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Central Asia Report: December 12, 2003


12 December 2003, Volume 3, Number 42

UZBEK GOVERNMENT BANS CONFERENCE ON DEATH PENALTY... Three recent interconnected news stories about Uzbekistan have again thrust that country's poor democratization record to the fore. Although President Islam Karimov's regime is no stranger to bad publicity, there were notable features about this latest spate. For a start, it comes at a sensitive time. It has refocused doubts about Uzbekistan's commitment to political reforms -- in particular, to meet a spring 2004 deadline to fulfill human rights benchmarks established earlier this year by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and made a condition for the bank's continued support. It is also one month since U.S. President George Bush, in a speech at the National Endowment for Democracy on 7 November, criticized past decades of tolerating repression practiced by Muslim governments allied with America. On 8 December, the magazine "One World," while noting that Bush omitted any reference to Uzbekistan, commented that Karimov's intransigence regarding reform was becoming "embarrassing not only to the Bush administration...but to Western Europe as well."

The Uzbek authorities also managed to generate bad publicity last week by their crude efforts to avoid it -- suppressing a human rights conference in such a clumsy way that the regime's public-relations and political ineptitude turned into a story by itself.

An international conference on the death penalty in Uzbekistan, which was scheduled to take place in Tashkent on 5 December, was blocked at the 11th hour by the government. A local nongovernmental group called Mothers Against the Death Penalty and Torture, headed by Tamara Chikunova, had organized the conference. The British Embassy in Uzbekistan, the American rights group Freedom House, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had co-sponsored it. Around 100 human rights activists, diplomats, journalists, officials from international organizations, and representatives of religious and legal groups had been invited to participate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2003). But two days before the scheduled opening, the venue (the Radisson SAS hotel in Tashkent) became unavailable; hotel representatives told Chikunova they could not accommodate the conference because neither the hotel nor their organization were properly registered with the government, AP reported on 5 December. The next day the National Center for Human Rights, a governmental body under the presidential administration, confirmed that a ban had been put on the conference, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) said on 9 December.

Mothers Against the Death Penalty and Torture applied for registration with the Justice Ministry in 2002 but was rejected. The group reapplied in January 2003 under the name Mothers Against Crimes Against the Individual but reportedly never received a reply, despite a legal requirement that the ministry accept or reject applications within two months. In any case, the authorities were informed of plans for the meeting almost one year ago, according to the OSCE, so they could have stepped in long ago to stop it.

The fact that the government did not act sooner implies that it was in two minds about the conference up to the last minute -- more precisely, the contending views were pretty equally balanced until, in all probability, a tie-breaking decision came from the top. Capital punishment is a sensitive subject in Uzbekistan. In recent months international watchdog groups have been stepping up their attacks on the way it is administered, and on endemic corruption in the Uzbek judicial system, widely seen to be marred by rigged trials and confessions extracted under torture. The U.K.-based watchdog Amnesty International, in an 18 November report titled "Justice Only in Heaven: The Death Penalty in Uzbekistan," stated that it was "irresponsible" to apply the death penalty under such a flawed justice system. Meanwhile, Karimov has insisted that the country's policy on the death penalty "is fully in keeping with world processes and consistently reflects the principle of humanism embedded in the Constitution of Uzbekistan" (see "Uzbekistan: Amnesty Report Accuses Government Of Death Penalty Abuses," rferl.org, 19 November 2003). The Mothers Against the Death Penalty and Torture addressed an open letter to Karimov in September in which they pleaded for a suspension of the death penalty on religious and moral grounds. But they have also denounced the secrecy that pertains to executions in Uzbekistan, where families are not permitted to visit convicted relatives on death row, are not informed of the date of execution (although this is required by Uzbek law), are never returned the bodies, and are not even told where they are buried. Human rights groups estimate that some 200-400 people are executed annually in Uzbekistan but the figures are officially kept secret.

Yet as IWPR commented on 9 December, the regime could have reaped some benefits by permitting the conference to take place. It would have backed up oft-repeated claims that political liberalization is proceeding apace. It would also have given the government an opportunity to describe progress in responding to some of the concerns raised by local human rights activists and the international community. In the past three years, at least 11 death sentences in Uzbekistan have been lowered to prison terms. In 1994, 13 crimes carried the death penalty; that number was later reduced to eight, and in 2001 Uzbekistan amended its Criminal Code to narrow the range of crimes punishable by the death penalty from eight to four, including first-degree murder and terrorism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 October 2001). More recently the authorities have announced the intention to abolish the death penalty in stages.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan showed it could be done by hosting a similarly sensitive conference on 8-9 December. Titled, "The Fight Against Torture: The Role of Judges and Prosecutors in Preventing Torture," it was held in the city of Almaty and attended by delegates from across the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Kazakh Commercial Television reported. Participants discussed incidences of torture in CIS countries, including Kazakhstan, where last year 95 policemen were charged with violating detainees' rights, and six imprisoned for torture, the television said. In contrast to the aborted meeting in Uzbekistan, reported internationally thanks to the government's efforts to suppress it, the licensed conference in Kazakhstan happened peacefully and passed virtually unnoticed. But, as IWPR editorialized, "when finally faced with the choice of allowing a public debate on a tricky subject, or stopping it and getting a bad press, [Uzbek] government officials opt for the latter."

...AS LAWYERS PROTEST JUDICIAL CORRUPTION. Attacks on capital punishment in Uzbekistan are intertwined with a view of the country's judicial system as profoundly corrupt. While that view is common among observers outside Uzbekistan it is rare to hear it voiced from the inside. Therefore it was remarkable when over 400 lawyers in Tashkent declared a strike from 3 to 13 December to protest the interference of state prosecutors, judges, Interior Ministry officials, and the National Security Service to hamper the work of defenders and obstruct the course of justice. According to Surat Ikramov, head of the Initiative Group of the Independent Human Rights Activists of Uzbekistan, the striking lawyers were also protesting their low pay: the average monthly wage of a state attorney is 8,000 soms (about $8). The strikers said they were also angered by the constant flouting of the Criminal Procedural Code by prosecutors who questioned accused persons in the absence of their lawyers, by the falsification of investigation and court records, and by unjust sentences handed down in the courts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2003).

IMPRISONED JOURNALIST WINS PRESS FREEDOM AWARD. Lawyer and activist Ikramov has also been in the news in recent months as the legal representative for imprisoned journalist and rights defender Ruslan Sharipov, widely regarded to have been jailed for political reasons. Twenty-five-year-old Sharipov is the founder of the Union of Independent Journalists of Uzbekistan. Openly gay, he was sentenced to five years in prison in August on charges of homosexuality, which officially is a crime in Uzbekistan although the law was never invoked before, and corruption of minors. The latter charge was subsequently dropped and his sentence was reduced to four years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 August 2003), Meanwhile, in late August Ikramov was reportedly kidnapped from a Tashkent street by three masked men who tied him up, beat him, and dumped him outside the city; Uzbek authorities have never prosecuted those responsible (see "RFE/RL (Un)civil Societies Report, 3 September 2003). Now Sharipov has received the 2004 Golden Pen of Freedom award from the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers (WAN), according to its website (http://www.wan-press.org). Sharipov was honored for his promotion of press freedom and "courageous resistance to attacks, torture, and constant harassment under President Islam Karimov's repressive regime." The award is to be presented at the World Newspaper Congress in Istanbul in May 2004. In its citation, WAN's board said that Sharipov has faced unspeakable hardships because he refused to stop criticizing the Uzbek government in his writings, or to end his human rights work (see "Uzbekistan: Imprisoned Journalist Awarded Top Press-Freedom Prize," rferl.org, 28 November 2003).

KARIMOV SLAMS INTERNATIONAL RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS. Taken collectively, internal developments in Uzbekistan over the last six months indicate a deterioration of the political situation, according to a 6 December statement by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), with last week's move to block the death-penalty conference described as "just another example in a long list of setbacks for fulfilling the human rights benchmarks set by the EBRD earlier this year." Amnesty International also condemned the ban in a release on 5 December, saying, "This step shows yet again how freedom of expression is curtailed in Uzbekistan." Yet in March, the EBRD adopted a country strategy for Uzbekistan that specified three benchmarks to be met within one year: greater political openness and freedom of the media, registration, and free functioning of independent civil society groups, and implementation of the recommendations of Theo von Boven, the UN's special rapporteur on torture. Moreover, at its annual Board of Governors meeting in May in Tashkent, the EBRD made continued support for Uzbekistan conditional on improving its democratization and human rights record. However, on 25 November a report by HRW, titled "Uzbekistan: No Progress on EBRD Benchmarks" and posted at its website (http://hrw.org) concluded, "More than halfway through the one-year deadline set by the EBRD there is virtually no change on the ground."

Karimov utterly contradicted such an assessment when addressing the nation on 5 December in his annual commemoration of Uzbekistan's Constitution Day three days later, carried by Uzbek TV. Karimov described steady liberalizing measures on the political and economic front, growing national prestige on the global arena, and social and spiritual unity. The sense of unity was the major theme of his speech. Since 2003 has been dubbed "The Year of the Mahalla" (mahallas are Uzbekistan's traditional, closely-knit neighborhoods), the president, as expected, elaborated on their social virtues.

More surprisingly, however, he lashed out at length at "foreign human rights groups" that criticized mahallas, allegedly out of ignorance of Uzbek history and mentality, and more generally try to undermine Uzbekistan because "the only thing they know how to do is to keep heaping up criticism." (A September HRW report titled "From House to House: Abuses by Mahalla Committees," charged that local neighborhood structures had been co-opted by the regime and functioned as instruments of state control, complicit in a host of human rights abuses mainly against independent Muslims.) "Rights organizations have stepped out of line," Karimov fumed. "They don't obey anybody but are earning their bread by criticizing everyone." The president went on to analogize such organizations to religious groups peddling their sets of beliefs and trying to force them on others. "Sometimes I debate with foreigners, who lecture me and want to convert me to their religion. By religion, I am speaking in the broad sense of the word. They are trying to prove that their path is the right one and that their standards should be implemented here. But I consider it my duty to say that I was born to my parents as a Muslim, and I will die a Muslim. I will not obey anyone else's rules," Karimov concluded.

Meanwhile, a survey taken by the nominally nongovernmental polling center Ijtimoy Fikr (Public Opinion) allegedly showed that 60 percent of citizens felt the law protected them from any possible violations of their rights, the Uzbek National News Agency reported on 3 December. An "absolute majority" regarded Karimov as the prime guarantor of the constitution and of their rights and freedoms. The report did not indicate the size of survey sample.

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