President Islam Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist since before the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, turning it into one of the most repressive post-Soviet states. The human rights situation remained dire in 2007 despite the government’s efforts to repair ties with the European Union and reduce dependence on Russia. Although the constitution barred Karimov from running for reelection when his last seven-year term ended in January 2007, he remained in office and secured a new term in the December 2007 presidential election after running as the Liberal Democratic Party’s candidate. None of Uzbekistan’s elections since 1991 have met international standards for fairness. Authorities cracked down more intensely on freedom of association following the May 2005 massacre at Andijon, in which security forces opened fire and killed hundreds of predominantly peaceful demonstrators.
Freedom of Association
Article 34 of the constitution guarantees citizens the right to form public associations, unions, and political parties, but this right is severely restricted in practice. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), particularly those that promote human rights and democracy, face the constant threat of suspension by the authorities. Members of NGOs also risk harassment, detention, and imprisonment for engaging in activities that the government deems threatening.
NGOs in Uzbekistan face onerous registration requirements and legal restrictions. Over the past few years, the government has closed more than 300 local NGOs. The remaining organizations were forced to join a government-controlled umbrella group, the National Association of Nongovernmental Noncommercial Organizations. All organizations are required to register with the government, but new groups are allowed to operate for six months while registration is pending. In 2007, the government refused to register several human rights NGOs, including the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan and Mothers Against the Death Penalty and Torture. Although these organizations still operate, it is difficult for them to rent office space and hold bank accounts because of their lack of legal recognition.
NGOs are required to submit quarterly reports to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) describing their activities and face the threat of closure if they fail to do so. In January 2007, Karimov enacted legislation that identified NGOs’ rights, permitting activities that are in accordance with their charters and are not prohibited by law. Article 57 of the constitution prohibits associations from using force to change the existing constitutional system and undermining the sovereignty, territorial integrity, or security of the state. Uzbek laws also criminalize membership in organizations that the government considers to be terrorist groups, such as the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). Akromiya, a group whose stated aim is to promote Islamic business practices, has also been harassed.
During 2006, the local offices of more than a dozen U.S.-based NGOs were closed, including the American Bar Association, the Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative, Counterpart International, Crosslink Development, Freedom House, the Partnership in Academics and Development, the Urban Institute, and Winrock International. In February 2007, Mercy Corps left the country after the termination of its contract. Human Rights Watch left in July after its only remaining staff member was not reaccredited by the government. None of the foreign-funded NGOs that have been forced to close since 2006 were reopened in 2007. As part of the general crackdown on NGOs in recent years, the authorities have also closed many foreign religious charities, both Christian and Muslim. As of 2006, the only Muslim charity still permitted to operate was the Committee of Muslims of Asia, which was subject to considerable government oversight.
In April 2007, the government passed a law allowing NGOs that had been engaged in socially significant activity for at least a year to receive state funding through contracts, grants, and subsidies. However, the funds are only available to NGOs registered with, and effectively controlled by, the government. In addition to submitting reports on their activities, NGOs are required to submit quarterly financial reports to the MOJ, and must pay exceedingly high taxes. Only groups that provide humanitarian assistance are exempt from paying some taxes; all others are subject to several different taxes, including social insurance and income taxes.
Karimov’s regime has severely restricted the ability of foreign donors to fund local NGOs. A 2004 banking decree prevents NGOs engaged in human rights or political advocacy from obtaining foreign funds. International organizations are also prevented from providing grants to local NGOs.
Members of NGOs that are active in promoting human rights and democracy are frequently detained or imprisoned because of their work. Amendments made to the administrative code in 2005 impose severe fines for conducting or facilitating illegal NGO activities. In April 2007, a court sentenced Gulbahor Turayeva, a member of the medical nonprofit Anima-kor, to six years in prison for distributing allegedly subversive materials. Her sentence was suspended in June after she publicly expressed regret for her actions. In May 2007, Umide Niyazova, a former Human Rights Watch employee, was sentenced to seven years in prison for distribution of foreign money to NGOs and possession of banned literature. Her sentence was suspended the same month after she admitted to distributing illegal publications.
Although Article 34 of the constitution provides for the right to form unions, workers do not possess this right in practice. Unions in Uzbekistan are all affiliated with the government. The law provides for collective bargaining, but given the government’s involvement in union activities, this is not an independent process. Organized strikes are rare, and the law does not specifically address whether citizens have the right to strike. The use of child labor is common, particularly during the peak of the cotton-harvesting season between September and November, when both students and teachers are sent to pick cotton.
Freedom of Assembly
Freedom of assembly is limited in practice, despite being protected by Article 34 of the constitution. The police frequently use force to prevent or break up demonstrations, and protesters face harassment, detention, and imprisonment for their actions. The authorities have the power to ban demonstrations or rallies in the interest of state security, and demonstration permits are routinely denied. Amendments to the criminal and administrative codes in 2005 increased punishments for violating assembly laws and facilitating unapproved demonstrations, for instance by providing space or other material support.
In 2007, the police on a number of occasions detained protesters and dispersed demonstrations that were critical of the status quo. On January 2, police in Tashkent broke up a demonstration by human rights activists demanding the release of political prisoners, and on January 31, police detained six protesters attempting to petition the Supreme Court chairman. The authorities placed numerous activists under house arrest in advance of a rally scheduled for March 8, International Women’s Day, that was aimed at supporting jailed female activists.