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Uzbekistan Shuts Down HRW Office in Tashkent


HRW's Executive Director Kenneth Roth: "The Uzbek government sends a clear message that it isn't willing to tolerate critical scrutiny of its human rights record."
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the Uzbek authorities have forced it to close its office in Tashkent, ending the advocacy group's presence in the country after 15 years.

The group said the government in Tashkent had for years been trying to obstruct its work in Uzbekistan by denying visas and work accreditation to its staff.

In a statement by Executive Director Kenneth Roth posted on the group's website, HRW said it was officially informed of the move on March 10.

"With the expulsion of Human Rights Watch, the Uzbek government sends a clear message that it isn't willing to tolerate critical scrutiny of its human rights record," the statement added.

Roth wrote that HRW would continue to report on rights abuses in Uzbekistan.

'Mentality' Questioned

In December 2010, the director of HRW's Tashkent office, Steve Swerdlow, was denied accreditation by Uzbekistan's Justice Ministry to represent HRW in the country.

That followed a similar incident in 2008, when the group's Tashkent representative, Igor Vorontsov, was banned from working in the country. Uzbek authorities said the Russian national did not understand the Uzbek "mentality" and wasn't the right person for the job.

Prior to Vorontsov's case, in 2007 the Uzbek authorities refused to extend work accreditation for the head of the office, Andrea Berg. Berg, who had been based in Tashkent since 2005, was forced to leave the country.

According to Swerdlow, the government wields almost total control over civil society and has closed off the country almost entirely to the outside world. "The sense of isolation is very palpable when you get to Tashkent," Swerdlow says. "In a sense, you can almost feel you are entering a vacuum, a time warp of sorts."

Tashkent came under international condemnation after government forces cracked down on a popular uprising in the eastern city of Andijon in May 2005. The bloody clampdown prompted the European Union to impose limited sanctions on Uzbekistan, which were eventually lifted.

Following the Andijon events, the government put pressure on international media organizations and NGOs operating in the country, denying them official registration.

Media organizations, including RFE/RL and the BBC, were forced to close their bureaus in Tashkent.

Bad On Human Rights, Good On Afghanistan

But while criticizing Tashkent for systematic violations of human rights and a lack of democratic reforms, Western states like the United States have acknowledged Uzbekistan's vital role in supporting NATO-led troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

"Uzbekistan is increasingly playing a strategic role in the war in Afghanistan," Swerdlow says. "For that reason, NATO and Germany, which has an air base in Uzbekistan now, and the United States, which is using what is known as the northern distribution network to route these supplies, and the EU, have been increasingly warming ties with Uzbekistan and engaging with the government."

Swerdlow calls on the international community, in particular the United States and the European Union, to condemn Uzbekistan's actions in regard to HRW and overall human rights issues in the country.

They should make it clear to the Uzbek government that there will be real consequences for not living up to its international human rights commitments, Swerdlow said.

He said the issue of HRW's presence in Uzbekistan was brought up by Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, during Karimov's visit to Brussels in January. The United States also recently raised the issue in annual bilateral consultations held in Tashkent.

Despite that, Tashkent has persisted in violating its human rights obligations, Swerdlow says.

Vorontsov, the previous HRW representative in Tashkent, tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the EU's decision to lift its limited sanctions on Tashkent -- and the West's improving ties with the Uzbek government -- has emboldened the Uzbek authorities.

"The Uzbek side now apparently thinks that they shouldn't listen to any criticism anymore and that the country no longer needs -- even for propaganda purposes -- to tolerate even the nominal presence of HRW," Vorontsov says.

Abdurahmon Tashanov, an Uzbek human rights activist, says HRW's presence in Uzbekistan provided important "moral support" for local rights defenders. "Without HRW, human rights issues in Uzbekistan will be left like orphans," he says.

written by Farangis Najibullah, with contributions from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service
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