Signs of trouble continue to surface in Uzbekistan

Originally published
Signs of instability continue to surface in Uzbekistan amid government efforts to tighten control over society in the aftermath of the Andijan events. On June 8, a protest hit a collective farm near Samarkand, as supporters of a banned political movement demanded the release of a local activist from custody.

According to a representative of the Ozod Dekhkonlar (Free Peasants) party, hundreds of farmers gathered at the Bobur State Farm near Samarkand to protest the June 5 arrest of Norboi Kholzhigitov, a local party organizer. The arrest allegedly stemmed from a dispute about the farm's privatization process. Police reportedly cordoned off the farm, but Ozod Dekhkonlar had not received any report on the possible use of force by authorities to break up the protest. Officials in Tashkent could not corroborate the information provided by the Ozod Dekhkonlar representative. Efforts to independently verify the information were not immediately possible.

News of the protests came a day after the release of a special report prepared by Human Rights Watch, which characterized the events of May 13 in Andijan as a "massacre." Also on June 7, the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a statement stating that "three weeks after the violence in the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley, the ICRC still has no access to people injured or arrested in connection with events, nor has it been able to establish contact with the regional authorities in Andijan."

There are other indicators that suggest Uzbek authorities are toughening their stance not only towards perceived domestic opponents, but also towards foreign non-governmental organizations. President Islam Karimov's administration has long viewed NGOs with suspicion, seeing them as purveyors of democratic ideals that run counter to the government's authoritarian impulses.

Perhaps the starkest example of the growing Uzbek suspicion towards international entities was Tashkent's recent decision not to renew visas for 54 US Peace Corps volunteers. The Uzbek action effectively forced the Peace Corps to shut down its operations in Uzbekistan. All volunteers, along with the Peace Corps country director, had returned to the United States by June 5, said Barbara Daly, the organization's press director.

"If we don't have proper documentation, we can't stay in the country. They [Uzbek authorities] left us very little choice," Daly said. "Not renewing out visas speaks volumes without saying a word."

Meanwhile, on June 8 the international press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders criticized the arrest of Tulkin Karayev, who was taken into custody four days earlier in the southern city of Karshi. Karayev -- who has reported for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which played a prominent role in disseminating news about the May 13 Andijan crackdown -- was accused of "hooliganism" and ordered detained for at least 10 days.

Uncertainty in Uzbekistan has prompted the United States to scale back its diplomatic presence in the country. Citing the threat of possible attacks by Islamic radicals against US-related targets, the State Department sanctioned the withdrawal of family members of staff, as well as non-essential personnel, from the American embassy in Tashkent. The World Bank, acting in connection with the State Department caution against possible attacks, announced on June 7 that it was suspending missions to Uzbekistan.

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