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Uzbekistan's Human Rights Record Mixed - 2004-07-13

Uzbekistan is getting a poor grade from some human rights advocates, and the United States is holding up an $18 million aid package until improvements are made. Human Rights Watch says the government of President Islam Karimov falls short of the standards the United States is expecting. But other human rights groups see gradual improvement in the country's record.

The government of Islam Karimov committed itself to improve the human rights situation in Uzbekistan, a country widely seen as the most repressive of the five former Soviet Central Asian nations.

Mr. Karimov made the promise to secure $90 million in U.S. aid to upgrade communications and lab equipment to help Uzbekistan in the fight of what he has called the "twin evils," terrorism and extremism.

The Senior Researcher for Human Rights Watch in Uzbekistan, Allison Gill, characterizes Uzbekistan's human-rights performance as dismal, and said that it is getting worse.

"There are no registered political opposition parties even though there are elections here this year," she said. "The government in the past year has refused to register independent human rights organizations even though many of them have applied and their applications consistently get rejected for what appear to be spurious reasons. Demonstrators who try to attempt to carry out peaceful pickets or demonstrations calling for changes in the government, or calling for some redress to their personal complaints, those demonstrations are frequently broken up. They carry burdensome permit requirements just to even have a couple of people stand on the street with protesters. Demonstrators are sometimes treated very roughly."

Ms. Gill added that Human Rights Watch believes that the United States should not certify Uzbekistan as having made substantial, verifiable progress on human rights.

"There's no way that Washington can certify, that the Secretary of State can certify, Uzbekistan in good faith right now," she said. "It's very clear that over the past year, Uzbekistan has done nothing to take the kinds of steps that would indicate political will or real reform."

The Uzbek foreign ministry has declined repeated requests to comment either on the certification issue or on Human Rights Watch's criticism of the government's poor human rights record.

Mjusa Sever, director of the independent non-governmental organization Freedom House in Uzbekistan does not share Human Rights Watch's negative assessment.

"I don't agree with that," she retorted. "I think things are improving. Of course, these are small steps, but there are many, many on several levels. I'm here for seven months and I've seen substantial change in seven months. So, I think, you know, changing mentality doesn't happen overnight."

Ms. Sever notes that Uzbekistan has registered its first independent human rights organization in the past year, as well as dissolved the state censorship committee.

But she acknowledges the Uzbek government has reacted with, what she called over-sensitivity to the recent peaceful revolutions in the nearby Republic of Georgia, which ousted two long-time communist leaders - Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Aslan Abashidze, the leader of Georgia's autonomous Ajaria province.

Ms. Sever says in the wake of Georgia's upheavals the government tightened control over independent groups and activists, but does not see this as a long-term problem.

She also notes that not only the government, but the people, too, are having trouble adjusting to democratic change in Uzbekistan.

"It's also citizens who are not used to taking individual responsibility, it's not just freedom and liberty, it's also responsibility that make a democratic system," she explained. "And I think this part also needs to be taught, encouraged, needs to be learned."

The U.S. State Department is helping the adjustment process by funding and operating a human rights law clinic at Tashkent State University. The first of its kind in Central Asia, the center, which is now in its second year of operation, is training in cooperation with the American Bar Association what it hopes will be the next generation of Uzbek human rights lawyers, advocates and politicians.

This trainer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the most common problems she runs into when assisting Uzbeks visiting the clinic for free legal aid have to do with citizenship, labor disputes and human rights violations allegedly carried out by state agencies or courts.

She notes that the clinic does not get mixed up in politics, or cases involving religious rights, freedom of speech or free press. In her words, those are too dangerous for students like us. Still, she says she and the other student trainers are making an impact on Uzbekistan's future human rights development.

"It's [a] great contribution because, for example, this year we have 31 clinicians and, in future, if it will be 31 lawyers who know what is human rights, what human rights are, and how to work with state bodies and protect human rights," she added. "And even if they won't be lawyers, if they will work in state bodies, they won't violate these human rights because they will know them."

But Ms. Gill, of Human Rights Watch, says it will be some time before these new activists will be able to influence government policies.

Until then, she says Human Rights Watch is advocating that the Uzbek government immediately improve the situation in three key areas.

"Those three benchmarks are greater political openness and freedom of the media, action to implement the special rapporteur [envoy] on torture's recommendations to combat torture and free functioning of civil society groups," Ms Gill said. "I would like to see and Human Rights Watch would like to see credible, tangible, irreversible progress in those three areas and that could mean registering political parties, allowing peaceful demonstrations, dropping criminal cases against opposition political activists. Those are really good places to start."

Independent Uzbek Islamic religious scholar, Mohammad Sodik Mohammad Yusuf, who has been working closely with the government on improving religious rights, says the government has made mistakes in cracking down on some religious activities. But he says he is convinced the government is trying to change things.

Still, Sheikh Yusuf, like Ms. Gill of Human Rights Watch, says he does not believe the Uzbek government's efforts so far are up to the standards required by the West and, increasingly, by ordinary Uzbeks.