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The human rights situation in Uzbekistan remained grim in 2007, even as the government inched toward warmer ties with the European Union, apparently motivated by a desire to reduce its dependence on Moscow. President Islam Karimov secured a third term in a December presidential vote, ignoring constitutional rules that appeared to bar his reelection.
Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union through a December 1991 referendum on the issue. 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, Erk (Freedom) Party leader Mohammed Solih, claimed election fraud. Solih fled the country two years later, and his party was forced underground. Only progovernment parties were allowed to compete in elections to the first post-Soviet legislature in December 1994 and January 1995. A February 1995 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 to overthrow the secular government and establish 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. In the January 2000 presidential poll, Karimov defeated his only opponent, Marxist history professor Abdulhafiz Jalolov, with 92 percent of the vote. The government refused to register genuine opposition parties or permit their members to stand as candidates. A January 2002 referendum extended presidential terms from five to seven years.
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 which some 50 people died. Police appeared to be the main targets, prompting speculation that the bombings were carried out by vengeful 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 to the government’s repressive political and economic policies.
In July 2004, 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, most notably a previously unknown group that calls itself Islamic Jihad, although the claims could not be independently verified. In December, elections for the lower house of a new bicameral parliament were held, with only the five legal, propresidential parties allowed to participate.
The city of Andijon in the Ferghana Valley, an area that has suffered both from the government’s repression of Islamic groups and from high poverty and unemployment, was the scene of a popular uprising and violent security crackdown in May 2005. On May 10 and 11, family members and supporters of 23 local businessmen charged with involvement in a banned Islamic group staged a peaceful demonstration in anticipation of the trial verdict. The situation turned violent when armed supporters of the men attacked a police station and army barracks. They stormed the prison, freed the 23 businessmen and other inmates, and captured the local government administration building. Thousands of local residents, among them women and children, subsequently gathered in the city center, where people began to speak 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. 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 (EU), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (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, which it had been allowed to use to support operations in Afghanistan since late 2001 as part of a strategic partnership between the two countries. Russia and China supported the official account of the violence and the U.S. base eviction.
The crackdown unleashed by the Uzbek authorities after the Andijon violence continued in 2006, targeting potential political opposition figures, human rights defenders, and even former officials. The government maintained tight control over all possible sources of dissent throughout 2007.
Karimov’s seven-year term ended in January 2007, and the constitution barred him from running for reelection. While opposition parties abroad raised questions about Karimov’s legitimacy after January, Uzbek officialdom was silent. In October, the Liberal Democratic Party nominated him as its candidate for a December presidential election, and he won with an official 88 percent of the vote. His three opponents openly supported him.
On the international front, Uzbekistan strove to restore some balance in 2007 after its concerted move toward Russia in the wake of the Andijon incident. A March 2007 visit to Tashkent by the Russian premier featured unusual complaints from Uzbek officials about the pace of Russian investment. An April agreement with China laid the groundwork for a natural gas export pipeline to that country. Meanwhile, in October the EU softened Andijon-related sanctions despite a marked lack of progress on human rights in Uzbekistan. Also that month, Karimov revived long-flagging regional ties with a visit to Turkmenistan.
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. According to current constitutional rules, the president is limited to two seven-year terms, but Karimov, having served since before independence, was nevertheless reelected in December 2007. A dubious referendum in 2002 replaced the country’s 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).
Parties based on ethnic or religious affiliations and those advocating subversion of the constitutional order are prohibited. Only five parties, all progovernment, are registered, and no genuine opposition groups function legally. A March 2007 law intended to expand the role of registered parties had little effect on the moribund political arena. Members of unregistered secular opposition groups, including Birlik and Erk, are subject to discrimination, and many live 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. Uzbekistan was ranked 175 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
While the constitution guarantees free speech, the law restricts freedom of speech and the press, particularly with regard to reports on the government and Karimov. The state controls major media outlets as well as newspaper printing and distribution facilities. Although official censorship was abolished in 2002, newspaper editors were warned by the State Press Committee that they would be held personally accountable for what they published. Self-censorship remains widespread. In the aftermath of the violence in Andijon in May 2005, the authorities struck out at independent and foreign media outlets. In December 2005, for instance, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was forced to close its Tashkent bureau when the Justice Ministry refused to extend its accreditation. The government has also blocked websites with critical materials, most recently after the killing of journalist Alisher Saipov, a critic of the Uzbek regime, in Kyrgyzstan in October 2007.
The government permits the existence of mainstream religions, including approved Muslim, Jewish, and Christian denominations. However, religious activities by unregistered groups is punishable by fines or imprisonment. The state exercises strict control over Islamic worship, including the content of sermons, and suspected members of banned Muslim organizations and their relatives have been subjected to arrest, interrogation, torture, and extortion. Harsh crackdowns followed the outbreaks of violence in 2004 and 2005. In November 2006 the U.S. State Department added Uzbekistan to its list of countries of “particular concern” for violations of religious freedom. Some reports in 2007, however, suggested a slight relaxation in official constraints on the activities of mainstream Muslims.
The government limits academic freedom, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2007 human rights report. While professors generally are required to have their lectures preapproved, enforcement varies. Bribes are 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.
Freedom of association is restricted. Unregistered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU), can face difficulties operating. After the unrest in Andijon, the government intensified its crackdown on human rights activists and NGOs, particularly those that receive funding or other support from the United States and the EU. The regime associates such groups with popular protests that led to the overthrow of the leaders of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in recent years. In 2005–06, court decisions led to the temporary or permanent closure of virtually all foreign-funded organizations in Uzbekistan.
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, and participants have been harassed, arrested, and jailed. 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 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. A 2007 report by Human Rights Watch described torture as “endemic” to the criminal justice system. Law enforcement authorities reportedly often plant contraband on suspected Islamic extremists or political opponents to justify their arrest. In 2007, rights activists Gulbahor Turayeva and Umida Niyazova were tried, sentenced, and then released after dubious “confessions” in which they recanted their previous human rights activities.
Prisons suffer from severe overcrowding and shortages of food and medicine. 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.
Permission is required to move to a new city, and the authorities rarely grant permission to move to Tashkent. Bribes are commonly paid to obtain the necessary registration documents. Restrictions on foreign travel include the use of exit visas, which are often issued selectively. Nevertheless, millions of Uzbeks, primarily men of working age, work abroad—primarily in Russia and Kazakhstan—which affects the domestic political atmosphere.
Widespread corruption and the government’s tight control over the economy limit most citizens’ equality of opportunity. There has been little reform in the country’s agricultural sector, in which the state sets high production quotas and low purchase prices for farmers. A series of regulations and decrees over the last few years have placed increasing restrictions on market traders.
Women’s educational and professional prospects are limited by cultural and religious norms and by ongoing economic difficulties. Victims of domestic violence are discouraged from pressing charges against perpetrators, who rarely face prosecution. The trafficking of women abroad for prostitution remains a serious problem. 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. This practice can be linked to the absence of adult males in the labor force.