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Arrests. Beatings. Torture. All Part of Job Description For Uzbek Rights Activists

Mutabar Tojibaeva in Berlin last month
Mutabar Tojibaeva in Berlin last month
It has been nearly six months since Uzbek human rights activist Mutabar Tojibaeva, 45, was released from Tashkent city prison, but she says she still has nightmares about her captivity, especially her time in solitary confinement.

In 2005, Tojibaeva publicly criticized Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government for its bloody crackdown on an antigovernment uprising in the eastern town of Andijon in which rights groups say hundreds of civilians died.

Tojibaeva's arrest soon followed.

She says she spent 112 days in solitary confinement, in a dark and cold room. Her health deteriorated rapidly.

Tojibaeva was released in June on health grounds after serving almost three years of an eight-year sentence on 17 different charges, including tax evasion, slander, and membership in an illegal organization. Tojibaeva was not amnestied, however, and will continue to serve a three-year suspended sentence.

World's Worst Place

Tojibaeva's story is the story of dozens of activists in Uzbekistan, a country where defending human rights or criticizing government policies often means lengthy prison terms. Beatings and torture while in prison are considered routine. Many rights activists are forcibly admitted into psychiatric units.

If everybody stays silent, the situation would get even worse.
Why do activists continue to work in a country widely considered to be the worst place to be a human rights defender?

"They are very simple, very ordinary people who witness rights abuses in their country, and they think it’s their duty to do something about it," says Elsa Vidal, the head of the Eurasia Desk at the Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

Or as one prominent Uzbek rights activist, Azam Turgunov, once said, “If everybody stays silent, the situation would get even worse."

Azam Turgunov
Turgunov, the head of an unregistered rights organization called Mazlum, was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison a few weeks ago in a case that observers say was politically motivated.

Ironically, Turgunov's sentencing came only days after the European Union had praised Uzbekistan for its “improving rights record.”

“Those classified as political prisoners, such as practicing Muslims or government critics, face ill-treatment and torture” while in Uzbek prisons, says Tojibaeva. “They are subject to verbal abuse, as well as physical and psychological pressure. Prison workers treat them like animals.”

“They never get proper food,” she recalls. “Prison food largely consists of boiled porridge and cabbage soup. Inmates have to wait for hours -- sometimes in the snow or rain -- outside the prison canteen to get lunch or dinner.”

Family Members Harassed

One of the most difficult things to endure while in prison, activists say, is the knowledge that family members are also likely being subjected to government harassment.

Tojibaeva said that while in prison she always feared for the safety of her only daughter, who had repeatedly been threatened by the authorities.

The husband of prominent activist Elena Urlaeva was brutally beaten as he waited for his wife at a bus stop.

Following pressure from the European Union, Uzbek authorities recently released a number of rights activists from jail, Tojibaeva among them.

Many Uzbeks, however, say they find it hard to believe the government in Tashkent has sincerely changed its attitude towards human rights and those who try to defend those principles. Dozens of Uzbek activists are still serving prison terms.

Later this month, Tojibaeva, who is currently receiving medical treatment in Germany, will receive the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, a collaboration of 10 of the world's leading rights groups.

But she says she's not planning on staying in Europe for long.

As soon as her medical treatment concludes, Tojibaeva says she will return to Uzbekistan to continue her campaign to improve the rights situation in her home country.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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