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Unity in the Face of Repression

(Washington, DC--August 30, 2005) Representatives of a group of human rights and independent media organizations held a roundtable discussion at RFE/RL last week to discuss responses to the deterioration of civil and human rights in Uzbekistan. The participants agreed there was a widespread crackdown against human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) by the Uzbek government, and that U.S.-based NGOs should not allow themselves to be intimidated by the current government's actions.

Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe & Central Asia Program of Human Rights Watch told the gathering that this widespread and "fiercest crackdown" was intended not just to "intimidate, but also eliminate any challenge from civil society [in Uzbekistan]." Denber said that since demonstrators were killed in Andijon on May 13, 2005 the government has established a "filtration process," where people in Uzbekistan are seemingly arrested at random, some beaten badly, and "coerced into signing statements." There have been a series of public displays of "public repentance," she said, which raises "concerns of due process for trials" in this post-Andijon environment in Uzbekistan. Denber noted that at least 7 human rights activists her organization works with have left the country, and others have been arrested.

George Papagiannis, Director of Media Development, Internews Network, updated his organization's status in Uzbekistan and described the "irregularities" of the "closed court" proceedings against Internews. Two local staff have been found guilty recently of producing and distributing video programs and written material on behalf of Internews without a license, but were given suspended sentences by the Uzbek court. Internews is appealing the government's decision of August 2004 to freeze Internews bank accounts, as well as close its office. Papagiannis said that the Uzbek government has been harassing independent media and the foreign press for some time, but the events of "Andijon accelerated the process." A "culture of fear" has been "created and promoted by the Uzbek government," he said, "and the future does not look bright."

Frank Smyth, Washington, DC Representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said that his organization had "never seen a case where foreign-funded broadcasters were harassed the way they are in Uzbekistan." He agreed that there is currently a "massive crackdown since Andijon," although CPJ had already identified Uzbekistan as one of the "worst observers of press freedom -- one of the worst abusers," in December 2004.

Adolat Najimova, until recently the Uzbek Service Director for RFE/RL, reported on the ongoing campaign of the Uzbek government against RFE/RL's Uzbek service, which includes "both physical and psychological attacks" against staff members, along with a smear campaign in the indigenous press and media. Najimova said the Uzbek government is conducting a "wide campaign to keep information from the [Uzbek] population," and noted that recent Uzbek State TV documentaries have criticized the West, particularly the United States, "even suggesting through visual images that the United States was behind the events in Andijon."

Lawrence Uzzell, President, International Religious Freedom Watch, presented the facts concerning the recent arrest and detention of Russian journalist Igor Rotar at Tashkent's airport where Uzbek security officials eventually deported Rotar to prevent him from reporting on events in the country. Uzzell said Uzbek officials threatened Rotar who regularly reports for IRFW on the state of religious freedom in Uzbekistan because, in their view, "no other foreign journalist has so blackened Uzbekistan's name." Uzzell expressed his organization's gratitude to Human Rights Watch, CPJ, and Radio Liberty for their help in defending Rotar's rights as a journalist. Uzzell also spoke of the "severe wave of persecutions" against Protestant congregations in Uzbekistan, and noted that the degree of repression against all believers warranted a designation of the Uzbekistan as a "country of particular concern," under United States law. Uzzell said that Uzbekistan's religious "crackdown" has resulted in designating "all unregistered religions as illegal," and the "only form of Islam which is tolerated is the State-sanctioned version."