loss of his wife and child in a car accident on their way to visit him.
Last summer, Ezgulik monitored the plight of refugees who fled from neighboring Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan. “Primarily women and children fled from Osh region, as men did not risk coming into Uzbekistan,” says Inoyatova. She was concerned with how rapidly the refugees were forced to return home, with Uzbek government guides assigned to take them back to the Kyrgyz border. According to information she received, when flyers from the banned Hizb-ut-Tahir organization were allegedly found in the camps, the government became concerned about refugees fueling unrest in Andijan, and hastened their return.
Inoyatova herself attempted to go to Osh on September 23, but was stopped by Kyrgyz border authorities. She was held for five hours, and her mobile phone and documents were taken. Finally she was released, and told that she could only enter Kyrgyzstan if the Kyrgyz Embassy in Tashkent issued an invitation.
In Uzbekistan, leaders of human rights groups and independent publications have increasingly been on trial. Where once the tactic was to accuse them of religious extremism, says Inoyatova, lately the authorities have resorted to additional means to discredit them, such as planting cash on them and accusing them of embezzlement, or trumping up libel cases. Uzbek activists rely on colleagues abroad to take up their plight.
"I was saved by Human Rights Watch," said Inoyatova, when she was freed from detention and honored at the organization's annual event some years ago. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other groups were expelled from Uzbekistan after protests against the Andijan massacre in 2005. Now authorities are hinting that HRW, the American Bar Association and others might be welcomed back, but their staff have not yet been granted visas.
With the number of court cases mounting and without the presence of international groups, Inoyatova says the role of the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent as well as other foreign embassies has been increasingly important for protection. Yet the outreach appears to have fallen short lately. "I have not been invited to the U.S. Embassy in nine months, " Inoyatova commented, saying that other human rights activists she knew had not been invited either.
Although in July, U.S. officials visited some activists at their homes, Inoyatova feels it is important to hold events at the Embassy. "It is harder to disrupt an event there, and we can speak freely," she said, adding that official invitations help validate their work. She hopes that Ambassador George Krol, the new U.S. envoy nominated for Tashkent, will start up such activities again soon.
In the last year, the human rights community in Uzbekistan has also keenly felt the loss of attorneys who were willing to take up controversial political cases. "The government has wanted to purge the bar," says Inoyatova, referring to a reorganization process that brought the formerly independent bar associations under the direct control of the Ministry of Justice, and forced lawyers to re-take the bar exam, arbitrarily disqualifying some. Virtually no civil rights attorneys remain, she says.
Inoyatova believes the worsening human rights situation in Uzbekistan is tied to the European Union's dropping of sanctions, and the increasing cooperation of the U.S. with the Uzbek government. "The international investigation of the Andijan events is now off the EU and U.S. agenda, despite lack of fulfillment by [President Islam] Karimov,” she said.
Looking at the prospects for improvement in human rights in Central Asia, Inoyatova also believes that until the generation of "first secretaries of the Communist Party" has passed, i.e. leaders such as Karimov and Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who have been in power since the Soviet era, there is not likely to be significant change. The Central Asian leaders are also "like Siamese twins," she said, reinforcing each others' tendencies to run repressive systems.
Inoyatova does not want to see her country isolated. But what she is hoping that with increased visits from Western leaders, human rights will not fall off the negotiating table. "Each time someone visits, they should have least have some cases of journalists and human rights activists to raise, and [the government] might let out a few prisoners then," she suggested.