By Caroline Tosh in London and IWPR staff in Central Asia (RCA No. 492, 11-May-07)
As the European Union prepares to vote on whether to lift the sanctions it imposed on Uzbekistan in the wake of the Andijan violence two years ago, human rights activists and journalists in the country as well as international experts warn that any relaxation of the measures will send the wrong message to Tashkent.
Germany, which currently holds the EU presidency, appears to be pushing for awkward human rights concerns to be quietly dropped from the agenda in pursuit of a new EU strategy for engaging with Central Asia. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, RFE/RL, reported on May 11 that EU ambassadors were deadlocked on whether sanctions should be renewed, softened or dropped.
Uzbek officials have sensed the new mood over recent months, and have in turn sought a rapprochement with Europe on their terms.
If Tashkent gets a clean bill of health when EU foreign ministers meet on May 14, it will have achieved this without addressing fundamental human rights concerns, and specifically without instituting the international inquiry requested by the EU, the United Nations, and countries such as the United States.
Government soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians in the eastern town almost exactly two years ago, on May 13, as people gathered in protest over the trial of 23 local businessmen accused of Islamic extremism - said by their families to be innocent.
The massacre is widely thought to be the worst atrocity committed by a government against demonstrators since the Chinese army killed several hundred protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The Uzbek authorities say 187 were killed, but human rights organisations put the figure closer to 800, and argue that a determined effort by the Uzbek authorities to shut down non-government organisations, NGOs, and independent media has meant the truth behind events has never emerged.
Human rights groups are urging the EU to maintain the sanctions, and are calling for them to press for an international inquiry into Andijan and raise other human rights concerns.
EU SANCTIONS CENTRE ON DEMAND FOR INQUIRY
Sanctions were imposed because of the Uzbek government's continued refusal to allow an independent international inquiry into the massacre, which was requested first by UN human rights commissioner Louise Arbour and then by the US government.
In November 2005, the EU announced a series of measures against the Uzbek government. These were:
- A partial suspension of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement which governs EU-Uzbek relations.
- An embargo on EU sales of weapons to Uzbekistan
- A year-long visa ban on 12 senior officials believed to have played a part in the use of force against demonstrators.
President Islam Karimov's government has shown little sign of bowing to the demand for an inquiry, maintaining its position that Andijan happened as a result of an uprising mounted by Islamic radical groups.
When the sanctions came up for renewal in November 2006, the Uzbek authorities did some intensive lobbying in Brussels and agreed at least to discuss the Andijan events with EU representatives. In response, Brussels agreed not to widen the scope of the sanctions, although they were extended for another six months.
The gulf between the official EU position on what had to happen for relations to improve and Tashkent's take on the matter was evident when Uzbek foreign minister Vladimir Norov told reporters that the purpose of inviting EU experts to a meeting on Andijan was to set them right and tell them that the violence involved a premeditated terrorist act by Islamists.
When EU foreign ministers reviewed the matter again in March 2007, Germany's Frank-Walter Steinmeier - who has led the effort to re-engage with Tashkent - assured his colleagues that there were "openings that must be developed" in the dialogue. Ministers left the sanctions in place pending a further review on May 14, one day after the anniversary.
UZBEK SEND MIXED MESSAGES AHEAD OF EU REVIEW
Considering the importance of the May 14 meeting, the Uzbek government has made a number of apparently quixotic decisions that are not calculated to help its cause.
Two civil society activists were given long jail sentences within days of each other. Gulbahor Turaeva, a member of Anima-Kor, an NGO which works to protect the rights of doctors and patients, got six years on April 24, and Umida Niazova, a journalist and human rights activist, was handed a seven year term on May 1 - both after trials that appeared deeply flawed.
The EU presidency issued a statement on May 4 expressing "great concern" about the harsh sentences and urging an immediate review of both cases.
"The two sentences send a worrying signal by Uzbekistan in the perspective of a EU decision on whether to renew specific sanctions adopted in 2005 in relation to the Andijan tragedy, and while Uzbekistan has agreed to hold a dialogue with the EU on human rights," said the statement.
Earlier, Tashkent had told Arbour that officials were "too busy" to meet her on her tour of Central Asia in late April and early May. As a result, she missed Uzbekistan out from her tour of the region - which, considering she visited Turkmenistan, seen by many as an even worse offender on human rights in recent years, was something of a snub.
It was Arbour who issued the original UN report calling for an investigation into Andijan.
On April 3, the authorities refused to extend the accreditation of Andrea Berg, director of Human Rights Watch's office in Tashkent. The decision was not surprising - most foreign non-government groups have been squeezed out of the country since Andijan - but the timing was poor in view of the forthcoming EU meeting.
The authorities tried to repair the damage done by these decisions, which arguably only raised more questions about them and highlighted underlying concerns about human rights even closer to the date of the EU's deliberations.
Berg was summoned to meet Foreign Minister Norov on April 21, and he granted her accreditation after all - but only for three months.
Niazova was released on May 8, her jail term reduced to a suspended sentence with severe restrictions on her movements. This decision mirrored the timing of the release of journalist Ulugbek Haidarov, whom the authorities freed ahead of the EU sanctions in November.
But Turaeva was not released - for good measure, she received an additional sentence, lengthening the time she will spend in prison to 11 years. The authorities have made a particular point of removing from circulation anyone who was an eyewitness to events in Andijan. Turaeva had reported seeing hundreds of corpses heaped together by the authorities after the shootings.
Human Rights Watch pointed out the unfortunate timing, as news of the verdict came out on May 9, just as a high-level EU delegation was in Tashkent for a talks that formed part of the EU-Uzbek "human rights dialogue" - part of the EU's apparent strategy of talking about the subject rather than demanding action.
"Turaeva's first sentencing was bad enough," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This second verdict is outrageous, and underscores why the EU should focus its dialogue with Tashkent on the need to release Turaeva and the other rights defenders."
REPORT CARD SINCE 2005 SHOWS POOR MARKS
Aside from gestures, have the Uzbeks done enough to merit the lifting of sanctions? Does even the most liberal interpretation of "progress" on human rights stand up?
On the principal question - an impartial investigation carried out by international experts - the answer is no. The government has shown no sign of entering into a debate on the preconditions for such an investigation, although it is happy to engage in the "dialogue" proposed by the EU since this does not presuppose an inquiry.
Although the EU document setting out sanctions does not list improvements in other areas as a condition for ending the restrictions, it is more than likely that general improvements - or the lack of them - will be cited as reasons for the decision taken by European foreign ministers.
If sanctions are dropped, it will underline the difference between the approaches of the EU and the US.
Until Andijan, the Americans were allies of Uzbekistan, which had provided them with the use of a military airbase for operations in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks on the US.
The relationship broke down when the US administration joined international calls for an investigation into the Andijan violence, and the Uzbeks demanded they leave the airbase.
In March, US ambassador Jon Purnell presented the Uzbek government with the State Department's annual report on human rights for 2006. The report is damning, saying the human rights situation continued to deteriorate and citing such violations such as the torture of detainees by law-enforcement officers, the incarceration of regime critics and human rights activists in mental hospitals, the persecution of independent journalists, and appalling prison conditions.
The day before it was formally presented, Uzbekistan's foreign ministry denounced the report as "prejudiced and unfair". The ministry said the State Department's monitoring was "tendentious and counterproductive".
It is difficult to get access to information in Uzbekistan thanks to the government's determined effort to silence journalists and close off both information sources and media outlets.
However, IWPR interviews with people in Uzbekistan as well as experts outside the country suggest there has been a distinct lack of progress since 2005 with regard to arbitrary detention and trial, political rights, and media freedom.
NGOS UNDER SEVERE PRESSURE
Including Turaeva, Human Rights Watch says at least 14 human rights defenders are currently detained on politically motivated charges, including the serious offence of "anti-state activities".
Local groups are under great pressure, Elena Urlaeva, a member of the Uzbek Human Rights Alliance who was imprisoned for four months in a psychiatric hospital after being arrested at a rally in Tashkent in 2002, says she fears the organisation will soon be closed down.
Her colleagues are constantly harassed, followed and photographed, and the office is under 24-hour surveillance by police, she said.
Urlaeva says the persecution of activists is severely hampering their ability to work both in the country and outside it too - with some banned from travelling altogether, and others detained or given rigorous checks at border checkpoints.
She was arrested in March on the border with Kyrgyzstan while coming back from a UN meeting in Bishkek. She and her elderly mother were detained for eight hours.
"The human rights situation in Uzbekistan has worsened compared with last year. We [activists] cannot travel to other countries. Many of our members are under virtual house arrest," she said.
In the last two years, the government has closed down many international NGOs on a number of pretexts, including failure to register with the authorities or to provide information on their activities.
The scope for even discussing sensitive subjects such as human rights has narrowed, according to people interviewed for this report.
"In the past, there was a possibility that human rights might improve. You could talk about violations of human rights," said one local journalist. "Now that's out of the question. If a human rights activist acts to help someone... he may end up in prison himself. You can see that by the number of cases in which activists have been pressured, assaulted, arrested, or accused of extorting money."
INDEPENDENT MEDIA CLOSE TO EXTINCTION
The position of independent journalists is also becoming increasingly untenable.
"The authorities' attitude to the media hasn't changed. It's the same as ever," said a political analyst based in Tashkent. "All media outlets are under the authorities' control, and the very idea that they might stand up to them is ridiculous - they don't even discuss what the authorities are doing."
As far as access to information was concerned, the analyst said, "The authorities provide the public with whatever information deem necessary. Anything that doesn't fit their criteria is blocked - even information about what's happening inside the country.... Most information remains secret."
According to Urlaeva, changes to media law now mean harsh measures can be taken against those who distribute foreign reports on human rights that criticise Uzbekistan. "Previously, we would print out reports by international organisations such as Human Rights Watch and interesting articles about Uzbekistan, copy them and hand them to others. Now writing for an internet publication may be deemed anti-constitutional propaganda," she said.
In Andijan, a local reporter said the information blockade meant that the media situation is "dead, and it's inconceivable that it will revive".
"The local press write about incredible achievements that the average person wouldn't recognise," he said. "They write about the high standard of living, when people haven't seen anything of the sort in the last 14 years.
"There's no media freedom to speak of. One might put it this way - the media in Andijan are free to fantasise as much as they want. Other than that, there's nothing that can be written about."
Foreign media are no longer able to operate inside Uzbekistan and their reporters - both local and international - are not granted the accreditation they need to work legally. Germany's Deutsche Welle has had to close down, joining the BBC and RFE/RL, which closed their Tashkent offices earlier.
Journalists in Uzbekistan say the amended media regulations which came into force on January 15 have given the government more control over media and led to increased self-censorship. The new law defines websites as media outlets - which means they must register with government, provide information on their employees, and give the authorities copies of all publications.
In spite of a constitutional ban on censorship, an RFE/RL report in April said the authorities were further restricting access to independent media by blocking websites.
In its annual report for 2007, press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders said that "arrests, internment and blocked websites were routine for journalists in 2006".
It also noted that the Uzbek government warned last year that journalists working for foreign media that criticised government policy risked losing their accreditation.
Craig Murray, formerly Britain's ambassador to Tashkent, said the Uzbek government's crackdown on independent media has had the desired effect.
"Uzbekistan is off the radar to almost everyone. There is no public opinion on the subject because international media organisations have been successfully banned," he told IWPR.
This stifling of media means that human rights abuses go largely unreported, he added.
POLITICAL PLURALISM A DISTANT PROSPECT
When he found himself head of state of an independent Uzbekistan in 1991, Islam Karimov moved quickly to neutralise potential sources of opposition. As a result, there is no legal political opposition.
Constitutional amendments and a new law governing political parties which come into force from January next year appear at first sight to be a move towards democracy.
The new party law introduces the concept of a parliamentary opposition for the first time. It also gives the parliamentary majority a say in the appointment of the prime minister.
President Karimov proposed the changes in November, and they were duly passed by parliament in March this year. In a speech in December, Karimov made remarks that suggested there will be little real change.
He spoke of "further expanding the rights and powers of political parties, giving them more influence over the elected bodies and the state administration", but indicated that the "parliamentary opposition" would be made up of the five legal parties, "some [of which] will opt to become the opposition".
The five officially registered parties in the country all back the president. They are virtually invisible between elections, and do not offer alternative political visions. Karimov, however, suggested that they had "gained in political prestige and maturity", that they ran "competitive" campaigns in recent elections, and that they were now ready to take on the vigorous new role the law would assign them.
Analysts say it is highly unlikely that a real multi-party system will develop in the foreseeable future.
True opposition parties - such as Birlik and Erk - are banned, cannot stand for election, and their leaders remain in exile. As a local commentator told IWPR's News Briefing CentralAsia agency in March, Erk and Birlik "have not been granted registration for many years. These two parties will never be able to take part in parliamentary elections or nominate candidates".
Another area where there has been little demonstrable improvement is the use of physical abuse including torture, particularly to extract confessions as a way of securing an automatic conviction.
In December 2005, Theo van Boven, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, said torture was an "endemic problem" in Uzbekistan.
Maisy Weicherding of Amnesty International told IWPR that torture was a serious, ongoing problem. Amnesty receives widespread reports of people who say they were tortured - including independent journalists, human rights activists, devout Muslims, secular oppositionists, and even some former government officials.
Weicherding says the EU needs to raise individual cases where there is evidence of serious abuse such as torture, "It's very important for them to take a principled stand in order to raise human rights standards."
Shahida Yakub of the Uzbekistan Initiative-London group is particularly concerned at the treatment of Muslim believers, who are often detained and accused of links with extremism. These people, she said, form the most persecuted group in Uzbekistan, with at least four people disappearing in the last year. Unlike the persecution of human rights defenders, such cases are rarely reported in the media.
IMPLICATIONS OF ENDING SANCTIONS
Most of the people interviewed for this report were concerned at the implications of the EU giving Uzbekistan a clean sheet - an end to sanctions in exchange for vague promises to talk about human rights.
Murray, who was recalled from Tashkent after criticising the use of torture, said he would be "pleasantly surprised" if the EU maintained the sanctions in the face of German pressure.
The recent jailings of human rights activists, the closing down of international media organisations, and Tashkent's "total failure" to address the EU demand for an Andijan inquiry make the German position "totally indefensible," he said.
"The astonishing thing is that, beyond any shadow of a doubt, there is no argument [to be made] that the human rights situation has got better," he said.
Yakub said that if sanctions were lifted it would come as a bitter disappointment for Uzbeks, who feel their rights are being traded for economic gain, "People in Uzbekistan feel that no one cares about what is happening in the country. There is a feeling that the EU is putting its energy interests over its support for democracy."
An Uzbek who fled to Kyrgyzstan after the Andijan violence echoed this view, saying, "I think it is too early to drop the EU sanctions on Uzbekistan. They [Uzbek authorities] should first improve matters regarding human rights, and create some space for opposition."
For now, she concluded, "Uzbekistan has turned into a police state."
Berg of Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned at what she sees as a weakened EU stance in recent months, and says "the international community has sent too many positive signals to Uzbekistan - in spite of the worsening situation there".
"EU human rights officials say they can see some progress and give statements that things are going the right way - but I'm living here, and working here and dealing with human rights violations every day," she said.
If the EU drops the sanctions, Weicherding is similarly concerned about the message this would send out. "That would signal that they've improved [human rights] and have done well, so don't have to do anything any more. The state in Uzbekistan has not really improved, despite what the authorities would like to assert," she said.
While she says the EU has not disclosed what benchmarks it will use to measure the human rights situation as it reviews sanctions, she warns that recent "expert talks" held by the EU and Uzbekistan are no substitute for a proper independent enquiry into Andijan.
She added that EU officials must not be swayed by political considerations, such a fear of losing influence in Central Asia, in particular in the energy sector.
The EU has drafted a new engagement strategy which it hopes will help Europe gain a stronger hold in the Central Asian republics. The oil and gas sectors in Kazakstan and potentially Turkmenistan could be important energy sources for Europe, but Uzbekistan exports only limited amounts of gas, which is bought by Russia.
Sanobar Shermatova, a Moscow-based Central Asian expert, argues that the sanctions are important as they give a clear message that breaches of human rights mean that Uzbekistan is not considered an equal partner in the eyes of the EU.
But she says that the EU's attempts to woo the wider region in order to access energy resources weaken its censure of the human rights situation.
"Uzbekistan well understands that it is not about democracy, but energy cooperation. I think that the US and EU no longer believe democracy is possible in Central Asia," she said.
It is Germany that has done most of the pushing for sanctions against the country to be relaxed. To date, the German view seems to be that suspending relations with Uzbekistan has done little to improve human rights in any case.
Critics of the German approach argue the country has undermined the sanctions from the start, by allowing former interior minister Zokir Almatov - who was on the EU's visa-ban list - into Germany for medical treatment.
DOES TASHKENT CARE?
James Nixey, an expert on Central Asia and Russia at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, does not think the Uzbek leadership will comply with the EU's demands.
"The authorities there don't like to be lectured and are too proud to bow to EU demands, so taking this approach of imposing sanctions may put them on the defensive," he said.
Like many analysts, he questions how effective the minimal sanctions have been. "Several of the Uzbek leadership travelled to the EU for medical reasons, so they were pretty leaky form the start," he said.
Nixey thinks it will take another event on a scale similar to Andijan before the international community takes more decisive action against Uzbekistan.
Murray does not believe the EU can exercise much power over Uzbekistan.
"Karimov's attitude towards the EU is amused and contemptuous. He has no interest whatsoever in forging links with it. He's not interested in having a market economy," he said.
Central Asian expert Nick Megoran says improving the human rights situation is not a priority for the Uzbek authorities. As the country moves away from the West into a closer alliance with Russia and China, it has becomes less concerned with the image it conveys to the rest of the world.
Megoran said the EU packs little weight in Central Asia.
"The EU has been critical of Uzbekistan's human rights record and it would like to trade with Central Asia more, but the EU isn't particularly important to Uzbekistan," he said.
"Islam Karimov is a very independent character - he's no one's puppet. The ability of states such as the US, Britain, France of Germany to do anything is very limited," he said.
EU URGED TO SHOULDER ITS RESPONSIBILITY
Others argue that the EU should not abdicate its responsibility by allowing Tashkent to believe it can do nothing and still be rewarded.
In a letter to EU foreign ministers urging them to keep the sanctions in place, Human Rights Watch said "the worsening human rights situation in Uzbekistan is... directly linked to the EU's soft-pedalling on this record. The Uzbek government not only failed to take any positive steps to address abuses, but obviously felt no compulsion to refrain from further abuse despite the looming sanctions review, no doubt because of the positive signals it received from the EU.
"This startling fact should alone prompt the EU to immediately recognise the utter failure of its policy."
At a meeting of the European parliament's human rights subcommittee on May 3 - ahead of the sanctions review - German foreign ministry official Rolf Schulze said that "isolation of Uzbekistan is not an option".
Rolf Timans, head of the Unit for Human Rights and Democratisation at the European Commission, suggested holding talks was more realistic than expecting substantive action from the Uzbeks.
"One has to be realistic," he said. "One should not expect that the Uzbek authorities will release such [political] prisoners overnight. We have to start discussing human rights first. Let's not expect that the results will be forthcoming immediately."
Helene Flautre, a French Green member of parliament, delivered a stinging response at the meeting. "I hope that there are no Uzbek officials in the room," she told Timans. "Your words suggest that they hardly need to make an effort."
Caroline Tosh is an IWPR reporter in London. IWPR and News Briefing CentralAsia staff and contributors provided additional reporting and interviews.
The names of interviewees in Uzbekistan have been withheld in the interests of their security.