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Prominent Uzbek Rights Activist Gets Lengthy Prison Sentence

Rights activist Agzam Turgunov
Uzbekistan -- recently rewarded by the EU for improving its human rights record -- has sentenced a well-known rights activist to 10 years in prison in a case that observers say is politically motivated.

Azam Turgunov, who heads an unregistered organization called Mazlum (The Oppressed), was arrested in July on suspicion of extortion.

After a court in western Uzbekistan's Karakalpakstan Autonomous Republic handed down the sentence on October 23, Uzbek opposition activist Dilorom Ishoqova called the trial a "show." "I wasn't hoping that Azam Turgunov would be freed -- he wasn't imprisoned to be set free," Ishoqova said. The authorities "were going to lock him up sooner or later, fabricating some pretext. The case is related to his human rights activities and political activities."

"I'm disappointed that it's all happening after the EU has lifted its sanctions, saying there are positive changes in Uzbekistan's human rights situation," Ishoqova added.

Turgunov and his organization defend the rights of political and religious prisoners, protest against torture in Uzbekistan's prisons, and monitor trials as public defenders. Turgunov has insisted the extortion charges were fabricated by authorities to punish him for his work.

Inspired by Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov and Poland's Solidarity movement, Turgunov began his human rights activities in 1994.

In Uzbekistan, where the government is notorious for not tolerating dissent in any form, his dedication to defending human rights has come with a heavy price. Turgunov was arrested in 1998 and sentenced to six years in prison on a string of vague charges, including "official negligence."

Turgunov was freed under an amnesty offered two years later, but since then he and his family members have reportedly been intimidated and harassed on many occasions. He has also been denied an exit visa to travel abroad.

Despite the pressures, Turgunov remains committed to his work as a rights defender, telling Human Rights Watch that "if everybody stays silent, the situation would get even worse."

Arrested Or Exiled

The United States and EU imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan after the massacre of hundreds of civilian protesters in Andijon in 2005, prompting Tashkent to attempt to demonstrate improvements in its human rights record. But those efforts proved to be largely superficial.

Turgunov is just one of many rights activists and government critics who continue to be targeted by the Uzbek authorities.

Earlier this year, poet Jusuf Juma was arrested for calling on President Islam Karimov to step down. And this month, independent journalist Salijon Abdurahmonov received a 10-year prison sentence on drug charges that rights groups believe are bogus.

Another journalist, Natalya Bushueva, went into exile after facing what are thought to be trumped-up charges of tax evasion.

The authorities have closed down the offices of foreign media and other organizations, including RFE/RL, the BBC, and the Open Society Institute. A representative of Human Rights Watch has been banned from entering the country. And many Uzbek journalists have taken to censoring themselves to avoid scrutiny.

Under such circumstances, the EU's decision this month to ease the sanctions it had imposed on Uzbekistan has caused disappointment and anger among Uzbek journalists and rights activists.

EU officials said Uzbekistan had demonstrated its commitment to human rights by releasing a number of imprisoned rights activists and hosting an international conference on media freedom. Among other moves, the bloc lifted its ban on eight Uzbek officials during an EU foreign ministers' meeting on October 13.

Only three days before the EU lifted the ban, Uzbek courts handed down Abdurakmonov's sentence and resumed Turgunov's trial.

Some Uzbek activists fear that the EU's decision will further embolden Uzbek authorities to suppress and punish critics and opponents. Others, such as Surat Ikromov, a Tashkent-based human rights advocate, have accused the EU of failing to support democratic values in Uzbekistan. "It's not only Azam Turgunov who is being punished in Uzbekistan. There are thousands of others -- peaceful religious followers, rights activists, journalists, and many others. It has to be stopped. Some people have to be held responsible for this," Ikromov said.

Despite the setback, many Uzbek rights activists are bracing themselves to continue their fight no matter how intense the government's pressure.

As the Karakalpakstan court was deciding on Turgunov's case on October 23, a group of rights defenders in Tashkent organized a picket in front of the city court demanding a transparent investigation into the death of fellow rights activist Muzaffar Tuychiev while he was in police custody in the town of Angren.

The rally's organizers said they would continue to protest until all those responsible are brought to justice.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report

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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 region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.