Uzbekistan and Rights: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

With every minor hint of a concession on human rights, the government in Uzbekistan looks determined to stumble with a worrying violation. 

This week, for example, saw the unusual spectacle of a tiny protest picket outside a court building in Tashkent reaching its conclusion without police unceremoniously bundling away participants.

The two-hour vigil was organized by Elena Urlaeva, the indefatigable leader of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, on the morning of December 15 in protest at what she described as an unjustly imprisoned man. While police arrived at the scene during the event, they looked on impassively without taking action.

This is the second picket in Tashkent that has taken place in the past two weeks without being broken up. The first, also organized by Urlaeva and a small number of other activists, was held on December 5 outside the presidential administration.

According to the head of the Uzbek–German Forum for Human Rights, Umida Niyazova, this toleration of minuscule pickets signals only a shift in tactics. Breaking up small and largely inconspicuous rallies typically creates more noise than allowing them proceed unhindered. 

But Niyazova warned against allowing such anomalous events to distract from the persistence of systematic rights abuses and lack of access to justice. She mentioned, particular, the plight of Muhammad Bekzhanov, the editor of an opposition newspaper who was jailed in 1999.

Amnesty International issued a statement on December 16 expressing concern that Bekzhanov, who is due for release next month, has been placed in a punishment cell and that this could signal a prelude to his sentence being extended.

“This would not be the first time that an alleged violation of prison rules has been used to punish Muhammad Bekzhanov. In January 2012, a month before his scheduled release, he was sentenced to a further four years and eight months in prison for allegedly violating prison rules. Family members reported that Muhammad Bekzhanov told the court that he had not infringed a single prison rule in 13 years and that it was strange that he should start breaking rules just weeks before his scheduled release,” Amnesty noted in its statement.

The inherent contradiction of such developments suggests talk from the authorities about trying to remedy perceptions of injustice may be little more than window dressing.

In any event, the focus so far has been not so much on the courts as on the interaction between citizens and law enforcement.

During his address on Constitution Day, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said that of the 250,000 or so complaints addressed to his office as part of a recent outreach exercise, most concerned the activities of the police.

In an apparent attempt to address this wave of complaints, Interior Minister Adham Ahmedbayev on December 13 announced his department had created a section on its website for members of the public to address him in person with their problems. The feature has a function to identify whether the queries are being addressed.

The aim, until such evidence to the contrary proves otherwise, appears not to be providing justice and fairness to the Uzbek people, but merely to be perceived as doing so.

Uzbekistan and Rights: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

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