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Uzbekistan: Activist Case Underscores Differences Among Rights Groups

  • Bruce Pannier

The recent hospitalization of an Uzbek human rights worker for alleged mental illness underscores the big differences that can exist among organizations claiming to protect human rights. Yelena Urlaeva, who works with a nongovernmental rights group, was committed to a mental hospital not long after protesting plans by the city of Tashkent to knock down houses to build a road. But far from protesting Urlaeva's detention, official rights groups have publicly upheld the questionable diagnosis of "paranoid schizophrenia." RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier talked with international rights groups about the unusual case.

Prague, 19 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, a local human rights activist in Uzbekistan was put in a psychiatric hospital, allegedly suffering from mental illness.

This week, another local human rights activist said she deserves to be there.

It's a strange case that one international human rights group says recalls the "ugliest Soviet repression against the dissidents of the 1970s." It also demonstrates that there are different types of human rights organizations, at least in Uzbekistan.

Yelena Urlaeva is an activist at the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, a nongovernmental organization. She is an energetic rights campaigner, who has often caught the attention of authorities in Uzbekistan, where public displays of dissatisfaction are not well tolerated.

Last month, Urlaeva was demonstrating with a handful of others outside the mayor of Tashkent's office against plans to knock down houses to build a new road. The group declared a hunger strike and vowed to return to the mayor's office every day. Their protests ultimately proved futile as the houses were razed.

On 6 April, the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch, known as HRW, says Urlaeva was arrested as she left her home. She was then beaten at a police station and taken to a psychiatric hospital. A doctor at the hospital said Urlaeva was suffering from mental illness and would probably not be released soon.

Cassandra Cavanaugh, a senior researcher in the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, says under Uzbek law, Urlaeva could be hospitalized for a long time.

"Forced psychiatric treatment can go on for, really, what is an undefined length of time. All the law mandates is that within a month of someone's forced commitment there has to be a another medical commission to review the person's condition and then six months thereafter."

Though a human rights activist herself, Urlaeva had sought support from official organizations in her campaigns. She told RFE/RL last month that she had been to Uzbekistan's national human rights center, a government-funded organization. She also attempted to see Saera Rashidova, the official parliamentary human rights ombudsman. Urlaeva told RFE/RL she later decided not to speak to the ombudsman because she said people who complained to the ombudsman were being thrown out of the office or committed to psychiatric hospitals.

This week (17 April), Rashidova said publicly that Urlaeva was suffering from "paranoid schizophrenia" and had often exhibited odd behavior. The head of Uzbekistan's national human rights center, Akhmal Saidov, echoed that opinion, saying that if doctors at the psychiatric hospital had decided Urlaeva was mentally ill, then the diagnosis was right.

Urlaeva's colleague at the nongovernmental Uzbekistan Human Rights Society, Secretary-General Tolib Yakubov, disputes the claims of the official organizations. According to an HRW press release of 12 April, Yakubov said the physician who performed the initial interview with Urlaeva said she was healthy and should not be hospitalized. He says Uzbekistan's psychiatric hospitals function much as they did in Soviet times -- to protect the regime.

Cavanaugh says she is not surprised at the comments of government-backed human rights workers.

"These are government officials, and although sometimes because they run what are nominally human rights organizations, outsiders may expect them to be first and foremost advocates for the rights of Uzbek citizens. We have to remember that, as government representatives, their first obligation is to stand by the position of the government in their public statements. Very rarely, if ever, have they advanced any criticism of the Uzbek government's human rights performance."

Saidov also spoke about international criticism of Uzbekistan's human rights record. He said a recent report on Uzbekistan by the United Nations Human Rights Committee ignored progress the country has made and that "our critics tend to pursue their personal agendas."

The executive director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia division, Holly Cartner, said in a statement that Urlaeva's case "is another in a long list of government efforts to silence human rights activists and should be condemned by the international community in no uncertain terms."

(The Uzbek Service contributed to this report)