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Uzbekistan Says It Will Investigate Harassment of Western Rights Activist

FILE - Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is pictured in Moscow, April 5, 2017. The abolition of Uzbekistan's exit visa system is one of a number of changes being brought in since Mirziyoyev came to power last year.

Uzbekistan pledged on Monday to investigate a verbal attack by several of its citizens on a visiting Human Rights Watch researcher after HRW said the incident showed independent activists remained under pressure in the country.

The Central Asian country has been gradually opening up since a change of leadership in 2016, but the incident with HRW researcher Steve Swerdlow recalled tactics used by the previous government against foreign reporters and rights activists.

HRW said at the weekend that an Uzbek video blogger and four other people surrounded Swerdlow in the lobby of his hotel in Tashkent on June 13, following and filming him for 20 minutes and verbally attacking him. Before leaving, the hecklers told Swerdlow to "get the hell out of Uzbekistan."

Human Rights Watch, which re-established a presence in Uzbekistan in August 2017 after President Shavkat Mirziyoyev launched a reform campaign, said the June 13 incident stood in stark contrast with previous visits by its staff.

"The government has in recent years taken positive steps to improve its human rights record in key areas, but serious violations persist," HRW said.

"(HRW) is very concerned at the signal this incident sends to civil society, including human rights defenders and journalists. The government should protect free speech while also taking steps to protect the right of these groups to operate in a safe environment, free of intimidation, on-and-offline."

Uzbekistan's foreign ministry said the incident was being "comprehensively studied."

"Based on the results, measures will be taken in accordance with current legislation," it said in a statement.

"Uzbekistan supports Human Rights Watch's activity in Uzbekistan and will continue cooperation with this and other human rights organizations."