Authorities in Uzbekistan have released a third jailed human rights activist in the space of a few weeks, seemingly signaling a new direction for political liberalization. Optimism should be tempered, however, in view of other more ominous developments.
Ganihon Mamatkhanov, 67, was arrested in October 2009 and later sentenced to five years in prison on charges of fraud and taking bribes. His colleagues roundly criticized the case.
“Monitoring of the trial by independent observers found that the court had failed to provide evidence that Mamatkhanov had taken any bribes,” Umida Niyazov, head of the Uzbek German Human Rights Forum, told EurasiaNet.org.
In a maneuver typical of the Uzbek authorities, Mamatkhanov had his sentence extended for allegedly “declining to obey the orders of [prison] authorities.” He had been due for release on June 4, 2016, but again had his sentence extended.
Mamatkhanov is a native of the Ferghana region and was a vehement critic of local corruption and the use of child labor, which was until recently widely used in the cotton harvest. He was met on his exit from prison on October 16 by the head of the Uzbek rights organization Ezgulik, Vasily Inoyatov.
“The Interior Ministry enabled the involvement of Ezgulik in the liberation of Ganihon Mamatkhanov. We believe that freeing the rights activist was made possible through the efforts of rights groups. This is an important social and political event in the life of our country and we hope that we will soon see the freeing of other activists in Uzbekistan’s rights movement,” Inoyatov said in a statement on Facebook.
The US Embassy in Tashkent likewise welcomed the development.
“This latest release follows the recent releases of several other prisoners of conscience, and is an additional positive step that demonstrates the Government of Uzbekistan’s commitment to upholding international human rights standards,” the Embassy said in a statement. “The United States looks forward to further steps supporting President [Shavkat] Mirziyoyev’s commitment to political, economic, social, and human rights reforms.”
Mamatkhanov’s release followed shortly shortly on the heels of a visit to Uzbekistan by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, who is in the country from October 2 to 12. Shaheed was formally invited to visit by Mirziyoyev.
Another right activist, 39-year old Azam Farmonov, 39, was released from prison at the start of October. He had been sentenced to nine years in jail in 2006 on charges of extortion, and he too subsequently had his sentence extended. A few days later, on October 7, a fellow activist, Akzam Turgunov, was set free, having spent almost 10 years in jail on extortion charges.
While such developments may be cause for celebration, it would be as well not to overestimate the humanity of the Uzbek authorities. According to Human Rights Watch data, at least a dozen other rights activists still remain in prison. Those that have been released more than acquitted their sentences, so the government has simply been abiding by its very basic requirements. And it is still unclear that the government intends to retrospectively clear them of any crimes, which would be a truly meaningful gesture and an acknowledgement of its prior excesses.
Most alarmingly, while some are being released — having more than served their sentences — others, like journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev, 44, have been arrested on highly spurious grounds. Abdullayev was detained by the National Security Services, or SNB, in late September and was later charged with conspiring to topple the government.
The release of rights activists is good news, but it is the fate of the Abdullayevs of Uzbekistan that will determine where the country is headed.