As a senior Uzbek government official touches down in Berlin on May 24, he is heading into a storm of controversy over Uzbekistan’s human rights record. The release of an Uzbek dissident ahead of the trip has not tempered the row, with revelations of his ill treatment behind bars further stoking the ire of activists.
Rights watchdogs are urging Berlin to use the visit of Vladimir Norov, Uzbekistan’s first deputy foreign minister, to pressure Tashkent to improve its record.
“Hosting high-level officials from Uzbekistan comes with a duty to speak out about the government’s atrocious rights record,” Steve Swerdlow, Uzbekistan researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement on May 20. “Germany needs to let Uzbekistan know that there will be no more business as usual.”
Campaigners accuse Berlin of cozying up to Tashkent to protect Germany’s geopolitical interests, namely its airbase at Termez, used to ferry troops into Afghanistan.
Tashkent has made a tidy profit from the German military presence. From 2005 to 2009 Berlin paid 67.9 million euros for costs associated with the base, according to a document released by the German military earlier this year. It paid a further 25.9 million euros in 2010, and from 2011 it is shelling out an annual 15.95 million euros for the lease alone, not including associated costs.
Germany retained the right to use the facility even after the United States was ejected from its airbase at Khanabad following Washington’s criticism of the violent crushing of a protest in Andijan in 2005.
The Uzbek government denied using undue force in Andijan, saying it was suppressing an Islamic uprising. Rights activists dismissed that allegation, accusing Tashkent of opening fire on unarmed protestors. They also cast doubt on the official death toll of 187.
The European Union imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan over the violence, including a ban on top officials visiting member states. Berlin controversially waived the ban for Interior Minister Zokir Almatov, allowing him to travel to Germany for medical treatment on humanitarian grounds in 2005. Germany was also instrumental in lobbying for the sanctions to be lifted in 2009.
The German Embassy in Tashkent did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Uzbekistan’s human rights record. The Uzbek government denies abuses and says it is forced to take a tough line to confront the threat of Islamic extremism.
As the sixth anniversary of Andijan passed on May 13, HRW urged the EU and the United States to “re-examine their relationships with the Uzbek government in light of its atrocious rights record.”
“The EU and the US have to hold the Uzbek government to account for the Andijan massacre and for the unrelenting repression that continues to this day," said Rachel Denber, acting Europe and Central Asia director at HRW, whose Uzbekistan office was shut down by the Uzbek government in March.
Advocates are concerned that human rights are dropping down the agenda due to Uzbekistan’s strategic significance as a link in the Northern Distribution Network, used to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan.
While western officials rarely criticize Uzbekistan over human rights publically, behind-the-scenes diplomacy may be paying off, however.
On May 19 dissident poet Yusuf Juma was released from Uzbekistan’s notorious Jaslyk prison three years into a five-year sentence on charges activists viewed as trumped up, and immediately forced into exile.
In an interview with the independent Uznews.net website, Juma linked his release to a visit to Tashkent by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December 2010, and said a US diplomat had facilitated his departure for the United States.
Tashkent summarily stripped him and his accompanying daughter and four-year-old grandson of citizenship before they left, and his conviction on charges of causing bodily harm, failing to obey an official and insult still stands.
Campaigners viewed the case as a reprisal for his bitingly satirical poems, sometimes directed against strongman President Islam Karimov personally.
“Thank heaven, our king has turned out to be a patriot; he has been ruling for 100 years,” reads one poem in Uzbek called Yol (Path), adding sarcastically that “even the blind can see his good deeds.”
Juma told Uznews.net that he had been subjected to physical violence in prison, highlighting concerns about the fate of others who remain behind bars in a country where the UN Committee Against Torture found “numerous, ongoing and consistent allegations concerning the routine use of torture” in November 2007. Tashkent denies systematic abuse.
On May 19 four German parliamentarians wrote to Chancellor Angela Merkel urging her to address “continued and widespread human rights violations” in Uzbekistan and “raise with the Uzbek government the cases of 13 imprisoned human rights defenders.”
“Germany must maintain a principled position towards the protection of fundamental human rights in Uzbekistan,” the parliamentarians wrote.
An English translation of the letter was published by the Washington-based Freedom Now legal advocacy organization, which represents one of the 13. Akzam Turgunov, formerly a public defender, is serving a 10-year prison sentence on extortion charges critics view as fabricated.
The parliamentarians alleged that after his arrest an interrogator poured boiling water on his neck and back. The charge had a sinister echo of the case of Muzafar Avazov, who died in Jaslyk prison in 2002; doctors who viewed the corpse said it bore signs of having been immersed in boiling water.