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Majlis Podcast: Human Rights In Uzbekistan Take One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

  • Bruce Pannier

Uzbek rights activist Yelena Urlaeva was taken into custody on March 1 and confined to a psychiatric hospital. Urlaeva "has an enormous amount of compassion and understanding of people of all walks of life and religious backgrounds," says Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch.

The administration of new Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev seemed to be making progress in freeing political prisoners incarcerated during the previous regime of President Islam Karimov, whose death was announced on September 2, 2016.

Four activists -- three of whom had served sentences of 17 years or longer -- have left prison since late October 2016, and another activist was released from forced confinement in a psychiatric hospital after spending nearly all of the last 10 years in such facilities.

But on March 1, Mirziyaev’s government took a big step backward when it detained rights activist Elena Urlaeva and confined her to a psychiatric hospital.

How to read these seemingly mixed signals? Does Mirziyaev’s administration have a new policy toward jailed activists, political opponents, independent journalists, and others who were thrown into Uzbekistan’s prisons during the last 25 years under Karimov? Or was there another reason for freeing the activists? Is it still business as usual in Uzbekistan, despite the new president?

Those are the questions we ask in this week's Majlis podcast as we review the Uzbek government’s recent moves toward perceived regime opponents.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Germany, Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, joined the talk. From the United States, Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, took part in the Majlis. News that Urlaeva had been forced into a psychiatric hospital hit me like a brick to the head, so I wanted to say something also.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev

Karimov’s government put thousands of people in prison over the course of 25 years. Most of them were jailed for religious reasons -- suspicions their piety had led, or would lead, them into Islamic extremist groups.

Any critic of the Uzbek government was targeted and measures taken to neutralize their potential influence on society.

"It has been a momentous six months," Swedlow said, as he recounted the release of an activist from the Ezgulik (Compassion) group, Bobomurod Razzaqov, in October, and Samandar Kukanov, a former member of Uzbekistan’s parliament who crossed Karimov and was imprisoned in 1993. "Perhaps after Nelson Mandela, [Kukanov] may have been the longest imprisoned political prisoner in the world."

And in February, there was Rustam Usmanov, founder of Uzbekistan’s first private bank but also a supporter of the opposition Erk party, who was jailed in 1998. And then the release of Muhammad Bekjon (Bekjonov), who Human Rights Watch called the longest imprisoned journalist in the world, put behind bars in 1999.

Bekjon is the brother of Muhammad Solih, the leader of the opposition Erk party. Swerdlow noted the significance of that, saying, "Many people believed that Mirziyaev could release others, but how could he possibly release the brother of probably the most hated enemy of the Uzbek government? But he did so."

Niyazova welcomed freedom for the four, but she noted, "Mirziyaev has not released them. ... [Three of them] already served all their [prison] terms," and added, "For Mirziyaev to release them, it cost him nothing, but it is in his favor that their detention term was ended."

Swerdlow pointed out that many of Uzbekistan’s prisoners, including those already mentioned here, have had their prison terms prolonged, usually just before they were due for release. Niyazova credited Mirziyaev for that: "It’s good that he decided not to prolong their terms."

And it was noted that these four men are now elderly, in their 60s and 70s, and probably do not represent much of any kind of threat to Uzbek authorities anymore.

Jamshid Karimov, the nephew of former Uzbek President Karimov, was also let out of a psychiatric hospital at the end of February. Karimov, a rights activist who was also an independent journalist, was first put in a psychiatric hospital in 2006. His relation to Karimov made no difference to the former president, who had been estranged from the rest of his family for many years.

These all seemed like very hopeful signs.

But on March 1, police took Urlaeva into custody.

As Niyazova explained, "The same evening, a man who introduced himself as a doctor at a psychiatric clinic called Elena’s son and said that Elena had been admitted for compulsory treatment."

Urlaeva has been instrumental in bringing to light the abuses that Uzbek authorities have been committing, particularly the annual conscription of up to 1 million people to go into the cotton fields at harvest time and pick cotton for the state.

WATCH: Uzbek Antislavery Activist Held In Mental Institution

Not so many years ago, many of these conscripts were children, but thanks to work by Urlaeva and others, this is no longer the case (although the authorities simply substituted the minors with their parents or other adults).

Niyazova said she has known Urlaeva for 15 years and "during all these years, we have lost count of how many times she has been arrested [or] she has been beaten."

As has previously been the case, Uzbek authorities have offered no reason why Urlaeva was detained, but Swerdlow offered one possible explanation for this latest detention.

"She was supposed to have a meeting with the World Bank and the [International Labor Organization] to discuss the results of the monitoring work she’s been doing, to discuss the cotton harvest," he said.

Uzbek authorities have attempted for years to point to Urlaeva’s psychiatric treatments as proof she is not mentally competent to make any judgments about events inside Uzbekistan.

"I remember very well, about 15 years ago, when Elena was standing on the street, a man who was most likely an SNB (National Security Service) agent kicked Elena in her stomach with all his strength in front of my eyes," Niyazova said.

"The trauma she has suffered means that sometimes Elena needs medical psychiatric help. We should be clear on this," Niyazova explained. "But this does not undermine or discredit her human rights work, and the most disgusting aspect of this case is that Uzbek authorities are taking advantage of Elena’s vulnerability, so when they don’t know how to silence her they simply detain her in a psychiatric clinic."

Swerdlow said Urlaeva "has an enormous amount of compassion and understanding of people of all walks of life and religious backgrounds and is willing to help basically anyone at the drop of a hat, run to their house, or run to wherever a detention or arrest is taking place, witness it, write it down, and immediately communicate it to journalists and diplomats and anyone who will listen."

Niyazova summed up Urlaeva’s importance to Uzbekistan, saying, "Especially in Uzbek society and in a country like Uzbekistan, [where] people are living in fear, when people think about one thing and say another, Elena is unique."

Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis on iTunes.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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