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After the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan became a key strategic ally of the United States for its military operations in Afghanistan. Tashkent's decision to permit the deployment of U.S. troops on its territory was widely seen as an effort to obtain various concessions from the West, including economic assistance, security guarantees, and reduced criticism of its poor human rights record. At the end of December, President Islam Karimov announced that he had set no deadline for the withdrawal of the estimated 1,500 U.S. forces from Khanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan.
Located along the ancient trade route of the famous Silk Road, Uzbekistan was incorporated into Russia by the late 1800s. The Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was established in 1924, and its eastern region was detached and made a separate Tajik Soviet republic five years later.
On December 29, 1991, the country's independence was endorsed in a popular referendum by more than 98 percent of the electorate. In a parallel vote, Islam Karimov, former Communist Party leader and chairman of the People's Democratic Party (PDP), the successor to the Communist Party, was elected president with a reported 88 percent of the vote over the only independent candidate to challenge him, Erk (Freedom) Party leader Mohammed Solih, who charged election fraud. The largest opposition group, Birlik (Unity), was barred from contesting the election and later refused legal registration as a political party, while the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) and other religionbased groups were banned entirely. Only pro-government parties were allowed to compete in elections to the first post-Soviet legislature in December 1994 and January 1995. A February 1995 national referendum to extend Karimov's first five-year term in office until the year 2000 was allegedly approved by 99 percent of the country's voters.
Throughout the 1990s, the government increased its repression of opposition movements, including moderate political and religious groups, often under the pretext of fighting violent Islamist organizations. The growing crackdowns, coupled with widespread poverty, in turn fueled Islamist extremist activities and contributed to the radicalization of some former advocates of peaceful change. In 1997, several police officers were murdered in the Ferghana Valley, an area regarded as a center of militant Islam. The authorities reportedly detained hundreds of suspects, including many solely for their supposed affiliation with various Muslim groups not officially sanctioned by the state. The Uzbek government blamed a series of deadly car bombings in Tashkent in February 1999 on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which seeks the violent overthrow of Uzbekistan's secular government and its replacement with an Islamic state. The authorities used the attacks, which they described as an assassination attempt on President Karimov, to justify further arrests and trials of both the religious and secular opposition. As a result of these crackdowns, many Uzbeks, including both peaceful Muslims and members of the IMU, fled to neighboring countries. In August, IMU militants attempted to enter Uzbekistan by crossing from Tajikistan into the neighboring Kyrgyz Republic, where they held several villages hostage until early October.
Of the five parties that competed in December's parliamentary election, which was strongly criticized by international election observers, all supported the president and differed little in their political platforms. The January 9, 2000, presidential poll resulted in an expected victory for Karimov, who defeated his only opponent, Marxist history professor Abdulhasiz Dzhalalov, with 92 percent of the vote. Karimov's former party, the PDP, from which he resigned in 1996, had nominated Dzhalalov, its first secretary, with Karimov's consent. Karimov ran as a candidate of the recently established Fidokorlar party. Uzbekistan's government refused to register genuinely independent opposition parties and to permit their members to stand as candidates. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe did not send observers, on the grounds that the election could not be considered competitive as the voters had no genuine choice.
In August, the IMU engaged in armed clashes with government troops in south eastern Uzbekistan. While Tashkent alleged that the guerillas had entered Uzbek territory from bases in neighboring Tajikistan, Dushanbe denied the charge. Uzbekistan also accused Afghanistan's ruling Taliban of harboring many members of the IMU, which the U.S. government placed on its list of international terrorist organizations in September for its ties to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network and Afghanistan's ruling Taliban. In November, Uzbekistan's supreme court found 12 men guilty of treason and terrorist attacks, including the February 1999 Tashkent bombings. Erk leader Mohammed Solih, who was living in asylum in Norway, was found guilty of organizing the bombings along with prominent IMU leaders Juma Namangani and Tokhir Yuldash and was sentenced in absentia to 15 and a half years in prison. The proceedings, which Human Rights Watch termed a political show trial, were viewed by many observers as an attempt by the government to discredit the secular democratic opposition by linking it to militant Islamists.
Just days after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Uzbekistan became the first Central Asian country to indicate its willingness to assist possible U.S. action against the Taliban. However, the exact nature of this cooperation was not immediately clear, and conflicting reports about U.S. troops having arrived on Uzbek territory surfaced during the next few weeks. Following meetings with the U.S. defense secretary, Karimov announced on October 5 that U.S.-led forces would be permitted to use one air base for humanitarian and search-and-rescue missions, but not to stage military strikes against Afghanistan. Tashkent's tentative response led to speculation that Karimov's government feared retaliation by the Taliban and was waiting for security or other guarantees from Washington before committing publicly to further cooperative measures. By the end of the year, an estimated 1,500 U.S. troops were reported to be stationed at the Khanabad air base in the south of the country, and President Karimov announced that no deadline had been set for their withdrawal.
Tashkent's new role as an important ally of the U.S.-led campaign represented an escalation of the country's existing ties with Washington. For several years, the United States and Uzbekistan had conducted joint operations against the Taliban and its terrorist allies, including the sharing of intelligence information and U.S. training of Uzbek guards stationed along the border with Afghanistan. The growing cooperation between the two countries brought with it clear advantages for Tashkent, including the hope of U.S. assistance in destroying the IMU and in obtaining new loans from international financial institutions to boost Uzbekistan's stagnating economy. At the same time, human rights groups warned that the country's new alliance with the United States could lead to a softening of Western criticism of Tashkent's poor human rights record and allow Karimov's government to justify further crackdowns on opponents of its regime as part of the global war on terrorism. In November, unconfirmed reports surfaced that IMU military leader Namangani had been killed during intense fighting in Afghanistan.
On November 28, Mohammad Solih was arrested on an Interpol warrant when he arrived at the airport in Prague, Czech Republic, on an invitation from Radio Free Europe. The warrant had been issued by Uzbekistan in connection with his conviction the previous year on charges of organizing the February 1999 Tashkent bombings. On December 14, Prague's municipal court ruled not to extradite him to Uzbekistan, where human rights groups had argued he might face torture or death upon his return.
Uzbekistan's relations with its Central Asian neighbors remained strained throughout the year over various economic and political issues. Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz Republic continued to use threats to vital water and natural gas deliveries to influence competing territorial claims, particularly in the rich agricultural land of the Ferghana Valley. As part of its declared effort to prevent renewed invasions by the IMU, Uzbekistan mined portions of its border with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, leading to protests by both governments and reports of the accidental deaths of civilians in the region. While Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan finally signed an agreement in November delineating 96 percent of their 1,200-mile border, the status of the remaining ethnically mixed border areas remains unresolved. Karimov's support of the U.S. military operation against the Taliban has led to fears among the other Central Asian nations that Uzbekistan could exploit its new relationship with Washington to further its territorial ambitions in the region.
Citizens of Uzbekistan cannot change their government democratically. President Islam Karimov and the executive branch dominate the legislature and judiciary, and the government severely represses all political opposition. The primary purpose of the 250-member rubber-stamp national legislature is to confirm decisions made by the executive branch. The 1994-1995 and 1999 parliamentary elections and the 2000 presidential poll, in which only pro-government candidates could participate, were neither free nor fair.
The state imposes strict limits on freedom of speech and the press, particularly with regard to reports on the government and President Karimov. The country's private broadcast and print media outlets generally avoid political issues, are largely regional in scope, and suffer from administrative and financial constraints. Self-censorship is widespread, while the few journalists who dare to produce probing or critical reports of the authorities face harassment, physical violence, or closure of their media outlets. In July, the authorities fired the editor of the Russian-language paper Tashkent Pravda, Alo Hodjaev, who had been widely regarded as the only remaining newspaper editor capable of resisting government pressure. His dismissal followed the paper's decision a few weeks earlier to create a display of all of its articles that had been rejected by government censors. In early August, journalist and artist Shukhrat Babadjanov fled the country to avoid arrest on politically motivated charges of having forged his application for membership in the country's Union of Artists in 1991. Babadjanov had been the director of the private ALC television station, which was closed by the authorities in late 1999. The country's media provided minimal, highly censored coverage of the events surrounding the September 11 attacks in the United States, forcing citizens to rely on their limited access to foreign television broadcasts or newspapers for up-todate reports. All Internet service providers must route their connections through a government- run server, allowing the state to prevent the transmission of material it deems objectionable.
The government permits followers of mainstream religions, including approved Muslim and Jewish communities, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church and some other Christian denominations, to worship relatively freely. However, the activities of other congregations are restricted through legislation that requires all religious groups to register with the state through burdensome registration criteria. In addition, the 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations prohibits proselytizing, the teaching of religious subjects without official permission, and the wearing of religious garments in public by anyone other than clerics. Revisions to the criminal code in May 1998 and May 1999 increased penalties for violating the law and other statutes on religious activities. The government-controlled Spiritual Directorate for Muslims dictates the content of imam's sermons and of published Islamic materials.
The government continued to be suspicious and intolerant of followers of Muslim organizations not sanctioned by the state. During the last several years, many of them have been arrested or imprisoned on charges of anti-constitutional activities, often under the pretext of the government's fight against militant Islamists. Authorities have targeted members of the banned and highly secretive Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Islamic Party of Liberation), an international movement calling for the creation of an Islamic caliphate throughout the Muslim world. Suspected members have been forced to give confessions under torture and their family members have been subjected to interrogation, arrest, and extortion. According to an International Crisis Group report, while Hizb-ut-Tahrir officially rejects the use of violence, some members reportedly do not exclude support for armed resistance or for the IMU.
Permits for public demonstrations, which must be approved by the government, are not routinely granted, and fear of police persecution makes such rallies uncommon occurrences. Throughout 2001, several public protests were conducted by women demanding the release from prison of their husbands and sons, who had been detained on suspicion of belonging to illegal Islamic groups. Police reportedly beat and arrested many of the demonstrators. No genuine political opposition groups function legally or participate in the government. A 1997 law prohibits parties based on ethnic or religious lines and those advocating subversion of the constitutional order. Members of unregistered opposition groups, including Birlik and Erk, are subject to discrimination and some have gone into voluntary exile abroad. The Council of the Federation of Trade Unions is dependent on the state, and no genuinely alternative union structures exist.
The country's two principal human rights groups, the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU) and the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan (NOPCHU), have been denied registration repeatedly and have faced ongoing harassment by the authorities. In July, the body of HRSU member Shovrukh Ruzimuradov was returned to his family several weeks after he had been arrested for allegedly possessing weapons, drugs, and banned religious leaflets. According to human rights activists, the evidence had been planted by police and Ruzimuradov appeared to have died as the result of ill-treatment while in custody. Emin Usmon, a prominent writer, died in February while in detention on charges of distributing materials of a banned Islamic group. Although his death was officially ruled a suicide, his supporters maintain that it resulted from torture at the hands of law enforcement officials. On July 3, NOPCHU member Ismail Adylov was released from prison under a presidential amnesty. He had served two years of a seven-year prison term on fabricated charges of anti-state activities and participation in an extremist religious group.
The judiciary is subservient to the president, who appoints all judges and can remove them from office at any time. Police routinely physically abuse suspects to extract confessions, while arbitrary arrest and detention are common. Law enforcement authorities reportedly often plant narcotics, weapons, and banned religious literature on suspected members of Islamic groups or political opponents to justify their arrest. Prisons suffer from severe overcrowding and shortages of food and medicine. In August, President Karimov announced an amnesty for various categories of prisoners. However, the presidential pardon excluded those convicted of anti-state activities, a crime under which many of the country's estimated 7,000 political prisoners have been charged. A new death penalty law went into effect in October 2001 that reduces the number of capital offenses from eight to four--genocide, terrorism, premeditated aggravated murder, and acts of aggression against the state. However, critics charge that the categories are broad enough to allow the authorities to use them to suppress political and religious dissent.
Widespread corruption, bureaucratic regulations, and the government's tight control over the economy limit most citizens' equality of opportunity. Women's educational and professional prospects are restricted by traditional cultural and religious norms and by ongoing economic difficulties throughout the country. Victims of domestic violence are discouraged from pressing charges against their perpetrators, who rarely face criminal prosecution.