Fifty-eight-year-old Yelena Urlaeva is a rare breed these days in Uzbekistan. A campaigner for human rights, she has garnered more international attention in the last few days than she received in the last 15 years because, once again, Uzbek authorities have punished her for trying to document official abuses.
This latest incident was related to Urlaeva's ongoing documentation of Uzbek authorities' practice of conscripting people to work in cotton fields. But, in the past, she has also staged public demonstrations of support of: people facing charges over alleged membership in religious extremist groups; victims of the deadly May 2005 crackdown in Andijon; detained or harassed opposition figures and their relatives; fellow rights activists; and she even protested outside the Turkmen Embassy in Tashkent against Turkmenistan's presidential election in 2007.
Her activism has cost her dearly, as even a limited look at Uzbek authorities' mistreatment of Urlaeva makes clear.
Her tribulations started in February 2001, when she was a consultant to the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. She was arrested on February 19 as she was headed to the Tashkent office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and accused of possessing anticonstitutional material. The following is from a UN Commission on Human Rights report:
"The militiamen reportedly demanded that she sign a statement admitting that the material was anticonstitutional. She was allegedly detained for seven hours, during which she was given neither water nor her medication for a heart condition; she was told there would be time enough to take her medicines in prison. She was apparently threatened throughout her detention, and had a pistol, a rubber truncheon and a belt shown to her."
It quickly got much worse, according to the report: "In a joint appeal of 15 March 2001, the Special Representative and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions drew the Government's urgent attention to reports that in the night of 8 March 2001, the house of Elena Urlayeva was doused with petrol and set on fire while she and her family were asleep inside."
The UN officials' appeal had little effect. On April 6, 2001, Urlaeva was again arrested as she was heading to a human rights meeting. This time she was transferred to a psychiatric hospital, where doctors diagnosed her as schizophrenic. On April 10, the interdistrict court of Mirabad ordered Urlaeva to undergo compulsory psychiatric treatment. She was not notified of the hearing ahead of time.
She was kept in psychiatric custody until June, when she was transferred to a closed psychiatric hospital where no visitors were allowed and where she says she was forced to undergo treatment for neuroleptics that reportedly had a detrimental effect on her health.
She was released in November, but her case on June 5, 2002, was brought before the same Mirabad court, which ordered her to return to the psychiatric hospital. Her appeal against the decision was rejected and she stayed in such custody until January 2003.
She resumed her rights activism, however. She protested the Uzbek government's perceived disproportionate use of force in Andijon in May 2005, when security forces opened fire on demonstrators. She was arrested in August of that year for allegedly distributing political pamphlets. Months later, on October 18, a court ordered her to undergo psychiatric treatment again. Urlaeva was not present and had no legal representation at that hearing.
This time she was released in less than two weeks, but Urlaeva claims she was beaten and abused by officials during her detention.
Again, she was not intimidated. In March 2007, she sent an open letter to the UN Committee on Torture alleging the systematic beating of prisoners in detention centers. Urlaeva also continued to stage public protests against the trials of people detained on suspicion of extremism, a charge that has landed thousands of people in Uzbek prisons. International and local rights organizations have criticized many of the convictions at such trials, saying they are based on flimsy evidence, reports of forced confessions obtained through torture, and a general lack of due process during detentions and the trial process.
In December 2008, Urlaeva and other rights activists were fined for picketing outside a government building in Tashkent.
On the morning of April 5, 2009, Urlaeva was attacked as she was leaving her building with her 5-year-old son. Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the incident: "Two young men, dressed in black and wearing sunglasses, kicked and punched her in the head and in the chest. Shouting profanities, they told Urlaeva that she, 'should have left the country long ago,' and demanded to know why she had not left already. One of the assailants took out a knife and made a few cuts in the leather jacket Urlaeva was wearing."
"It's especially reprehensible to attack Urlaeva in front of her small child." On April 22, Urlaeva's son "was attacked by an unknown assailant, who beat him repeatedly in the head with a stick. As a result of the attack, he was diagnosed with a concussion and hospitalized."
Even that did not stop Elena Urlaeva, and she has been detained, arrested, fined, and harassed many times since that attack.
And now this latest incident.
Many countries would surely grant Urlaeva asylum if she requested it, and the Uzbek government might gladly help arrange her departure from the country for good.
But she refuses to leave, even knowing that, if she continues her activities as a rights defender, as I have no doubt she will, Urlaeva will almost certainly be arrested, beaten, and humiliated in the future.
I have described Urlaeva as "the bravest person in Uzbekistan," I think because her life and experience have raised an uncomfortable question in my mind.
I have written about her for years now, for RFE/RL and for Freedom House -- and every time Uzbek authorities mistreat her, I ask myself what I would do in her place.
Unfortunately, and sadly, I don't think I could endure all that Urlaeva has had to contend with. I would take the offer of asylum and I would leave.
So I can only have the deepest admiration for Urlaeva, because she won't.
-- Bruce Pannier