Ankara, 2 May (IRIN) - In yet another blow to international NGOs working in Uzbekistan, authorities in that country are now calling for the closure of the US-funded NGO, Counterpart International, citing its systematic violation of Uzbek law, as well as its own charter.
"We just learned of this development last night and we've yet to chart out a strategy on this," Mark Granius, regional director for Counterpart International told IRIN from the Kazakh commercial capital, Almaty, on Tuesday. "We knew we were under investigation, but what caught us by surprise was the actual swiftness of this."
His comments come one day after the Uzbek Justice Ministry asked a civil court in the capital, Tashkent, to close the NGO's representative office, alleging that members of its staff had not only been setting up, but also heading local NGOs, publishing and distributing materials without a licence, and refusing to present financial records to the authorities.
According to a report published by the pro-government UzReport website, the Washington-based NGO had been warned twice in 2005 about similar activities
Over the past six months, Uzbek authorities had expelled the missions of the Eurasia Foundation, Freedom House, the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), the American Bar Association, along with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the report said.
Even the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was forced to close its doors on 17 April following a government decision that the UN agency had "fully implemented its tasks and there are no evident reasons for its further presence in Uzbekistan".
Tashkent has grown increasingly wary of international organisations operating on its soil, following last year's bloody crackdown in the southeastern city of Andijan.
According to some rights groups, upwards of 1,000 people may have been killed by security forces during protests in the city against the authoritarian government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. He has ruled the country since it gained independence following the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991. Uzbek officials place the official Andijan death toll at 187.
Frustrated by Monday's government move, Granius asserted that their philosophy had always been to engage with the government as major stakeholders at all levels. "We've always informed the government and worked with the government in everything we did," he maintained. "I think our record speaks for itself," he added, citing the successful number of community, economic and health work projects the NGO had achieved.
Such a contention is not likely to affect the authorities. Also on Monday, an Uzbek media official rejected as "groundless and biased" a Freedom House report criticising what it said was a deterioration of press freedom in the landlocked nation.
On Thursday, the Washington-based rights group released its annual Press Freedom report alleging that the media environment in Central Asia's most populous state had worsened as part of a broader crackdown following the Andijan uprising, the AP reported.
"Destructive forces deliberately attempting to undermine Uzbekistan's authority in the eyes of the international community provided data for this report," Sherzod Gulyamov, chairman of the state-run Uzbek Journalists' Union, reportedly claimed.
The Freedom House office in Uzbekistan was closed in March for alleged violations and offering free Internet access to rights defenders, the AP report added.
Financed by the US Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Counterpart International has been working in Uzbekistan since 1995, primarily in the areas of health and economics. For further information on the NGO's activities, see: www.counterpart.org