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Uzbek Exiles, Activists Urge U.S. Pressure Over Political Prisoners

  • Carl Schreck

Uzbek President Islam Karimov during a recent China visit

Uzbek President Islam Karimov during a recent China visit

WASHINGTON -- Uzbek exiles and rights activists are urging the United States to press Uzbekistan over its political prisoners ahead of next year's presidential election in the Central Asian nation.

Exiled political activist Sanjar Umarov told an October 28 briefing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission that pressure from Washington could help secure the release of nearly three dozen political prisoners in Uzbekistan documented in a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.

“But that should only be the beginning,” Umarov, head of Uzbekistan's opposition Sunshine Coalition, told the briefing. “Many others unjustly jailed in Uzbekistan should be released. That will be a good and essential step toward national reconciliation.”

HRW said in its September 26 report that Uzbeks jailed on politically motivated charges are subjected to abysmal prison conditions and torture, including beatings, electric shock, simulated suffocation, threats of rape, and sexual humiliation.

HRW Central Asia researcher Steve Swerdlow said the rights group is calling on the United States and the European Union to “seriously consider” the establishment of a “special mechanism” at the UN Human Rights Council devoted to studying the rights situation in Uzbekistan, “in particular, also, the conditions for political prisoners.”

“One of the really disheartening and difficult aspects of this story is the West and how it has in some sense turned a blind eye to the abuses in Uzbekistan,” Swerdlow said.

U.S. officials have criticized the Karimov government’s rights record, though critics have said the issue has taken a secondary role to bilateral security cooperation, including the Northern Distribution Network -- a NATO supply line in and out of Afghanistan that passes through Russia and Central Asia.

Swerdlow said that with the “drawdown” of U.S.-led coalition troops in Afghanistan, HRW hopes the U.S. government “will more frequently raise the cases and the names of political prisoners in Uzbekistan.”

Umarov also asked for a strong U.S. statement ahead of the scheduled March 2015 presidential election in Uzbekistan making it clear that President Islam Karimov would violate the Uzbek constitution’s two-term presidential limit should he seek and secure reelection.

“We [are] not asking for arms. We [are] not asking for money. We are only asking for the statement of the State Department [that] they will not tolerate [the] reelection of Karimov,” said Umarov, who was jailed in 2006 on embezzlement and tax evasion that his supporters call politically motivated.

Umarov spoke alongside Aygul Bakjanov, daughter of journalist Muhammad Bekjanov, who has been imprisoned in Uzbekistan since 1999 after being kidnapped in Kyiv by Uzbek security forces, according to HRW.

In tearful testimony, she told of torture endured by her father during his incarceration and her family’s pain when his sentence was extended by five years in 2012 for allegedly violating prison rules.

Bakjanov stressed that her father, who fled the country during a wave of arrests following explosions in Tashkent that the government blamed on opposition forces, was a peaceful man and innocent of the accusations against him.

She concluded with an anecdote of how her father told her mother that he had met a fellow political prisoner that he considered a potential candidate for a husband for one of his daughters.

“He said [that] unfortunately in Uzbekistan, being a political prisoner is like a stamp of decency,” said Bakjanov, who resides with her family in the United States. “That means you’re a decent person if you’ve been a political prisoner. This is the sad state of Uzbekistan today.”