Uzbekistan will mark 30 years of independence since the collapse of the Soviet Union in September and in that time the country has watched its fortunes -- and its hopes for a free and democratic society -- rise and fall.
One person whose legacy is inextricably tied to those hopes and to cataloguing Uzbekistan’s darkest moments is Surat Ikramov -- chairman of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders -- who died in Tashkent on March 3 at age 77.
Human rights work in authoritarian contexts, and certainly in Uzbekistan, is a thankless and grueling slog. It is often more about bearing witness to continuous, mundane abuses and horrors than it is about dramatic speeches or courtroom drama. It is fundamentally about showing up, on a consistent basis -- about making sure that victims and survivors know you are there and will have their back.
This accurately describes the way Ikramov, alongside his beloved wife and partner Gulnora Faizieva, worked for more than two decades, documenting the government’s crackdown on peaceful religious believers, abuse committed by government officials, and the use of child labor in cotton fields.
They did this important work not from inside some grand government building but instead from inside their modest home in a mahalla (neighborhood) in Tashkent’s old city and within earshot of the ancient Khast Imom Mosque.
Over the years, the couple's home became a sort of pilgrimage for hundreds of families from villages and cities across Uzbekistan.
People came to report on repression, the arbitrary arrest of loved ones on trumped up charges, and harsh treatment in prisons. Persecuted and abandoned by officials at every level -- and often smeared as members of "extremist" sects -- they desperately sought someone who would listen.
Surat and Gulnora gave them a voice.
Rule With An Iron Fist
By the late 1990s, authoritarian Uzbek President Islam Karimov had all but eliminated the nascent political opposition and subjugated the religious establishment to his ironfisted rule.
Imams deemed too independent had largely been removed from their mosques, jailed, or even “disappeared” on a variety of grounds, such as refusing to follow the state’s strict prescriptions on religious practices, to praise Karimov in their sermons, or to heed the ban on using a loudspeaker for the call to prayer.
Following terrorist bombings that wracked Tashkent in February 1999, Karimov kicked the campaign into high gear, directing police and security services to arrest thousands of men sometimes for no other reason than that they were outwardly pious or had been spotted discussing religion with their peers.
Ikramov responded to the crisis, joining forces with the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center to keep tabs on arbitrary arrests, torture in detention, and later, the authorities’ particularly cruel practice of extending prison sentences for years for bogus “violations of prison rules.”
As the government’s repression heated up, Ikramov hunkered down. He became known for issuing dense memoranda on arrests of religious believers that embassies and human rights groups alike grew to rely on in the absence of reliable government data.
In 2003, three masked men in camouflage nearly beat Ikramov to death. Afterward they took him outside the city and dumped him by the side of the road.
The message of the attack was unmistakable: stop your human rights work.
It is at this moment that most activists in Ikramov’s shoes would have chosen to flee the country. Indeed, many did. And you cannot blame them. Human rights work in Uzbekistan was and unfortunately still is a dangerous profession.
But Ikramov stayed, increasing his output and becoming an indispensable source of information as Uzbekistan’s human rights picture worsened.
Human Rights Watch, where I worked until 2019, worked closely with Ikramov for many years, visiting his home on nearly every trip its officials made to Tashkent in the past decade.
'Devilish Sense Of Humor'
One could always be sure they would find Ikramov attentively seated at his long dining room table listening to society’s most vulnerable tell their stories, always holding a cigarette while his wife helpfully consulted court judgments, indictments, and other files.
In Uzbekistan’s famously divided civil society, accusations regularly fly around about why some activists are able to operate while others are run out of the country or put behind bars. Some people even speculated that Ikramov may have been “protected.”
But this is not what mattered to the numerous families he helped. Ikramov’s religious-prisoner lists were regularly consulted by any diplomat visiting Tashkent interested in raising human rights issues.
Indeed, one of Ikramov’s proudest moments was when Hillary Clinton raised some of the names on his list when she met with Karimov as U.S. secretary of state in 2011.
Despite the subject matter he immersed himself in, Ikramov never took himself too seriously. He had a devilish sense of humor, a wry smile, and loved to come hear a Human Rights Watch colleague play late-night jazz concerts on his periodic trips to Bishkek, Almaty, or Kyiv.
Always together, Ikramov and his wife were unfailingly encouraging, almost like grandparents who see it as their role to praise your every achievement.
A few years ago, Ikramov arranged a visit to a prison hospital together with representatives of Human Rights Watch outside Tashkent to meet with a political prisoner who had spent 18 years in prison on politically motivated charges.
Word traveled fast around the hospital that Ikramov had arrived. The atmosphere was more of adoring university students greeting a respected professor than of an institution for the incarcerated.
Prisoners knew Ikramov understood their ordeal, the torture they had endured, and the hollow pretexts on which many had been denied parole or early release.
Those incarcerated could also rely on the fact that Ikramov and his wife would keep in touch with their families and consistently raise their cases, for as many years as it took, until they were free.
Recalling a meeting they had in Geneva in 2008 with Felix Corley -- the editor of the Forum 18 News Service, an agency monitoring religious freedom in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe -- Corley said: “It struck me just how courageous he was. [Ikramov] was based in the country that could easily be called the worst violator of the freedom of conscience or belief in the region at the time. He would document each case energetically, providing details on torture when it occurred, the relevant parts of the criminal code, and all the information you would need.”
The last time we got the chance to see Ikramov was about five months ago. By then his health was poor and he had lost weight. Despite his weakened state, Ikramov made a point of passing on another list of 12 religious prisoners whose cases he was tracking, urging international action to secure their release.
The legacy of Ikramov’s work will live on long after his passing. Because of his commitment to human rights, the world knows the fate of dozens, if not hundreds, of people who have spent years behind bars on dubious grounds and will hopefully one day be free.
The practice of sending children into the cotton fields has mostly ended, in part due to Ikramov's work, and recent efforts toward totally halting the use of forced labor in the cotton fields have significantly brought down the number of people conscripted every year to pick Uzbekistan’s “white gold.”
Another of Ikramov's legacies is the many young activists he helped train in human rights, such as rights blogger Bahodir Eliboev, who now operates a popular Telegram channel from the town of Rishton in the fertile Ferghana Valley.
Fortunately, his wife Gulnora continues their joint mission.
When honoring the loss of a loved one Uzbeks commonly say "Joylari jannatda bolsin" (May your place be in heaven).
As one of Uzbekistan’s greatest and longest-serving defenders of human rights, Surat Ikramov has definitely earned his place.
Bruce Pannier contributed to this report.
Steve Swerdlow is an associate professor of the practice of human rights at the University of Southern California. A human rights lawyer and expert on the former Soviet region, Swerdlow was previously a senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.