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Uzbekistan: Does Registry Of First Human Rights Group Reflect Softening Stance?

This week, for the first time, Uzbekistan formally registered a human rights group. The move came the same day the U.S. State Department released its annual human rights report, which criticized Uzbekistan for cracking down on religious and free-press rights. RFE/RL correspondent Antoine Blua reports that the Uzbek government's decision may reflect its growing cooperation with the U.S. in its antiterrorist campaign in Afghanistan.

Prague, 7 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- For the first time, Uzbek authorities on 4 March formally registered a local human rights group, raising hopes among activists and international observers of a thaw in the government's authoritarian policies.

The Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan (IHROU) now has legal status that allows it to operate in the country and own property such as computers.

Gerard Stoudmann, director of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, welcomed the decision as "an encouraging step toward creating basic conditions for the development of civil society in Uzbekistan." Stoudmann also said the registration reflects a "new and more open approach" by the Uzbek government toward non-governmental organizations.

The move is a notable achievement for IHROU's director, Mikhail Ardzinov. In January, Uzbek police returned Ardzinov's passport and archived records of human rights abuses after holding the documents for more than two years. Police seized the materials in 1999 after Ardzinov, accused of insulting Uzbek authorities and campaigning against the policies of President Islam Karimov, was detained by authorities and severely beaten. Despite being quickly released, Ardzinov was forced to live without a passport, leaving him unable to travel even within the country and routinely denied all forms of government assistance.

In an interview today with RFE/RL's Tajik Service, Ardzinov said Uzbekistan's cooperation with the U.S. in its antiterror campaign in Afghanistan appears to have softened the government's stance on rights groups like IHROU.

"Since Uzbekistan joined the antiterrorist coalition, it seems to me that that has had a certain effect on the behavior and the actions of our [Uzbek] leadership," Ardzinov said.

There are other indications that Karimov's government may be moving to improve its human rights record. One is February's sentencing of four police officers for torturing two detainees, one of whom eventually died. Although the police were not convicted of murder, their sentencing nonetheless marked a major shift in the government's stance on what human rights groups say is the widespread problem of police brutality.

Developments like these appear to address the concerns of international observers that the West was turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Central Asia in exchange for their cooperation in the antiterrorism campaign. Marie Struthers, the interim Tashkent representative for Human Rights Watch, welcomed the legalization of Ardzinov's group.

"Concretely, it allows the media to recognize [IHROU's] information as legitimate and therefore to publish it. It allows them to have access to all those places and groups in Uzbekistan that are accessible to legally registered groups -- the courts, government departments, the media," Struthers said. "It legitimizes their activities, among which are monitoring and reporting on human rights violations, and it provides them with legal recourse."

For many years, authorities used IHROU's lack of legal status as a pretext for harassment, physical mistreatment, and the imprisonment of its members. Struthers said that if the state complies with the rights guaranteed by the group's official registration, the decision will prove to be "much more than an aesthetic change."

The HRW representative said she hopes this latest development will pave the way for more such changes. Potential improvements could include the registration of other rights groups and opposition political parties, the release of political and religious prisoners, reform of the laws used to persecute independent Muslims and political dissidents, and access for human rights monitors.

Struthers said she believes the decision to register IHROU was the result of mounting international pressure on the Uzbek government.

"We are aware that foreign governments -- in particular the U.S. -- have upped their demand to, or request to, the Uzbek government to register human rights groups in the past weeks and months. And we consider that this registration is largely connected to that intensification of diplomatic pressure," Struthers said.

In 1995, Uzbekistan became the first Central Asian country to establish the official post of parliamentary commissioner for human rights to address human rights concerns. In 1996, the country founded the National Human Rights Center, which coordinates the human rights activity of all government agencies and issues reports on Uzbekistan's implementation of international human rights conventions. But no other human rights groups have been allowed to register since Uzbekistan won independence in 1991.

This week's decision came on the same day that the U.S. State Department released its annual report on human rights around the world -- including a passage condemning the Uzbek government's failure to register human rights groups.

The document cites a litany of cases of police torture and the killing of detainees, the arbitrary arrest of opposition politicians, and unfair trials and harassment of independent journalists and religious groups. It says police routinely plant drugs, weapons, and extremist religious materials on suspects. The report also notes that "those responsible for documented abuses rarely are punished."

Gregory Gleason is a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico in the United States. He said he is optimistic regarding the Uzbek government's readiness to establish and maintain international standards of democratic practice.

Gleason believes Karimov has begun to appreciate the link between improved human rights performance and increased international aid. The U.S., which has some 1,500 soldiers deployed at Uzbekistan's southern Khabanad airfield, has already pledged some $160 million in aid this year.

Gleason said that one important step toward improving civil rights in Uzbekistan would be the creation of an international human rights center in Tashkent.

"The most important thing that the outside world can do under these circumstances is to establish regular communication between those people who do want to defend their rights -- their civil rights, their human rights -- in Uzbekistan, and people outside of Uzbekistan who would like to support them in that effort. And that will require regular communication, it will require an effort on the part of the international community to maintain a permanent presence," Gleason said. "That's why I think that an international human rights center in Tashkent could serve a very valuable purpose."

The decision to register IHROU also comes just ahead of Karimov's U.S. visit on 12 March for talks with U.S. President George W. Bush. Gleason said the talks will be instrumental in determining the future development of civil society in Uzbekistan.

"Certainly this is a key visit because it's a critical time for U.S. policy and for policy with respect to the post-conflict reconstruction of Afghanistan," Gleason said. "The most difficult challenge for countries like the United States that would like to see positive change in Uzbekistan -- and greater stability in the region, of course -- is to support the government [but] at the same time maintain the insistence that Uzbekistan's government -- and other governments in the region -- must live in accordance with international standards with respect to human rights, civil rights and democratic development."

A White House statement released in February said discussions between Bush and Karimov will reflect the "new relationship" evolving between Washington and Tashkent. It also said the U.S. is looking forward to deepening cooperation not only on security matters, but also on human rights and political and economic reform.

(Khurmat Badadjanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)