Wednesday

16th Jan 2019

Opinion

Slick PR and the real story in Uzbekistan

  • Karimov with EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton in Tashkent in 2012 (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

In Uzbekistan, as elsewhere, money can buy you publicity.

In mid-September a London based PR agency made an appeal to “Free Gulnara NOW” claiming that Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbek president Islam Karimov, was “under house arrest” and “being held for purely political reasons”.

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It’s been a swift fall from grace for the one-time glamorous jet-setter, who apparently clashed with enemies close to her authoritarian father. Just like anyone else, her rights should be protected.

Given that she long supported and represented Uzbekistan’s brutal government however, her call for the “international community to uphold the rule of law (in Uzbekistan)” regarding her case, while legitimate, is ironic at best.

But appeals from victims without PR companies get less attention.

Take the late human rights activist Abdurasul Khudoynazarov, known for combatting corruption before authorities sentenced him to nine years on trumped-up extortion charges. Khudoynazarov, who was tortured, sought fruitlessly to get essential medical treatment for over eight years while behind bars.

Rights campaigners were surprised when authorities suddenly released him in May—until it became clear why.

His release came the same day that prison doctors diagnosed him with advanced liver cancer. He died just 26 days later.

Then there’s opposition figure Rustam Usmanov, jailed since 1998 on various bogus charges. Days before he was to be released after 12 years in prison, his term was extended for five years for “violations of prison rules”.

In November 2012, profoundly depressed, Usmanov passed a handkerchief to his son during a prison visit, on which he had written in blood, “SOS! 15 years of waiting for the Court! Try me or Kill me!”

Cases like these abound in Uzbekistan, where thousands of people are in prison following flawed prosecutions on political or religious grounds, locked away on fabricated charges or ill-defined legal claims of “anti-constitutional activity” or “religious extremism.”

We have documented the cases of 34 of these prisoners for a new report: Until the Very End: Politically Motivated Imprisonment in Uzbekistan.

They include human rights activists, journalists, opposition politicians, religious figure and others. Many were leaders in their fields, uncovering corruption, seeking democratic reforms or promoting innovation in the arts or culture.

Many have suffered terrible torture - beaten, given electric shocks, hung by their wrists and ankles, or suffocated with gas masks.

Some were kidnapped from other countries by Uzbekistan’s security service, hauled back to Uzbekistan and given long prison terms.

Uzbekistan regularly extends the terms of people imprisoned on political charge on arbitrary, even farcical grounds. The sentence for Murod Juraev, an opposition figure imprisoned since 1994, has been extended four times, most recently in 2012 for infractions that include “incorrectly peeling carrots” in the prison kitchen.

The Uzbek government, relying on its geo-strategic importance, has been able to resist international pressure to release people imprisoned on politically motivated charges or to undertake other, much-needed human rights reforms.

Since 9/11 and during the war in neighbouring Afghanistan, Tashkent has presented itself as an ally in the “War on Terror,” most recently assisting the US and European countries with military supply routes through its territory to Afghanistan.

In August, the German government said it was in talks with Tashkent on the continued use of the Termez base in Uzbekistan after this year’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Yet Uzbekistan’s political leadership appears increasingly unstable, which the Karimova episode highlights. There is no evidence that Karimov, 76, and in his 25th year in power, has succession plans.

The EU and its member states go through the motions in raising concerns about human rights with Tashkent but this is clearly not enough. The UK, for instance, defines Uzbekistan as a "country of concern" on human rights, but prefers backroom diplomacy to public pressure.

The EU has spent millions of euros in Uzbekistan in recent years on training programmes to improve the ‘rule of law’.

Yet it has resisted using its leverage to secure concrete human rights improvements, despite the calls for human rights reform outlined by EU foreign ministers in 2010.

This is in stark contrast to the EU’s much-hailed pledge in its landmark Strategic Framework on human rights adopted in 2012, to place human rights at the centre of EU foreign policy “without exception.”

Clearly, the EU needs a more robust and principled approach to improving human rights in Uzbekistan, including time-bound benchmarks and concrete policy consequences such as visa bans and asset freezes for officials found to be responsible for severe rights abuses. The EU should also press the UN Human Rights Council to establish a monitoring mechanism for Uzbekistan.

More effective pressure on Tashkent could help end the terrible abuses being suffered in Uzbekistan - by those with PR agents, and those without.

Hugh Williamson and Steve Swerdlow are Europe and Central Asia specialists at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based NGO

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