Uzbekistan | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2007

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Uzbekistan’s human rights conditions, which deteriorated in the wake of the authorities’ violent suppression of unrest in Andijon in 2005, remained extremely poor in 2006. The government of President Islam Karimov continued to imprison members of the country’s fledgling political opposition, harass independent media, and expel foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations.

Located along the ancient trade route of the famous Silk Road, Uzbekistan was incorporated into the Russian empire by the late nineteenth century. The Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was established in 1924, and its southeastern portion was detached and organized as the separate Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic five years later.

On December 29, 1991, more than 98 percent of the country’s electorate approved a popular referendum on Uzbekistan’s independence. 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 ballots. The only independent candidate to challenge him, Erk (Freedom) Party leader Mohammed Solih, claimed election fraud. Solih fled the country two years later, and his party was forced underground. The opposition group Birlik (Unity) had been barred from contesting the election and was later refused legal registration as a political party. The Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) and other religious-based groups were banned entirely. Only progovernment 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 2000 was allegedly approved by 99 percent of the country’s voters.

The government’s repression of the political opposition and of Muslims not affiliated with state-sanctioned religious institutions intensified after a series of deadly bombings in Tashkent in February 1999. The authorities blamed the attacks, which they described as an assassination attempt against Karimov, on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an armed group seeking the overthrow of Uzbekistan’s secular government and its replacement with an Islamic state.

All of the five parties that competed in the December 1999 parliamentary elections, which were strongly criticized by international monitors, supported the president and differed little in their political platforms. In the January 2000 presidential poll, Karimov defeated his only opponent, Marxist history professor Abdulhasiz Jalolov, with 92 percent of the vote. The government refused to register genuinely independent opposition parties or permit their members to stand as candidates.

In August 2000, the IMU engaged in armed clashes with government troops. As part of its declared effort to prevent renewed invasions by the IMU, Uzbekistan placed land mines along portions of its borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, leading to protests by both governments and reports of accidental civilian deaths in the region.

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., Uzbekistan became a key strategic ally of the United States in its military operations in Afghanistan. Tashkent’s decision to permit the deployment of U.S. troops on its territory for search-and-rescue and humanitarian operations was widely seen as an effort to obtain various concessions from the United States and its allies, including economic assistance, security guarantees, and reduced criticism of its poor human rights record. In March 2002, the United States and Uzbekistan signed the Declaration on the Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework, in which both countries agreed to cooperate on economic, legal, humanitarian, and nuclear-proliferation matters. Uzbekistan’s continued collaboration with the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign led to U.S. commitments of financial assistance in exchange for promises from Karimov of political reforms.

The fragile state of Uzbekistan’s political order was highlighted by a series of suicide bomb attacks and related violent clashes in late March and early April 2004 in Bukhara and Tashkent, in which some 50 people lost their lives. Official media coverage was limited, prompting widespread rumors about the identities and motives of the attackers. The fact that police appeared to be the main targets of the violence prompted speculation that the bombings were acts of revenge carried out by relatives of those imprisoned for alleged religious extremism. The authorities blamed radical international Islamist groups—particularly the IMU, which had links to al-Qaeda, and the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation)—and denied any connection between the violence and the government’s repressive political and economic policies.

In the days following the attacks, law enforcement agencies swept up hundreds of alleged suspects and increased security measures in the capital and other large cities. Dozens of defendants were convicted in the second half of the year for their alleged roles in the attacks, and all received lengthy prison sentences in trials that did not meet basic standards of due process. On July 30, several people were killed when suicide bombers struck again, in coordinated attacks on the U.S. and Israeli embassies and the office of Uzbekistan’s prosecutor-general. Several groups claimed responsibility, although the claims could not be independently verified.

Elections for the lower house of a new bicameral parliament were held on December 26, 2004. Only the country’s five legal parties, all of which are considered to be propresidential, were granted registration to participate. Several opposition groups, including Erk and Birlik, announced in November that they would boycott the vote after being unable to register candidates. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent only a limited observer mission due to concerns about the poor electoral framework and lack of registered opposition parties, criticized the vote as falling “significantly short of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections.”

The city of Andijon in Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley, an area that has suffered both from the government’s continued repression of Islamic groups and from high poverty and unemployment, was the scene of a violent crackdown by armed forces against a popular uprising in May 2005. On May 10 and 11, family members and supporters of 23 local businessmen charged with involvement in a banned Islamic extremist group staged a peaceful demonstration in anticipation of the trial verdict. The situation turned violent when armed supporters of the businessmen attacked a police station and army barracks. They stormed the prison, freeing inmates—including the 23 businessmen—and captured the local government administration building. Thousands of local residents, among them women and children, subsequently gathered in the center of Andijon, where people spoke out on political and economic issues, often making antigovernment statements.

Security forces responded by opening fire on the demonstrators and storming the occupied building. Although the authorities maintained that the protesters were the first to open fire, eyewitnesses reported that the security forces began shooting indiscriminately, including at people who were fleeing from the scene or were already injured. Official figures put the death toll at 187, but unofficial sources estimated the dead at nearly 800, most of them unarmed civilians. The government accused Islamic extremists of orchestrating the demonstrations, though most of the protesters appeared to have been motivated by economic and social grievances.

Karimov repeatedly rejected calls from the United Nations, the European Union, the OSCE, and the United States for an independent international inquiry into the violence. In July 2005, Uzbekistan gave the United States six months to leave its military base at Karshi-Khanabad. Russia and China supported the official account of the violence and the U.S. base eviction. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan’s relations with Kyrgyzstan soured when 439 Uzbek refugees who had fled to Kyrgyzstan after the unrest in Andijon were airlifted to Romania rather than repatriated for possible trial. Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations warmed in 2006, however, as Kyrgyz authorities repatriated five refugees to Uzbekistan and the two countries conducted joint security operations in southern Kyrgyzstan against alleged Islamic extremists.

The crackdown unleashed by the Uzbek authorities after Andijon continued in 2006, targeting potential political opposition figures, human rights defenders, and even former officials. In December 2005, the husband of Nigora Hidoyatova, head of the unregistered opposition party Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Farmers), was shot to death in Kazakhstan. Nodira Hidoyatova, Nigora’s sister and coordinator of the opposition Sunshine Coalition, was sentenced to a 10-year prison term on tax evasion charges in March; she was subsequently released after agreeing to cede over $100,000 in currency and property to the state. Sunshine Coalition leader Sanjar Umarov received a 10-year prison sentence and $8 million fine in March.

Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, an Andijon-based rights defender who provided key accounts to foreign media about Uzbek government actions there, was sentenced to a seven-year prison term in January 2006 for supplying “false information.” Rights activist Motabar Tojiboeva was sentenced to an eight-year prison term on defamation and corruption charges in March after a trial that Human Rights Watch described as “unsound.” And the well-known dissident poet and songwriter Dodokhon Hasan, who wrote a song describing government actions in Andijon as a “massacre,” received a three-year suspended sentence for insulting the “dignity and honor” of Karimov after a closed trial in September.

Former defense minister Qodir Ghulomov, who was removed in November 2005, reportedly received a five-year conditional sentence after a closed trial in 2006, a possible reprisal for his role in strengthening U.S.-Uzbek ties. Reports in October indicated that Qobiljon Obidov, the former governor of Andijon, faced charges in connection with the unrest. Obidov had been removed from the post before the uprising, but he had been linked to the businessmen whose trial sparked the violence. Also in October, Karimov removed Andijon governor Saidullo Begaliev, who was in power during the uprising, charging that he had taken insufficient measures to resolve social and economic problems in the province.

On the international front, Uzbekistan’s relations with the United States, the EU, and their allies remained chilly even as Karimov actively sought to improve ties with Russia, China, and a number of regional powers. Uzbekistan formally exited GUUAM, an alliance formed by Georgia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Armenia, and Moldova, and rejoined the pro-Russian Collective Security Treaty Organization (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). Karimov also hosted India’s prime minister and visited Pakistan. In a sign of close cooperation, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) announced in March that it had extradited to Uzbekistan 19 suspected members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. And in July, the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi established a branch organization in Uzbekistan. In October 2006, however, a European Union delegation visited Uzbekistan amid reports that the EU was considering a review of sanctions imposed against Uzbekistan after the violent suppression of dissent in Andijon in 2005. A group of EU experts visited Andijon in December 2006. Despite the Uzbek government’s reported willingness to “discuss” the Andijon events with EU representatives, sanctions remained in place at the end of the year.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Uzbekistan is not an electoral democracy. President Islam Karimov and the executive branch dominate the legislature and judiciary, and the government severely represses all political opposition. The national legislature largely confirms decisions made by the executive branch. The 1994–95, 1999, and 2004 parliamentary elections and the 2000 presidential poll, in which only progovernment candidates could participate, were neither free nor fair. In a January 2002 nationwide referendum, 91 percent of voters allegedly approved amending the country’s constitution to extend the presidential term from five to seven years. Karimov’s current term in office will therefore end in 2007, rather than in 2005.

In a parallel 2002 vote, 93 percent of voters officially supported replacing the country’s 250-member, single-chamber legislature with a bicameral parliament consisting of a 120-seat lower house (with members elected by popular vote for five-year terms) and a 100-member upper house, or Senate (with 84 members elected by regional councils and 16 appointed by the president). Independent observers raised serious doubts about the validity of the referendum, citing the presence of police in polling stations and the fact that some people were able to vote on behalf of several individuals. In April 2003, the parliament adopted legislation providing former presidents with immunity from prosecution and lifelong, state-funded security for them and their immediate families.

Parties based on ethnic or religious affiliations and those advocating subversion of the constitutional order are prohibited. Only five parties, all progovernment, have been registered, and no genuine political opposition groups function legally or participate in the government. Members of unregistered secular opposition groups, including Birlik and Erk, are subject to discrimination, and many are in exile abroad. The Sunshine Uzbekistan opposition movement was effectively smashed in 2006 with the conviction of its leader, businessman Sanjar Umarov, on a variety of economic charges.

Corruption is widespread in the government apparatus, with bribery a common practice to obtain lucrative positions. Uzbekistan was ranked 151 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

While Uzbekistan’s constitution provides nominal guarantees of free speech, legislation imposes limits on freedom of speech and the press, particularly with regard to reports on the government and Karimov. The government controls major media outlets and newspaper printing and distribution facilities. 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. Although official censorship was abolished in May 2002, the responsibility for censoring material was transferred to newspaper editors, who were warned by the State Press Committee that they would be held personally accountable for what they publish. Self-censorship is widespread, while the few journalists who dare to produce probing or critical reports face harassment, physical violence, and closure of their media outlets. The government has blocked a number of news websites registered outside of Uzbekistan that publish materials critical of Uzbek authorities, and access to controversial information on the internet remains extremely limited.

In the aftermath of the violence in Andijon in May 2005, the authorities intensified their attacks on independent and foreign media representatives still operating in the country, a policy they continued in 2006. In December 2005, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was forced to close its Tashkent bureau when the Justice Ministry refused to extend its accreditation. A Deutsche Welle correspondent lost his accreditation in March 2006 for what the Uzbek authorities deemed an inaccurate story. In September, dissident journalist Jamshid Karimov, a nephew of Karimov’s, was reportedly held in a psychiatric hospital. And in October, Uzbek independent journalist Ulughbek Haydarov, a former correspondent for the London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting, was sentenced to a six-year prison term for extortion.

The government permits the existence of certain mainstream religions, including approved Muslim and Jewish communities, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church and some other Christian denominations. However, the activities of other congregations are restricted through legislation that requires all religious groups to comply with burdensome state registration criteria. Involvement in religious activities carried out by unregistered groups is punishable by fines or imprisonment, and meetings held by such groups have been raided and participants arrested and interrogated. The 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations prohibits activities including proselytizing and private religious instruction, and requires groups to obtain a license to publish or distribute materials.

The government exercises strict control over Islamic worship, including the content of imams’ sermons, and is suspicious and intolerant of followers of Muslim organizations that are not sanctioned by the state. Many members of such groups have been arrested or imprisoned on charges of anticonstitutional activities, often under the pretext of the government’s fight against militant Islamists. Muslim prisoners are frequently tortured for their religious convictions or to compel them to renounce their beliefs. Authorities have targeted members of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical but officially nonviolent 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 arrest, interrogation, and extortion. The authorities reportedly followed the wave of 2004 suicide bomb attacks with a new crackdown against religious Muslims, as well as believers of other faiths, including Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses. This policy of repression accelerated after the May 2005 killings in Andijon; Human Rights Watch documented 194 religious believers convicted by November 2005. In November 2006 the U.S. State Department added Uzbekistan to its list of countries of “particular concern” for violations of religious freedom.

The government limits academic freedom, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 human rights report. While professors generally are required to have their lectures preapproved, implementation of this restriction varies. Nevertheless, university professors reportedly practice self-censorship. Corruption is widespread in the educational system, with bribes commonly required to gain entrance to exclusive universities and to obtain good grades.

Open and free private discussion is limited by the mahalla committees, traditional neighborhood organizations that the government has turned into an official system for public surveillance and control. According to Human Rights Watch, committee members went door to door to warn residents not to speak with journalists or foreigners in the wake of the 2005 Andijon killings.

Freedom of association is restricted. Unregistered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU), do not exist as legal entities and can face difficulties operating. After the unrest in Andijon, the government intensified its crackdown on civil society organizations and human rights activists in order to suppress any possible challenges to the regime. The Uzbek authorities have been particularly interested in closing NGOs that receive funding or other support from the United States and the EU—groups that the Karimov regime associates with popular protests that led to the overthrow of the leaders of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in recent years. In 2006, court decisions led to the temporary or permanent closure of such foreign-funded organizations as Freedom House (January); the Eurasia Foundation (March); the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (March); the American Bar Association’s Europe and Eurasia Division of the Rule of Law Initiative (April); Counterpart International (May); Central Asian Free Exchange (May); the American Council for Collaboration in Education and Language Study (June); Global Involvement Through Education (June); the Urban Institute (July); Winrock International (July); Crosslink Development International (August); and Partnership in Academics and Development (September).

Despite constitutional provisions for freedom of assembly, the authorities severely restrict this right in practice. Law enforcement officials have used force to prevent demonstrations against human rights abuses in the country, and participants have been harassed, arrested, and jailed. The May 2005 crackdown in Andijon, in which hundreds of unarmed demonstrators were reportedly slain alongside a much smaller number of armed men, was only the most egregious of the government’s recent acts of repression. The Council of the Federation of Trade Unions is dependent on the state, and no genuinely independent union structures exist. Organized strikes are extremely rare.

The judiciary is subservient to the president, who appoints all judges and can remove them from office at any time. Police routinely abuse and torture suspects to extract confessions, which are accepted by judges as evidence and often serve as the basis for convictions. 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. According to Human Rights Watch, the trial of those accused of organizing the May 2005 unrest in Andijon “violated international fair-trial standards.” The similarity of the confessions of the defendants—all of whom pleaded guilty—and their consistency with the prosecutor’s indictment raised serious concerns that they had been coerced or tortured into confessing. The defendants were denied access to effective legal counsel, and the prosecution failed to present credible evidence in support of the indictment.

Prisons suffer from severe overcrowding and shortages of food and medicine. The Jaslyk prison camp is notorious for its extremely harsh conditions and ill-treatment of religious prisoners. Inmates, particularly those sentenced for their religious beliefs, are often subjected to abuse or torture, and Human Rights Watch has documented a number of torture-related deaths in custody during the last few years.

Although racial and ethnic discrimination is prohibited by law, the belief that senior positions in government and business are reserved for ethnic Uzbeks is widespread.

The government severely limits freedom of movement and residence within the country and across borders. Restrictions on foreign travel include the use of exit visas, which are often issued selectively. Permission is required from local authorities to move to a new city, and the authorities rarely grant permission to those wishing to move to Tashkent. Bribes are often paid to obtain the necessary registration documents.

Widespread corruption, bureaucratic regulations, and the government’s tight control over the economy limit most citizens’ equality of opportunity. There has been little reform in the country’s large and predominantly centrally planned agricultural sector, in which the state sets high production quotas and low purchase prices for farmers. A series of government regulations and decrees over the last few years have placed increasing restrictions on market traders and their ability to operate.

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 perpetrators, who rarely face criminal prosecution. The trafficking of women abroad for prostitution remains a serious problem. According to a 2005 investigation conducted by journalists from the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, women have been forced to undergo hysterectomies and contraception implants under a secret order from the Health Ministry to reduce the birth rate among rural women. Local authorities frequently use schoolchildren as free or cheap labor to harvest cotton; many children work long hours in unhealthy conditions, often receiving inadequate food and water.