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Uzbekistan Forces International NGOs to Leave Country


The government of Uzbekistan is cracking down against Western organizations in the country in what some regional analysts see as a backlash against the United States. The international non-governmental groups affected in the latest clampdown include Freedom House and the Eurasia Foundation.

The deputy director of Freedom House, Thomas Melia, summarizes the latest actions taken by the Uzbek government against his organization.

"In mid-January, a civil court in Tashkent, after a proceeding that had gone on for several months, ruled that we were in violation of a couple of laws, including laws that had been enacted while we were in court, and ordered that our office be suspended for six months," he said. "More recently, an appeal of that decision was denied, and we were ordered to liquidate our assets in Uzbekistan, by the Tashkent civil court, and so, we're doing that this week."

He says his group has been working to train Uzbeks to document human rights violations cases or legally represent people who have been unjustly accused of crimes.

"We were specifically charged with allowing Uzbek citizens to have access to the Internet in our offices, as if that was something wrong," he added. "And, also, for allowing unregistered groups to meet in our offices. We had had offices in Namangan and Samarkand, as well as Tashkent. And, those had been closed down a few months earlier."

The decision against Freedom House came Monday, the same day the Tashkent City Court also suspended the Eurasia Foundation's activities in Uzbekistan. Recent court orders also have led to the closures of the offices of IREX, a non-profit education group, and Internews, an organization that fosters international media.

Frederick Starr, the chairman of Johns Hopkins University's Central Asia Caucasus Institute, says the recent actions in Uzbekistan may be a result of what he describes as a general backlash against the United States.

"Now, you can say, and I think it's fair to say that to some extent, this is a further reaction simply to America's very powerful presence in the world," said Mr. Starr. "These people are saying the same things of NGOs as they might of American government or businesses. The U.S. is a powerful presence and it does, almost by its existence, create a certain amount of criticism."

He adds that many former Soviet governments are still taking their cues from Moscow.

"Well, it's common to say this is all flowing from Russian practice, and in a sense, there's truth in that," he explained. "I think the crackdowns in Russia legitimize, in the eyes of some of the countries, what they want to do anyway."

The latest moves in Uzbekistan come as Tashkent issued tighter restrictions on the activities of foreign journalists in the country, requiring them to register with the government.

Freedom House Central Asia senior program manager Alexander Gupman added that foreigners are not the Uzbek government's only targets. He says Tashkent also has carried out a systematic crackdown on domestic organizations as well.

"And they've been democracy activists, bee-hive collectives, football or soccer organizations. It has been any group that has organized in the country, and they've been systematically being closed down," said Mr. Gupman.

He said the Uzbek government's actions reflect a trend in the Central Asian region. But, he has praise for one country, Kyrgystan.

"I think the next few months will really be a critical time period as we see what happens in Central Asia, and if, looking at Kyrgystan as sort of a focal point, what direction that country goes in, I think Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are on a downward trajectory. Kazakhstan is veering on a downward trajectory," he added.

Gupman said Freedom House has not yet determined what it will do for Uzbekistan, but plans to, in his words, "continue to provide a lifeline" to Uzbeks.

The Uzbek Embassy in Washington did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Meanwhile, in its just-released annual report on human rights, the U.S. State Department said Tashkent's already poor human rights record worsened considerably last year.

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