Human Rights Watch reported on Tuesday that it was forced to shut down its operation in Uzbekistan after a 15 year presence in the country. For an unspecified reason, the Uzbek Justice Ministry moved to revoke HRW registration earlier this week which necessitated the organization to close its offices in Tashkent, the country’s capital.
“With the expulsion of Human Rights Watch, the Uzbek government sends a clear message that it isn’t willing to tolerate critical scrutiny of its human rights record,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “But let me be clear, too: we aren’t going to be silenced by this. We are as committed as ever to report on abuses in Uzbekistan.”
In its press release Human Rights Watch reports the crescendo of harassment from the Uzbek government that has been taking place over the course of a few years culminating in the expulsion of the organization. On Christmas Eve 2010, Steve Swerdlow, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch in Tashkent who speaks Russian fluently and has over a decade of experience working in the region, received a letter from the Justice Ministry denying his accreditation because of Human Rights Watch’s “established practice” of “ignoring Uzbekistan’s national legislation” and because Swerdlow “lacks experience cooperating with Uzbekistan” and “working in the region as a whole.” The letter does not specify what laws Human Rights Watch allegedly violated.
In 2009 the Uzbek government deported a Human Rights Watch consultant upon her arrival in Tashkent while another researcher working for the organization was violently attacked in the town of Karshi. The crime appeared to be orchestrated by the authorities following which the victim was detained and then expelled from the city. Beginning in 2008, the authorities made it almost impossible for the organization to maintain a regular presence in the country by denying accreditation to its former representative Swerdlow, who was only accredited for two months in 2010 and eventually barred from the country on the grounds that he “did not understand Uzbek culture and traditions.” Since 2004 the government has interfered with the work of HRW by systematically denying as well as delaying visas or accreditation to every representative of the organization in Uzbekistan and even threatened criminal charges against one staff member.
Perhaps Assistant Secretary Robert O. Blake Jr. who recently testified to Congress on Central Asia should have been a little tougher on Uzbekistan. His only critical remark about the Uzbek government was: “We continue to hold a dialogue to encourage the Uzbek authorities to address significant human rights concerns including ending forced child labor in the cotton harvest, opening up the media environment, curtailing abuses by security forces, and ending harassment of civil society and international NGOs.” One can’t point the finger at the Americans only because the Europeans have been just as soft on Uzbekistan. Earlier this year Uzbek president Islam Karimov visited Brussels and met with both E.U. and NATO officials. See my earlier post on this new engagement with Uzbekistan.
The has been a lot of criticism from human rights groups that the United States has made few public statements criticizing the Uzbek government, with the exception of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s strong remarks during her December visit to Tashkent underscoring Uzbekistan’s need to “translate words into practice.” Following her criticism, human rights defender Farkhad Mukhtarov was released from prison, where he was serving a four-year sentence on politically motivated charges.
It is the first time in Human Rights Watch’s 33-year history that it was kicked out from a country where it was operating. According to Richard Orange from the Telegraph, “The group, launched in 1977 and active in more than 90 countries, received $100m in funding from billionaire George Soros last year, which nearly doubled its annual budget from $48m to $80m.”
Watch Steve Swerdlow’s interview with VOA
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