Uzbekistan: Clamor Grows for Release of Activist

Yelena Urlaeva, an activist being held in a psychiatric institution, speaking in a video appeal posted on March 2, 2017. (Photo: YouTube screengrab)

For almost two weeks, one of Uzbekistan’s best-known human rights activists has been forcibly confined to a psychiatric institution in Tashkent, prompting deepening alarm among her supporters.

Yelena Urlaeva, who has fearlessly documented cases of rights abuses in Uzbekistan for decades, was detained by police on March 1 and checked into a hospital against her will, according to her own video testimony.
fergana.ru, which has published a petition on its website calling for Urlaeva’s release, reported earlier in the week that the activist has been visited in hospital by representatives from the US Embassy, among others.

Photographer Timur Karpov managed to take a photograph of Urlaeva, which was posted on fergana.ru on March 9, but he was not admitted to see her. 

“He was not allowed to see the patient with the excuse that the only days on which visits are permitted are Wednesday and Saturday,” a doctor was quoted as saying by the website.

The renewed harassment against Urlaeva comes as the authorities elsewhere display signs of wishing to soften their ruthless authoritarian rule.

The US Embassy had registered its satisfaction with the recent release from jail of Muhammad Bekjanov, a journalist who served 18 years in jail on likely trumped up charges, and Jamshid Karimov, a journalist, relative of the late president and government critic who had been held in a psychiatric clinic for more than a decade. But that progress has been compromised by Urlaeva’s plight and that of Azam Farmonov, another activist languishing in jail, the embassy noted.

“We urge the government to reinforce its more positive trajectory on questions of the human dimension so that future actions align more closely with the country’s own laws and international standards,” the embassy said in a statement.

Urlaeva is perhaps best known to local authorities for her efforts to document the use of forced labor in the cotton industry. She has proven a particularly insistent thorn in the government’s side by producing evidence that has disproved official claims that all children, students and government workers are no longer being compelled to take part in harvesting. Her work has led to repeated confinement to psychiatric institutions — in 2001, 2005, 2012 and 2016 — in a practice directly inherited from the Soviet Union.

The government’s current ambivalent line — releasing some political prisoners, while placing other people in jail on flimsy charges — is cause for some perplexity.

Exiled political activist Pulat Ahunov has put it down to an ongoing behind-the-scenes battle going on between the president’s office and the security services, with the former preferring to adhere to the traditional hard line.

“The security services and police want to scare the president and show him that there are many foes inside the country and that if they are given too much freedom, they will sow confusion. They are creating problems as if to say: ‘without us you will be lost,’” Ahunov told EurasiaNet.org.

Uzbekistan: Clamor Grows for Release of Activist

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