Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Opinion

What will the Uzbeks say about us in their Tahrir Square?

  • Tashkent statue. Swerdlow: 'Many broke down in tears describing in graphic detail the torture of their loved ones' (Photo: wikipedia)

The dramatic developments in Egypt's Tahrir square and across the Middle East should make Western policy-makers think twice about the wisdom of long-term, unconditional support for hardened autocracies. I just spent two months in one - Uzbekistan.

As with Egypt, Western countries have significant security and energy interests there. This Central Asian state borders Afghanistan, allows non-lethal cargo to be transported through its territory for the Nato-led war effort and hosts a German air base. Uzbekistan also has a longstanding authoritarian president - Islam Karimov - who has ruled the country with an iron fist for 22 years.

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Uzbekistan is one of the most repressive states to emerge from the Soviet Union 20 years ago.

Torture in custody is rampant. There hasn't been a single election deemed even remotely 'free and fair' by monitoring bodies. At least 13 human rights defenders and numerous journalists and opposition figures languish in prison on bogus charges. The government has imprisoned thousands of Islamic 'extremists,' a label it applies arbitrarily to people it wants to silence. The government annually forces tens of thousands of schoolchildren to pick the country's cotton harvest. In 2005, the Uzbek authorities shot and killed hundreds of protesters, most of them unarmed.

Western countries, keen to protect their interests, have no appetite to see the Uzbek government bear any economic, diplomatic, or political consequences for its atrocious human rights record. Their strategy instead has largely been so-called "constructive engagement" and quiet diplomacy in the hope that this alone might bring about some positive change.

On 24 January the European Union's leadership held its first meeting with Karimov, in Brussels. To his credit, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso raised human rights issues, but the question is what will come next. I hope it won't be more quiet diplomacy, because I had a front-row seat in Tashkent to see the disastrous consequences of that policy.

Dozens of Uzbek citizens risked retribution to meet with me, and many broke down in tears describing in graphic detail the torture of their loved ones.

One unforgettable story came from Farkhod Mukhtarov, a human rights defender who had been wrongfully imprisoned in 2009 and was just released. Farkhod showed me the position he was forced to squat in as guards kicked him and other inmates in the head as part of the prison intake procedure.

Several years ago Uzbekistan adopted what it called habeas corpus reform at the behest of the international community. Habeas corpus means that a person has a right to have an impartial court review the basis of the person's detention. The hope was that this would help prevent torture. Eager to have something to show for their engagement, Western policy makers have heartily praised Uzbekistan for its "success" with habeas reform.

But I found that in several cases the authorities had not even brought detainees to the hearings, robbing habeas corpus (which means "show the body") of any meaning. Presiding judges ignore complaints about torture.

I also met with some of the courageous lawyers who were the architects of habeas corpus reform. A little more than a year after the law was passed, however, most were disbarred because they had dared to take on politically sensitive cases.

I also met several human rights defenders and journalists who had staged tiny demonstrations for democratic freedoms, only to be detained within 15 minutes and slapped with prohibitive fines. Just minutes after I had left the home of one activist, police called her, demanding: "Why were you meeting with Steve Swerdlow from Human Rights Watch? What did you tell him?"

Maybe none of this is surprising. Uzbekistan is, after all, a hard-core authoritarian state. More surprising - and alarming - is Western policymakers' belief that dialogue alone will bring about human rights improvements there. One EU diplomat in Tashkent summed it up to me: "Our policy isn't to criticise the Uzbek government's human rights record. It's to help it improve."

Western leaders are now squirming because they supported Mubarak for so long, and are linked in Egyptians' minds with the former leader they so revile.

The West should act now to make sure they will not be in the same position in this key Central Asian country's future. Both Washington and Brussels should make clear to the Uzbek government that the relationship will go no further until the authorities free imprisoned activists, allow civil society and monitoring groups to function and end torture.

If the past week has taught us anything, it is that Western governments need to pursue human rights at least as aggressively as security, counter-terrorism and energy interests. One day soon Uzbeks may be demonstrating in their own version of Tahrir square, and when they do, they should view the West as a supporter of their fundamental human rights.

Steve Swerdlow is Uzbekistan researcher for Human Rights Watch

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