Recent reports that the US monitored calls between members of President Trump’s campaign staff and Russian intelligence personnel have renewed controversy about the surveillance powers of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI), and how those bodies handle the information they collect. But anyone concerned about the scope or legality of the US government’s warrantless intelligence surveillance should also worry about the way these programs may affect the country’s border and immigrant communities.

A general view shows part of the Loma Blanca neighborhood as a section of the border fence marking the boundarie with El Paso, U.S. is seen on the background, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico January 18, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

The US currently has two main “foreign” surveillance powers it can—in practice—use to obtain and sift through information on people within its borders without a warrant. (We do not yet know whether either of these was the legal basis for intercepting the conversations with Trump’s campaign staff). 

The first, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is scheduled to expire at the end of this year, setting the stage for an intense debate in Congress about reforming surveillance. Under Section 702, the NSA (with telecommunications companies’ help) automatically searches virtually all the Internet communications flowing over the fiber optic cables that connect the US to the rest of the world—a practice known as “upstream” scanning. 

As of 2015, 26 percent of people in the United States were first- or second-generation immigrants.  Upstream monitoring, as we currently understand it, means that whenever any of these tens of millions of people—or anyone else in the US—sends an email to a friend or family member in another country, the US government is likely searching those communications to see if they contain e-mail addresses or other “selectors” of interest. This kind of suspicionless, warrantless, disproportionate monitoring violates human rights.

In addition to Section 702, Executive Order 12333 allows the NSA and other US agencies to vacuum up the communications of US citizens and lawful permanent residents in the course of foreign surveillance. Leaked documents indicate that pursuant to EO 12333, the US has grabbed records of potentially all telephone calls in countries including Mexico and the Philippines. In other words, if you are in El Paso, Texas and have called your mother in Juárez, Mexico, US intelligence agencies probably have a record of your call. They can use this data to map social networks—and share it for law enforcement purposes.

The US’ vast warrantless surveillance powers are not only an issue for legal wonks or the technically savvy: they may be affecting people and communities throughout the United States and the world. Congress and the judiciary should regard them as direct threats to both US democracy and human rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(New York) – The latest revisions to China’s Criminal Law impose up to seven years in prison for “spreading rumors” about disasters, Human Rights Watch said today. The revised law, which took effect November 1, 2015, does not clarify what constitutes a “rumor,” heightening concerns that the provision will be used to curtail freedom of speech, particularly on the Internet.

“The revised Criminal Law adds a potent weapon to the Chinese government’s arsenal of punishments against netizens, including those who simply share information that departs from the official version of events,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities are once again criminalizing free speech on the Internet, which has been the Chinese people’s only relatively free avenue for expressing themselves.”

The National People’s Congress Standing Committee approved the addition of a provision to article 291(1) of the Criminal Law (Criminal Law Amendment Act (9)), which states that whoever “fabricates or deliberately spreads on media, including on the Internet, false information regarding dangerous situations, the spread of diseases, disasters and police information, and who seriously disturb social order” would face prison sentences – with a maximum of seven years for those whose rumors result in “serious consequences.” The vagueness of the provision means that individuals doing nothing more than asking questions or reposting information online about reported local disasters could be subject to prosecution.

In the past, the Chinese government has detained netizens who questioned official casualty figures or who had published alternative information about disasters ranging from SARS in 2003 to the Tianjin chemical blast in 2015, under the guise of preventing “rumors.”

The revision was made in the context of a wider effort to rein in online freedom since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013:

  • In August 2013, the authorities waged a campaign against “online rumors” that included warning Internet users against breaching “seven bottom lines” in their Internet postings, taking into custody the well-known online commentator Charles Xue, and closing popular “public accounts” on the social media platform “WeChat” that report and comment on current affairs;
  • In September 2013, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (the state prosecution) issued a judicial interpretation making the crimes of defamation, creating disturbances, illegal business operations, and extortion applicable to expressions in cyberspace. The first netizen who was criminally prosecuted after this took effect was well-known blogger Qin Huohuo, who was sentenced to three years in prison in April 2014 for allegedly defaming the government and celebrities by questioning whether they were corrupt or engaged in other dishonest behavior;
  • In July and August 2014, authorities suspended popular foreign instant messaging services, including KakaoTalk, claiming the service was being used for “distributing terrorism-related information”;
  • In 2015, government agencies such as the State Internet Information Office issued multiple new directives, including tightening restrictions over the use of usernames and avatars, and requiring writers of online literature in particular to register with their real names;
  • In 2015, the government has also shut down or restricted access to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which many users depend on to access content blocked to users inside the country and also help shield user privacy;
  • In March 2015, authorities also deployed a new cyber weapon, the “Great Cannon,” to disrupt the services of GreatFire.org, an organization that works to document China’s censorship and facilitate access to information;
  • In July 2015, the government published a draft cybersecurity law that will requires domestic and foreign Internet companies to increase censorship on the government’s behalf, register users’ real names, localize data, and aid government surveillance; and
  • In August 2015, the government announced that it would station police in major Internet companies to more effectively prevent “spreading rumors” online.
     

Activists in China are regularly prosecuted for speech-related “crimes,” Human Rights Watch said. The best known of these crimes is “inciting subversion,” which carries a maximum of 15 years in prison. But authorities have also used other crimes such as “inciting ethnic hatred,” as in the case of human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who has been detained since May 2014 for a number of social media posts questioning the government’s policies towards Uighurs and Tibetans.

While providing the public with accurate information during disasters is important, the best way to counter inaccurate information would be to ensure that official information is reliable and transparent, Human Rights Watch said.

Above all, journalists should have unimpeded access to investigate and inform the public about these events, and the wider public should have the freedom to debate and discuss disaster response.

“The casualties of China’s new provision would not be limited to journalists, activists and netizens, but the right of ordinary people and the world to know about crucial developments in China,” Richardson said. “The best way to dispel false rumors would be to allow, not curtail, free expression.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Protesters chant slogans to mourn the death of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, outside China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, China on July 15, 2017. 

© 2017 Bobby Yip/Reuters

(New York) – The Chinese government should immediately and unconditionally release from detention rights activist Huang Qi and bookseller Yiu Mantin, who are seriously ill, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should also allow the two, who have been held in violation of their basic rights, to seek proper treatment wherever they wish, in China or abroad.

In recent years, a number of prominent dissidents have become seriously ill in detention, been denied adequate care, and died either in detention or shortly after being released. On November 7, 2017, dissident writer Yang Tongyan died less than three months after being released on medical parole, and on July 13, Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo died three weeks after he was transferred to a hospital.

“Neither of these peaceful advocates should have been detained in the first place, and to continue to do so even when they are gravely ill is cruel and inhumane,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Authorities should immediately release Huang Qi and Yiu Mantin and allow them to seek medical care freely.” 

The considerable reputational damage brought by the death of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo in state custody just months ago has not deterred Chinese authorities from keeping seriously ill dissidents in prison.

Sophie Richardson

China Director

Huang, 54, a veteran activist and founder of the human rights website 64 Tianwang, has been detained since November 2016 for “illegally leaking state secrets abroad.” Huang suffers from several health conditions for which he was not given adequate treatment, including possible imminent kidney failure, signs of emphysema and inflammation in the lungs, Huang’s mother said in a public letter appealing for Huang’s release. Huang’s lawyer has applied for medical parole on his behalf three times, but authorities denied each application without giving a reason. In November, Huang told his lawyer that he had been repeatedly beaten by fellow detainees at the Mianyang City Detention Center. At least one officer at the center was aware of the violence but failed to intervene to stop it. Huang was also denied basic necessities such as toothpaste and toilet paper. Huang was previously imprisoned from 2000-2005 on subversion charges and from 2008-2011 for “illegally holding state secrets.”

Yiu, 76, a Hong Kong publisher and chief editor of Morning Bell Press, has been serving a 10-year sentence on smuggling charges in a Guangdong jail since October 2013. Yiu was preparing to publish a book critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping shortly before he was arrested. Yiu suffers from heart disease, liver disease, asthma, and other health issues. He has fainted several times since being detained. Prison authorities transferred Yiu to a prison-affiliated hospital about two years ago due to his poor health. Yiu’s wife said prison authorities had not given her any medical examination records about Yin since 2015 and she is uncertain about his condition. Yiu’s lawyer has repeatedly sought medical parole for him but it has not been granted.

Conditions in China’s detention facilities and prisons are poor and usually marked by minimal nutrition and rudimentary health care. Human Rights Watch has also long documented police torture and ill-treatment of detainees in police-run facilities. There have been repeated instances where seriously ill detainees were not sent to hospitals until their conditions had deteriorated significantly.

Failure to provide prisoners access to adequate medical care violates the right to the highest attainable standard of health found in international human rights law. The UN Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners provides that “[s]ick prisoners who require specialist treatment shall be transferred to specialized institutions or to civil hospitals.” China’s Criminal Procedure Law stipulates that medical parole can be granted to criminal offenders who are “seriously ill,” but in practice, authorities have rarely granted it to political dissidents.

Since President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013, several dissidents and activists have been denied adequate medical treatment and died in detention or shortly after being released. They include:

  • Cao Shunli: In March 2014, Cao Shunli, 52, an activist who had tried to participate in China’s Universal Periodic Review, a process run by the United Nations Human Rights Council, died in a Beijing hospital after being arbitrarily detained in September 2013. Her family members had repeatedly warned that she was becoming gravely ill and had fought to have her released on medical parole, but authorities only transferred her when she fell into a coma. She died days later.
  • Goshul Lobsang: Tibetan activist Goshul Lobsang, 42, died in March 2014, five months after being released on medical parole. After his arrest in June 2010, Goshul Lobsang was sentenced to 12 years in prison on charges relating to the 2008 protests in Tibet. During his three years in detention, Goshul Lobsang was reportedly subjected to severe torture and deprived of sleep and food.
  • Tenzin Choedak: In December 2014, Tibetan environmental activist Tenzin Choedak, 33, died in a Lhasa hospital, three days after he was released in extremely weak condition. Tenzin Choedak had been sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2008 on the charge of acting as a ringleader during the unrest in Tibet earlier that year. While in prison, Tenzin Choedak reportedly suffered chronic diseases and brain injury because of severe torture.
  • Tenzin Delek Rinpoche: In July 2015, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, 65, a revered Tibetan lama who was serving a life sentence for “inciting separation of the state” following a trial that fell far short of international standards, died in detention after months of increasingly serious allegations that his health was deteriorating. Throughout his 13 years in detention, credible reports repeatedly emerged that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was being tortured.
  • Zhang Liumao: In November 2015, activist Zhang Liumao, 43, died at the Guangzhou No. 3 Detention Center after he was arrested three months earlier on suspicion of “picking quarrels and proving trouble,” a catch-all charge frequently leveled against activists. The state media reported that Zhang died of complications from cancer, but Zhang’s family lawyer, who examined Zhang’s body, said that it was bruised and bloody with apparent signs of torture.
  • Liu Xiaobo: In July 2017, after serving nearly nine years of his 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion,” Nobel Peace laureate and public intellectual Liu Xiaobo died from liver cancer in a Shenyang hospital. Less than a month before his death, the authorities said they had “released” him on medical parole, but they heavily guarded him and his wife, Liu Xia, isolating them from family and supporters, and denied Liu’s request to seek treatment outside the country. Very little is known about the conditions of Liu’s imprisonment. Although the authorities allowed his closest family, including Liu Xia, some visits, they silenced the family by holding Liu Xia under house arrest.
  • Yang Tongyan (pen name: Yang Tianshui): Dissident writer Yang Tongyan, 56, was released on medical parole after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in August 2017, four months short of serving the full term of a 12-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” After being denied permission to travel abroad for treatment, Yang died on November 7, less than three months after his release. During Yang’s imprisonment, his lawyers had applied for his medical parole several times, but they were all denied.

“The considerable reputational damage brought by the death of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo in state custody just months ago has not deterred Chinese authorities from keeping seriously ill dissidents in prison,” Richardson said. “The ruthlessness and arrogance of the Chinese government should be met with international condemnation.”
 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

An interior view of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in Moscow, Russia, January 20, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters
(Moscow) – Draft legislation pending in the Russian parliament to impose restrictions on foreign media would further undermine media freedom in Russia, Human Rights Watch said today. Parliament should reject the law as incompatible with fundamental standards on free speech, which are at the heart of a democratic society.

On November 15, 2017, the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, adopted, with record speed, a draft law that stipulates that the government may designate any media organization or information distributors of foreign origin that receive any funding from foreign sources as “foreign media performing the functions of a foreign agent.” The State Duma chairman, Viacheslav Volodin, stated bluntly that the bill aims to retaliate against a US Department of Justice’ September request that the Russian state-funded television channel, RT, comply with registration requirements under the US Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).

“The US government’s misguided decision to request for RT to register under FARA gave the Kremlin a platform to retaliate, and they have done so with a full throttle attack on media freedom,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But sadly, the bill will not simply hurt foreign media, but worse, unjustifiably limit Russian citizens’ right to access information and ideas.”

The November amendments define the term “media outlets” broadly to include any foreign entity that distributes “to unlimited audience, print, audio, audiovisual and other messages and materials.” The definition appears to be broad enough in theory to be applied to a wide range of groups and people, not just media outlets or individual bloggers, but academic or nongovernmental organizations and social media platforms.

On November 15, the draft was sent for approval to the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament.

The bill further stipulates that should a foreign media outlet be designated a foreign agent, it must comply with the requirements of Russia’s “foreign agents’ law.” The draft however fails to explain the basis on which the Russian government will choose which foreign media it designates foreign agents, nor does it describe the registration procedure. The law also fails to identify which government agency would be tasked with overseeing its implementation. 

While a motivation behind the amendments may be the application of FARA to RT, the November bill imposes asymmetrical measures. RT is not the first, nor only, media outlet connected to a foreign government subject to US registration requirements – Chinese, Japanese, and Korean media entities are also current registrants. FARA, first enacted in 1938 and reformed in the 1960s to identify and regulate lobbyists working for foreign governments, applies to organizations and individuals that operate under direction and control of a foreign principal. But the US law does not equate receiving foreign funding, in part or in whole, with being under the direction and control of a foreign principal.

On November 15, following the adoption of the draft law by the State Duma, Russia’s Ministry of Justice sent notices to several US-government-funded media operating in Russia under Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, such as the television network Nastoyashee Vremya (Current Time) and Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty, the Russian language service of RFE/RL), informing them that the authorities might designate them “foreign agent” media. The notices did not elaborate on specific restrictions that would be applied.

Adopted in 2012 and amended in 2014 and 2016, the “foreign agents’ law” requires Russian independent groups to register as “foreign agents” if they receive any foreign funding and engage in broadly defined “political activity.” The law requires such organizations to clearly mark all publications “foreign agent,” and to file extensive reports on their funding and activities, in addition to the extensive reporting they already file to the tax, Justice Ministry, and other agencies. The penalties for violating the law range from administrative fines for entities to criminal sanctions, including imprisonment, for individuals.

“The text of the media bill may be vague, but the Russian authorities’ intentions could not be clearer,” Williamson said. “This legislation is tailor-made to be selectively and politically enforced, and to silence voices they do not want Russian people to hear.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Students attend a protest to mark the 55th anniversary of the military's suppression of student protests in 1962 at Yangon University, Yangon, Burma on July 7, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

A Burmese ministry’s ban on assemblies and processions in central Yangon deprives people of their basic right to peaceful protest, Human Rights Watch said today. Burma’s friends and donors should remind the government of its stated commitments to protect basic rights such as freedom of assembly, association, and expression.

The ban, reportedly set forth in a directive issued in early November 2017 by Yangon Region Security and Border Affairs Minister Col. Aung Soe Moe, instructs police in 11 townships in Yangon to deny all applications for processions or assemblies to avoid “public annoyance and anxiety.” The directive sets aside one small area of Yangon for all protests.

The directive should be withdrawn and the police should instead be instructed to ensure that assemblies take place in safety, and to manage traffic to minimize any disruption.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

“There is no legitimate reason for imposing a ban on all protests in major sections of Burma’s largest city,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “This directive was issued by a military officer and should be seen by the civilian government as a direct challenge to its commitment to basic rights for Burmese citizens. The government needs to reverse this ban and uphold the rule of law and refuse to capitulate to arbitrary actions by the military.”

Under international human rights law, governments are obligated to facilitate peaceful assemblies within sight and sound of their target audience.

The directive, which precludes protests near Yangon’s City Hall, most government offices, and many foreign embassies, makes it impossible for those protesting against government policies or acts of foreign governments to demonstrate anywhere near the target of their protests.

While governments can impose reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions on specific assemblies, they have the burden of showing that doing so is necessary to protect a legitimate interest, and that the restriction is a proportionate response to the perceived risk. The stated justifications for the ban, which include public nuisance and traffic congestion, are insufficient to justify the broad and open-ended burden placed on the right to peaceful assembly. As United Nations human rights experts have made clear, a certain level of disruption to ordinary life caused by assemblies, including disruption of traffic, annoyance, and even harm to commercial activities, must be tolerated if the right to peaceful assembly is not to be deprived of substance.

More importantly, a blanket ban on all assemblies in a given area is by nature disproportionate because it precludes consideration of the specific circumstances of each proposed assembly.

The directive also appears to conflict with Burma’s Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, enacted in October 2016. That law, while flawed, was a step forward in protection of freedom of assembly in Burma. Unlike the assembly law it replaced, which required organizers to get government “consent” for any assembly or procession, the 2016 law requires only that organizers give notice of a planned assembly or procession 48 hours in advance. It does not authorize the police to deny permission for the protest or procession, and only the Ministry of Home Affairs – also controlled by the military – is authorized to issue bylaws, regulations, and orders governing the implementation of the law.

“Central Yangon should not become a protest-free zone,” Adams said. “The directive should be withdrawn and the police should instead be instructed to ensure that assemblies take place in safety, and to manage traffic to minimize any disruption.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen attends a meeting with garment workers, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 8, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/Samrang Pring

Cambodia’s Supreme Court should resist government pressure to rule on dissolving the country’s main opposition party, Human Rights Watch said today. Cambodia’s international donors and supporters should state clearly that dissolution of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) will delegitimize national elections scheduled for 2018.

On November 16, 2017, the Supreme Court will rule on a case brought at the behest of Prime Minister Hun Sen in October to dissolve the CNRP. The Cambodian government has accused the CNRP of trying to stage a “color revolution” – a reference to popular uprisings around the globe – but has provided no evidence of illegality in its court filings.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen seems afraid that he will lose elections scheduled for 2018, so he is using the nuclear option to destroy the opposition,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Although the Supreme Court is effectively an organ of the ruling party, it has a historic chance to show some independence and uphold the rule of law.”

Although the Supreme Court is effectively an organ of the ruling party, it has a historic chance to show some independence and uphold the rule of law.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Hun Sen has announced that upon dissolution of the CNRP, its parliamentary seats will be redistributed to other political parties. He has pressured CNRP members who won seats in June commune elections to switch to the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), stating that any other seats won by the CNRP will be taken by the ruling CPP. The CNRP made significant electoral gains during both the 2013 national elections and the 2017 commune elections.

Hun Sen, who has held office for more than three decades, Defense Minister Tea Banh, and other senior government and military officials have made numerous public threats to use force against any Cambodian who protests the dissolution of the CNRP. More than half of CNRP members of parliament have fled Cambodia in recent weeks, fearing arrest or violence.

In calling for the court to dissolve the CNRP, the government has equated efforts and plans by the opposition to win the next election with treason. On September 3, authorities arbitrarily arrested CNRP President Kem Sokha at his home in Phnom Penh and took him to a remote prison near the Vietnam border, where he has been held without adequate access to his lawyers. Kem Sokha has been charged with treason for discussing the training on democracy and party-building his party received from United States government-funded organizations. These organizations have also long provided similar training to the CPP.

Kem Sokha’s arrest followed multiple trumped-up criminal cases and convictions against the CNP’s founding president, Sam Rainsy. Sam Rainsy has been forced into exile to avoid long prison terms in cases that have been rubber-stamped by the Supreme Court.

The planned dissolution of the CNRP is part of a massive, broader crackdown by Hun Sen and the CPP against all forms of peaceful dissent. In recent months, the government has forced the closure of the Cambodia Daily, independent local radio stations, and FM stations that re-broadcast Radio Free Asia and Voice of America’s Khmer language service. At least 20 of the approximately 36 opposition and civil society activists arbitrarily arrested since May 2015 remain imprisoned; many of them were prosecuted in summary trials that fell far short of international standards.

“Hun Sen is in the process of destroying pluralism, free speech, and all other human rights gains since the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991,” Adams said. “Donors and diplomats have a choice: do nothing while the chances for democracy are extinguished, or send the message that there will be serious political, economic, and diplomatic consequences if Hun Sen returns Cambodia to a de facto one-party state.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Mr. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo
President of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea
Palacio Presidencial
Avenida de la Libertad
Malabo, Guinea Ecuatorial

Your Excellency,

We write to express our deep concern in response to the unjust arrest and subsequent detention without charge of Ramón Esono Ebalé in Malabo on 16th September 2017, and to urge you to release him immediately.

Mr. Ebalé and two of his friends were stopped by police, handcuffed, and had their mobile phones seized while getting into Mr. Ebalé's sister's car after leaving a restaurant in Malabo. Police then interrogated Mr. Ebalé about his drawings of, and blog posts about members of the Equatoguinean leadership, and told him—in front of his two friends—that he needed to make a statement explaining those drawings and blog posts. It was confirmed by police that only Mr. Ebalé was the target of the arrest, and not his two friends.

Mr Ebalé has learned that he faces potential charges of counterfeiting and money laundering; offences that were apparently never mentioned to him or his friends when they were arrested. Mr. Ebalé’s prolonged detention without charge gives rise to serious concerns that these allegations are no more than a pretext to justify the ongoing arbitrary deprivation of liberty he is being subjected to.

Mr. Ebalé’s extended detention at Black Beach prison without charge appears to be a clear violation of Equatorial Guinean law, which requires charges to be filed within 72 hours of an arrest. A judge has not mandated preventative detention in his case, which under exceptional circumstances would allow the police to hold him without charge for longer, nor does there appear to be a basis for such an order.

Mr. Ebalé, a renowned cartoonist who has been living abroad since 2011, has now spent 60 days in prison. His arrest in Equatorial Guinea—where he returned to renew his passport—has received global attention with calls for his release from fellow journalists, artists, activists, and human rights and press freedom organizations.

As Equatorial Guinea prepares to join the UN Security Council in January 2018, the world is watching the case of Mr. Ebalé closely. We hope that as your country takes this prominent position on the world stage, your government respects all human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In this vein, we call on your Excellency, and the judicial authorities in Equatorial Guinea to respect the rights of all artists, human rights defenders, activists, and, more generally, all individuals in Equatorial Guinea who wish to exercise their right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association without fear of being harassed or prosecuted.

To this end, we urge you to order Mr. Ebalé’s immediate and unconditional release from prison. Thank you for your consideration.

Yours Sincerely,

Amnesty International
API Madrid
Arterial Network
Association of American Editorial Cartoonists
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Member of the House of Lords, President of JUSTICE
Cartoonist Rights Network International
Committee to Protect Journalists
EG Justice
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Freemuse
Human Rights Watch
Index on Censorship PEN International
Reporters Without Borders
The Doughty Street International Media Defense Panel
Transparency International
UNCAC Coalition
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Law enforcement officials during a search in Bakhchysarai, Crimea on January 26, 2017

@ 2017 Anton Naumlyik RFE/RL
(Berlin) – Russian authorities in Crimea have intensified persecution of Crimean Tatars, under various pretexts and with the apparent goal of completely silencing dissent on the peninsula, Human Rights Watch said today. Crimean Tatars are a Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula. Many openly oppose Russia’s occupation, which began in 2014.

“Russian authorities in Crimea have relentlessly persecuted Crimean Tatars for their vocal opposition to Russia’s occupation since it began in 2014,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “They have portrayed politically active Crimean Tatars as extremists and terrorists, forced many into exile, and ensured that those who choose to stay never feel safe to speak their mind.”

Since Russia’s occupation began, Russian authorities and their proxies have subjected members of Crimean Tatar community and their supporters, including journalists, bloggers, activists, and others to harassment, intimidation, threats, intrusive and unlawful searches of their homes, physical attacks, and enforced disappearances. Complaints lodged with authorities are not investigated effectively. Russia has banned Crimean Tatar media and organizations that criticized Russia’s actions in Crimea, including disbanding and proscribing the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar self-governing highest executive body.

In October 2017, Human Rights Watch researchers in Crimea documented criminal prosecutions for separatism against Crimean Tatars who had criticized Russia’s actions in Crimea, as well as new and ongoing baseless terrorism-related prosecutions. Researchers also documented detention and fines for Crimean Tatars who peacefully staged single-person pickets to protest the arrest and prosecution of other Tatars. Under Russian law people who want to picket individually are not required to seek official permission.

Since 2015, Russian authorities have arrested at least 26 people on charges of involvement with the Islamist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir, banned as a terrorist organization in Russia since 2003 but not proscribed in Ukraine, nor in most of Europe. They were arrested on charges of participating in or organizing a terrorist group, solely for acts – often in private – of expression, assembly, opinion, or religious and political belief that the Russian authorities claim constitute affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir. They face from five years to life in prison. The arrests are consistent with Russia’s practice of cracking down on Muslims who preach and study Islam outside official guidelines.

In several cases, Russian police and security services ill-treated people suspected or accused of separatist, extremist, or terrorist activities and denied them due process. In one case, a former detainee said security agents beat him and gave him electric shocks to coerce him to become an informant.

In October, Russian authorities brought separatism charges against Suleiman Kadyrov, a Crimean Tatar activist, for posting a comment on social media criticizing the occupation of Crimea. The charges came several weeks after a Russian court convicted a Crimean Tatar leader, Ilmi Umerov, on separatism charges stemming from a media interview in which he criticized Russian actions in Crimea, and sentenced him to two years in prison.

In September, a Russian court in Crimea sentenced another prominent Crimean Tatar leader, Akhtem Chiygoz, to eight years in prison on bogus charges of organizing “mass riots.”

On October 25, after negotiations between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Russian authorities allowed Chiygoz and Umerov to leave Crimea for Turkey. On October 27, they arrived in Kyiv.

Under international law, the Russian Federation is an occupying power in Crimea as it exercises effective control without the consent of the government of Ukraine, and there has been no legally recognized transfer of sovereignty to Russia.

On September 25, the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine released its first report on the human rights situation in Crimea, concluding that it “has significantly deteriorated under Russian occupation.”

Russian authorities, and their proxies, should immediately stop persecution of Crimean Tatars including under the pretext of combating terrorism and extremism, cease all unjustified interference with freedom of association and assembly in Crimea, and ensure prompt, effective, and impartial investigations into all allegations of abuses perpetrated by law-enforcement against Crimean Tatars. Russian and Ukrainian authorities should ensure unfettered access to Crimea for independent human rights groups as well as humanitarian and intergovernmental organizations.

The UN Human Rights Office, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the Council of Europe should continue to document and publicly report on the human rights situation in Crimea and urge Russian authorities to address both ongoing and past abuses. Russia’s international partners, including the European Union and its member states, Turkey, and the US should continue to call for the release of detained Crimean Tatar activists and for an end to the harassment and arbitrary actions against the Crimean Tatar community.

“It is good news that Chiygoz and Umerov are no longer at risk, but it’s also outrageous that they have had to go into exile to bring their ordeal to an end, and that others in Crimea remain incarcerated,” Williamson said. “Russia’s international partners need to press the Kremlin and Crimean authorities end the persecution of the Crimean Tatar community.”

Human Rights Watch researchers spoke with Crimean Tatar leaders and family members, lawyers, journalists, and others in Crimea in late October in the cities of Simferopol, Krasnogvardeyskoe, Belogorsk, and Yalta. Interviewees received no compensation and were fully informed of the purpose of the interview and on how Human Rights Watch would use the information they provided.

Prosecutions for Alleged Involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir

Since 2015, Russian authorities in Crimea have charged at least 26 people, most of them Crimean Tatars, with participating in or organizing a terrorist group because of their alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, established in 1953, is an international Islamist movement that seeks to establish a worldwide caliphate based on Sharia, but publicly denounces violence as a means to achieve its goal. In 2003, Russia banned Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization. Hizb ut-Tahrir is not banned in Ukraine or in most of Europe, but is in Germany, and several former Soviet republics, including Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as China, Egypt, and most Arab countries. The European Court of Human Rights has held that bans on Hizb ut-Tahrir in Germany and Russia do not violate the European Convention on Human Rights.

According to Sova Center, a prominent Russian think tank, as of February, 47 people were serving prison terms in Russia for alleged involvement in the movement. In its 2016 report, Sova Center highlighted Russian authorities’ and courts’ practice of charging and convicting people solely for studying, distributing religious literature, or participating in discussions on religious topics linked to Hizb ut-Tahrir.

In the past several years, Memorial Human Rights Center has designated 40 people sentenced for involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Russia as political prisoners.

Prior to the occupation, although Ukrainian authorities did not ban Hizb ut Tahrir, in Crimea they kept lists of suspected followers. Some of those Human Rights Watch interviewed believed the Russian authorities used these lists to identify and prosecute Crimean Tatars for involvement in the organization.

Law enforcement search the house of a Crimean Tatar activist in Stroganovka, Crimea, May 2017.

2017 RFE/RL
In 25 of the cases of arrests documented, the terrorism-related charges were based solely on the suspects’ alleged association with Hizb ut-Tahrir. In no case was the suspect accused of involvement in planning, carrying out, or otherwise being an accessory to, any act of violence.

Some of the detainees do not deny some level of affiliation with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, but all deny any involvement in a terrorist organization. Under Russian law, participation in a terrorist group (article 205.5, part 2 of the Russian Criminal Code) is punishable by a prison sentence of 5 to 10 years. Punishment for organizing the activities of a terrorist group (part 1 of article 205.5) ranges from 15 years to life.

In all the cases documented, law enforcement agents searched suspects’ homes, confiscating computer equipment, telephones, flash drives, and other data storage, and Islamic literature, then detained them allegedly on suspicion of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Activists and lawyers working on behalf of those detained told Human Rights Watch that most of the evidence investigators presented consists of video or audio recordings of meetings in people’s apartments at which people discussed interpretations of the Quran or their disagreements with Russia’s actions in Crimea; possession of religious literature; and meetings, conversations, and other actions allegedly aimed at recruiting new members.

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) reported that it had identified and eliminated Hizb ut-Tahrir cells in Yalta, Bakhchisarai, Simferopol, and Sevastopol. In each town, authorities detained on average four to six people, charging one person as a leader of a cell and the others as members.

In addition to the cases documented, in August 2016, a citizen of Kyrgyzstan, Akhmatzhon Abdulaev, was arrested in Crimea. According to Crimea SOS, a Ukrainian rights group monitoring the human rights situation in Crimea, authorities charged him with abetting terrorist activity and participation in Hizb ut-Tahrir and he is in pretrial detention in Simferopol.

Bakhchysarai- October 11, 2017

On October 11, 2017, at about 6 a.m., FSB agents searched the homes of six Crimean Tatars in Bakhchysarai, a city in central Crimea. They did not present a warrant.

After the searches, the authorities arrested Timur Ibragimov, Memet Belyalov, Server Zekeryayev, Seyran Saliyev, Ernest Ametov, and Marlen (Suleyman) Asanov, all of whom a court sent to pretrial custody for two months pending the investigation. Crimea SOS reported that Asanov was eventually charged with allegedly organizing a Hizb-ut-Tahrir “terrorist” cell, and the other five men, with alleged involvement in it. All deny the charges.

Zair Smedlyaev, a Crimean Tatar leader and a member of Kurultai, the elected council of the Crimean Tatar community, who monitored the developments around the searches, told Human Rights Watch that some of those subjected to the searches are devout Muslims and that all are also outspoken critics of Russia’s occupation of Crimea.

Emil Kurbedinov, a lawyer representing Asanov, told Human Rights Watch that during Asanov’s initial interrogation, the authorities claimed that he was involved in “anti-Russian” activities. On October 25, the authorities formally charged him with organizing a “terrorist cell” in Bakhchysarai.

Authorities committed several procedural violations in the arrests and searches. Two lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they were unable to observe the searches because security services and riot police blocked off the area and denied them entry, even after they said they were there to represent their clients. Kurbedinov said the authorities failed to present the necessary arrest and other procedural documents in a timely manner.

Alexey Ladin, another lawyer representing one of the detainees, told media that during interrogations, the security officials claimed the criminal charges were based on two audio recordings of conversations between those arrested. He said the conversations concerned various interpretations of the Quran and other religious topics, but none related to violence or any other criminal activity.

Kurbedinov said that Asanov is a successful businessman and an active supporter of a group called Crimea Solidarity. Created in 2016, the group includes Crimean Tatar activists, family members, lawyers, and human rights defenders and supports Crimean Tatars persecuted by the authorities. Kurbedinov said that Asanov on several occasions provided a venue for the group’s meetings.

Nizhnegorsk

Renat Paralamov is a Crimean Tatar who worked as a trader at a local market in Nizhnegorsk. In September, security services detained him on suspicion of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir and allegedly tortured him to coerce him into becoming an informant. On September 13, a group of masked men in Nizhnegorsk searched the house where he lived with his family. They did not present a warrant and said that they needed to search for “weapons and drugs.” During the search, they seized Paralamov’s laptop and tablet, as well as his mother-in-law’s book on Islam.

After the search, the men put Paralamov in a van and drove off.

For more than 24 hours, his family and lawyer had no contact with him or information about his whereabouts. Paralamov’s lawyer and a group of activists called and visited police and FSB departments in Nizhnegorsk and Simferopol asking about him, but got no answers as to his whereabouts or even a confirmation of his arrest. On the morning of September 14, a policeman told Paralamov’s family and friends, who had gathered outside a Nizhnegorsk police station, that the local FSB department had released Paralamov the day before, but that he “voluntarily” went back to “provide further answers” to the authorities’ questions.

At around about on September 14, Paralamov called his family from a bus station in Simferopol. He said he had been badly beaten, and was shaken and unable to walk. Paralamov’s family took him to a hospital in Simferopol to document his injuries, which included multiple hematomas and bruises.

At the end of September, Paralamov managed to leave Crimea with his family. After he arrived in Kyiv, he spent 15 days in a hospital to get treatment for his injuries.

During a news conference in Kyiv in early November, Paralamov described his detention and torture. He said that after the FSB took him to the station, they put a bag over his head, put tape over his mouth, and tortured him with electric shocks. They also punched him in the chest and hit him on the back of his head. When he asked for a lawyer, an FSB agent punched him in the chest and told him, “I’m your lawyer.”

Paralamov said the FSB agents asked him about his involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir and demanded that he become an informant, attend Crimean Tatars’ gatherings, collect information, and pass it on to the authorities. They also forced him to sign a document claiming that he left the FSB station in Simferopol on September 13 and voluntarily returned to confess to involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir and that he voluntarily agreed to “cooperate” with the FSB.

Paralamov said that the next day, the authorities took him to a forest, where they made him repeat his confession on camera. The authorities told Paralamov that if he cooperated, he would get a three-year conditional sentence rather than real prison time and told him to not use a Crimean lawyer but the lawyer that they would provide.

Yalta

On February 11, 2016, the FSB searched 11 homes of Crimean Tatars in Yalta and surrounding towns. Edem Semedlyaev, a lawyer representing one of the suspects, said that law-enforcement officials knocked down doors and broke windows in several houses.

Following house searches, the FSB detained 14 people. Ten were released the next day and four were arrested: Emir-Usein Kuku, Enver Bekirov, and Vadim Siruk on suspicion of participating in Hizb ut-Tahrir, and Muslim Aliev for allegedly organizing a local Hizb ut-Tahrir cell. All are also charged under article 278 of the Russian Criminal Code for actions directed at the “violent takeover of power”. Two months later, police in Yalta arrested two other men, Refat Alimov and Arsen Dzhepparov, for alleged participation as well. All six have been in custody awaiting trial since their arrest.

In October 2016, prison doctors, saying they were assessing the six detainees’ mental health condition, questioned them about their religious practices and political views. Because all six refused to answer, they were forcibly placed in a psychiatric hospital in November 2016 for three to four weeks for evaluation. The authorities said they found no problems with the men’s mental health and that they were therefore accountable for their actions.

Family members of one of those in custody, Aliev, told Human Rights Watch that at about 7 a.m. on February 11, about 10 heavily armed and masked men came to search the house. The men did not present a search warrant or any identification and refused Aliev’s request for a lawyer. They forced Aliev, who did not resist, to lie on the floor face down in front of his wife and children and told the family that they were looking for weapons and prohibited literature. They brought two witnesses for the search. When Aliev’s wife asked if they could invite neighbors to witness the search instead, the armed men refused.

The men behaved aggressively toward Aliev’s wife and children. One asked Aliev’s 12-year-old son: “Who do you want to be when you grow up? Do you want to be like us and take down people like your father?” One of the men picked up the Quran from the table and threw it on the floor. When Aliev’s wife attempted to pick it up, the man kicked it away.

During the search, the authorities seized three bags of books, including children’s books, as well as Aliev’s computer and cell phone. They eventually returned the books and the computer.

Emir-Usein Kuku, another of those in custody, is a human rights activist and a member of the Contact Human Rights Group, founded in October 2014 to pressure Russian authorities in Crimea to investigate abuses. Authorities briefly detained him in April 2015, questioned him in November 2015, and repeatedly attempted to recruit him as an informant, an offer which he refused and spoke about publicly.

In September 2016, the prosecutor’s office in Crimea launched an investigation alleging that Kuku was neglecting his parental duties. In October 2016, a local police inspector made several attempts to meet with Kuku’s children, 5 and 9, while they were at school without adults present, and on one occasion when he was able to, he asked Kuku’s 9-year-old son questions that implied his father was neglecting his parental duties while in detention.

Dzhemil Temishev, a lawyer representing Dzhepparov, another of the six detainees, told Human Rights Watch that between April and May 2016, prison administration refused to provide him with necessary medical assistance for an ongoing health problem requiring surgery. After Temishev repeatedly complained, Dzhepparov was eventually hospitalized and underwent surgery. In May 2017, Dzhepparov’s health deteriorated again but the authorities again refused to provide him with needed medical treatment, Temishev said. Temishev also said that prison authorities placed Dzepparov in solitary confinement twice for a total of 16 days under arbitrary pretexts, such as refusing to shave his beard or not opening the cell door fast enough.

Bakhchysarai – May 2016

Four residents of Bakhchysarai were arrested on May 12, 2016, and charged with membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir. They are Rustem Abiltarov, Zevri Abseitov, Remzi Memtov, and Enver Mamutov.

Police arrested all four following searches of five houses and a café in Bakhchysarai. Mamutov is accused of organizing and leading a cell, and the rest, with involvement in it. A former Russian prosecutor in Crimea stated that the detained men allegedly carried out “unconstitutional activity in the form of the propaganda work among the population.” All four remain in custody, pending the investigation.

Simferopol

In October 2016, police arrested Aider Saleidinov, Rustem Ismailov, Uzair Abdullayev, Teimur Abdullaev, and Emil Dzhemadenov, after a wave of house searches in the city of Simferopol. Abullayev was accused of organizing a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell, and the four others of participation in it. All five have remained in custody, pending the investigation.

In December 2016, Saledinov, Ismailov, and Uzair Abdullaev said, FSB officers beat them while in transit to investigative facilities. In February 2017, Saledinov and Ismailov were sent for psychiatric evaluations at a hospital to determine the state of their mental health at the time of their alleged criminal acts. Kurbedinov, the lawyer, said that Teimur Abdullaev was placed in an isolation ward in March 2017 for writing a letter in Crimean Tatar language.

Sevastopol

In January 2015, police in Sevastopol arrested Ruslan Zeitullayev, Ferat Saifulaeyev, Rustem Vaitov, and Nuri Primov. Zeitullayev was charged with organizing a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell, and the others with participation.

On September 7, 2016, a military court in Rostov-on-Don in Russia, convicted all four men on charges of participation in a terrorist organization and sentenced Vaitov, Primov, and Saifulayev to five years in prison, and Zeitullayev to seven.

Following the prosecutor’s appeal that Zeitullayev should have been convicted for “organizing” not just “participation in” a terrorist group, on December 27, Russia’s Supreme Court sent his case for retrial. The prosecution asked for a more severe charge and sentence because it considered Zeitullayev the leader of the Hizb ut-Tahrir group in Sevastopol.

At retrial, in April 2017, the court sentenced Zeitullayev to 12 years in a maximum-security prison for organizing a terrorist group. The prosecutor's office again appealed the verdict, demanding an 18-year sentence. In July, Russia’s Supreme Court changed Zeitullayev’s prison sentence to 15 years. The verdict, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, said that the case against him was built on testimony by a secret witness; conversations with others about prosecutions against Hizb ut-Tahrir members and criticism of the media; and the alleged possession of brochures, leaflets, and other Hizb ut-Tahrir publications.

In September, all four men were transferred to various regions of Russia to serve their prison terms. Memorial Human Rights Center recognized them as political prisoners.

Separatism Prosecutions

On October 18, following a year-long investigation, Russia’s security services charged Crimean Tatar activist Suleyman Kadyrov, 55, with separatism (article 280.1, part 2, of Russia’s criminal code). Kadyrov is a former Mejlis member.

One of Kadyrov’s lawyers, Alexey Ladin, told Human Rights Watch that in April, Russia’s Federal Financial Monitoring Service included him in its official list of “active terrorists and extremists.”

The criminal charges stem from comments Kadyrov made in March 2016 when he re-posted another user’s Crimea-related video on his Facebook page. The comment said: “Suleyman Kadyrov agrees! Crimea is Ukraine. Always has been, always will be. Many thanks to the author of the video! I support it!”

Kadyrov is at liberty, awaiting trial.

Arrests for Single-Person Pickets

The Crimean authorities refuse Crimean Tatars’ requests to hold peaceful gatherings under arbitrary pretexts and crack down on spontaneous protests. Between August and October 2017, authorities detained dozens and fined at least 10 Crimean Tatars for exercising their right to protest peacefully. They included people who held single-person pickets, including to protest the trials of Crimean Tatar leaders and security service searches of Crimean Tatars’ homes.

On August 8, Simferopol police detained 76-year-old Sever Karametov, who was picketing in front of the Crimea Supreme Court building in Simferopol to protest the trial of Akhtem Chiygoz. Three police officers approached Karametov and ordered him to follow them. When he insisted on remaining, they grabbed him and forcibly led him away. Karametov’s lawyer said he had been diagnosed with advanced Parkinson’s disease. On August 9, a judge refused to order a medical exam for Karametov, swiftly found him guilty of resisting police orders, and sentenced him to 10 days in prison, which he served. The court also fined Karametov 10,000 rubles (approximately US$165.)

On October 11, authorities in Bakhchysarai detained nine activists who were recording the searches of the homes of those suspected of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir and live streaming them on social media. Authorities charged them with participating in an unauthorized public gathering that led to disrupting public order, a misdemeanor. A lawyer present when the men were detained told the media that police struck several of the activists while transporting them to the police station.

In court hearings the same day, all nine were found guilty and fined for various amounts of up to 15,000 rubles (approximately US$261), for a total amount of 135,000 rubles (approximately US$2,350).

Human Rights Watch researcher Tanya Cooper interviewing Zair Smedlyaev, Crimean Tatar leader in Krasnogvardeyskoe, Crimea on October 24, 2017 

2017 Yulia Gorbunova/Human Rights Watch

On October 14, more than 100 Crimean Tatars participated in single-person pickets at different locations around Crimea, protesting the October 11 arrests. The protesters stood along Crimea’s highways, holding up signs demanding an end to the persecution of Crimean Tatars. According to media reports, the police detained at least 49 people for conducting single-person pickets. In a video statement uploaded to his Facebook page, Rustem Kyamilev, a Crimean lawyer who monitored the arrests, said that the police pressured those detained to be fingerprinted and denied them access to a lawyer. All were released the same day without charge.

In the following days, most of the activists detained on October 14 were summoned to their local police stations, Zair Smedlyaev told Human Rights Watch. The activists told Smedlyaev that during questioning the police pressed them for details about those organizing the October 14 protests, including asking who told them to participate in the protests and who prepared the signs for them.

Legal Framework

As an occupying power, Russia should respect, unless absolutely prevented from doing so, Ukrainian laws that were in force in Crimea when it commenced its occupation. However, Russia rejects its status as an occupying power and applies its federal laws to Crimea, including criminalizing activity not previously criminalized on the peninsula. This notwithstanding, all relevant human rights treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention against Torture, apply in Crimea and all authorities, whether they are Russian or Crimean acting under Russian authority are bound by these treaties.

Russia is bound to respect the rights of Crimean residents, including those of freedom of opinion, expression, assembly and association, and religion, freedom from arbitrary detention and ill-treatment including torture, and rights to fair trial, due process, and privacy. The Russian actions against Crimean Tatars that Human Rights Watch documented violate these rights and in total may be considered to amount to a policy of persecution against Crimean Tatars.

While it may fall within Russia’s discretion to proscribe Hizb ut-Tahrir and designate it as a terrorist organization, that does not give Russian authorities carte blanche to use the criminal law as a tool to suppress non-violent opposition, criticism or protest. Any and all application of the criminal law must comport with international standards on due process and focus on criminal conduct, not be used to punish exercise of basic rights such as free speech, assembly, and opinion.

The evidence against the Crimean Tatars prosecuted is not that they engaged in, advocated, or aided and abetted acts of violence. Rather the evidence presented against those accused of involvement in a terrorist organization is primarily discussions during meetings, often in private apartments, on interpretations of the Quran or Russia’s actions in Crimea, or possession of religious literature. The prosecution on terrorism charges of Crimean Tatars for non-violent speech and, in particular, the equating of speech with acts of terrorism or extremism, is an unjustified interference with freedom of opinion, expression and religion.

Russia’s use of the ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir to go after and lock up Crimean Tatars who have not engaged in criminal behavior, but who may oppose Russian occupation or are discussing their religious and political beliefs, is not only a violation of freedom of association but is a misuse of the criminal justice system for political ends. These actions are further compounded when the Russian authorities deny people the right to peacefully protest rights violations, whether in a collective or as individuals, and punish them for peaceful exercise of their right to protest. 
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

From left to right: Mr Neven MIMICA, Member of the European Commission; Ms Federica MOGHERINI, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; Mr Erlan IDRISSOV, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan; Mr Erlan ABDYLDAEV, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan; Mr Aslov SIRODJIDIN, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan; Mr Rashid MEREDOV, Foreign Affairs Minister of Turkmenistan; Mr Abdulaziz KAMILOV, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan.

2016 European Union
(Brussels) – The European Union should make respect for human rights and an end to decades of repression a core component of its engagement with Central Asian countries, Human Rights Watch said today. In the past year, Central Asia has seen some positive developments, after Uzbekistan’s new president took power in September 2016 and, in Kyrgyzstan, the region’s first peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another in October 2017.

On November 10, 2017, the European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, and the head of its cooperation and development agency, Neven Mimica, will join a regional meeting in Samarkand with the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. On November 9, Mogherini and Mimica are paying a one-day visit to Kyrgyzstan, following the presidential election there on October 15.

“The glimmers of hope in the region should not be taken for granted, nor their fragility underestimated,” said Philippe Dam, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Recent developments showed that change is possible, but tangible progress on rights will require greater political will from Central Asian leaders.”

Central Asian countries have distinct human rights records – but none can be portrayed as championing respect for international human rights standards, and all have used politically motivated detention against critics.

In Uzbekistan, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has taken some positive steps to improve the human rights situation during his first year in office, with the release of at least 16 critics detained on politically motivated grounds. Other measures include the moderate easing of certain restrictions on freedom of expression, the removal of a large number of names from the security services’ “black list,” pledges to increase the accountability of government institutions to citizens, and a ban on forced mobilization of teachers, doctors, and college students in the country’s cotton fields.

The European Union should see these actions as steps in the right direction, but also insist that the Uzbek government should make lasting changes to protect human rights. Thousands are still behind bars on politically motivated grounds, including human rights defenders, journalists, religious figures, and other perceived government critics.

On September 27, Bobomurod Abdullaevon, an independent journalist, was detained on what appeared to be a politically motivated charge. On the same day, police also detained Nurullo Muhummad Raufkhon, an author, at Tashkent airport on his arrival home after two years of exile and charged him with extremism for a book in which he criticizes the former longtime repressive leader, Islam Karimov, who died in September 2016. The author was released on October 1, but still faces charges. Authorities also use a penal code provision to arbitrarily extend prison sentences. There has been nearly total impunity for the torture of people in government custody, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has not been able to carry out independent monitoring in Uzbekistan since 2013.

In Kyrgyzstan, the European Union should seize the opportunity of the recent presidential election to urge President-elect Sooronbai Jeenbekov to put human rights front and center when he takes office. Human Rights Watch is concerned about increased pressure on nongovernmental groups and the media in the period before the election, including through multi-million Kyrgystani Soms defamation lawsuits on behalf of the outgoing president by Kyrgyzstan’s prosecutor general.

The EU decision, announced just days before the election, to negotiate an enhanced partnership agreement, means it should urge Jeenbekov to ensure that journalists and human rights defenders in Kyrgyzstan can work without fear of reprisal or harassment. The EU should also unequivocally call on the Kyrgyzstan authorities to release the human rights defender Azimjon Askarov, who was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison for his alleged role in the June 2010 conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan. The government has yet to carry out the UN Human Rights Committee’s ruling to free Askarov and quash his conviction.

In Kazakhstan, the authorities have continued to silence critics and to bring charges against them since the previous EU-Central Asia gathering in October 2016. In November 2016, two activists, Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan, were each sentenced to five years in prison after peacefully protesting land reform proposals.

The government has also carried out a large-scale crackdown to suppress independent trade union activity. In January, a court closed the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK) for failing to register in accordance with the restrictive trade union law. Amin Yeleusinov and Nurbek Kushakbaev, both trade union activists, were jailed in politically motivated trials after their involvement in peaceful protests in western Kazakhstan in January that the government declared illegal.

Since 2011, Kazakhstan authorities have repeatedly misused the overbroad and vague criminal charge of “inciting social, national, clan, racial, class, or religious discord” to prosecute numerous activists, human rights defenders, and journalists, and have closed down critical media outlets. As the European Commission is seeking the ratification of an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Kazakhstan, it should signal that it also expects the release of the detained land-rights and labor activists and meaningful legal reforms.

Human rights conditions in Tajikistan have rapidly deteriorated since 2015 as authorities deepened a widespread crackdown on freedom of expression and association, peaceful political opposition activity, the independent legal profession, and religious freedom. Well over 150 political activists, including lawyers and journalists, remain unjustly jailed. The authorities have demonstrated an increasingly aggressive stance toward international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The relatives of dissidents abroad who peacefully criticize the government are subjected to violent retaliation orchestrated by Tajik authorities.

Finally, Turkmenistan remains one of the most repressive and closed countries in the world, cut off from any independent human rights scrutiny. The rare foreign media representatives allowed into the country are under government surveillance. Activists and correspondents who provide information to foreign outlets face government retribution, and journalists face arrest or harassment.

More than 100 people, including dozens arrested in the early 2000s, have been forcibly disappeared in the prison system, cut off from all contact with family, lawyers, and loved ones, in some cases for nearly 15 years. Families have no official information about whether their loved ones are dead or alive. The EU should press Turkmenistan to end all enforced disappearances, including of political opponents, and inform the families of people being held about their whereabouts.

During their ministerial meeting in October 2016, EU and Central Asia ministers agreed to stress the importance of the protection of human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law. In June 2017, Foreign Affairs Conclusions on Central Asia adopted by EU Member States recognized the “serious challenges to human rights” in the region.

“The EU-Central Asia meeting in Samarkand is a test for Brussels’ ability to press for genuine and sustained human rights improvements,” Dam said. “To ensure there is no turning back, the EU should secure commitments to meaningful reforms from leaders in the region, starting with freeing anyone held on political grounds and ending harassment and pressure on independent activists and the media.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Members of Indonesia's religious minorities, including native faith believers, celebrate Indonesia’s Independence Day outside the State Palace, August 2016. Many of the slogans on the banners they carry advocate for and promote religious tolerance.

© 2016 Andreas Harsono/Human Rights Watch

Indonesia’s beleaguered religious minority groups got some rare good news today.

The Constitutional Court ruled that the Population Administration Law’s prohibition on adherents of native faiths from listing their religion on official identification cards is unconstitutional.

The ruling will help protect adherents of more than 240 such religions from prosecution under Indonesia’s dangerously ambiguous blasphemy law. Prior to the court’s ruling, members of religious minorities faced an impossible choice: leave blank the ID card’s religion column and possibly be accused of being an atheist – which is punishable under the blasphemy law – or select one of Indonesia’s six officially protected religions and be accused of falsifying their identity. The 1965 blasphemy law only protects Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

All Indonesians must obtain a national ID card at age 17 and are required to apply for official documents including birth, marriage, and death certificates. For decades, the religious identity category of national ID cards and their implicit blasphemy prosecution threat for officially unrecognized religions have led some members of those communities to avoid applying for ID cards, depriving themselves of essential state services. Some local governments have imposed even more onerous discriminatory rules restricting religious minorities’ access to ID cards. In June, representatives of the Ahmadiyah community in Manislor district in West Java’s Kuningan regency filed a formal complaint against a local government requirement that they renounce their faith to obtain a national ID card.

The court ruling was a response to a legal challenge to the discriminatory articles of the 2006 Population Administration Law filed by several native faith adherents. If enforced, the ruling will eliminate an element of discrimination built into Indonesian law that affects the country’s estimated 400,000 native faith adherents. But it won’t help Ahmadiyah and Shia communities, who can still expect to be victims of routine bureaucratic discrimination related to national ID card issuance.

The Ministry of Home Affairs should use the court ruling as a starting point to abolish all of the discriminatory regulations and institutions that target religious minorities. As long as they remain on the books, the rights of Indonesia’s religious minorities will remain in peril.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir. 

© Private

(Tunis) – Mauritanian authorities should quash the death sentence for a Mauritanian blogger, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, and drop all charges against him that violate freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today. The Court of Appeals in Nouadhibou is due to review the case on November 8, 2017.

Prosecutors charged Mkhaitir with apostasy for posting an online article in January 2014 questioning the use of religion to legitimize ethnic and caste discrimination in Mauritania. After three years of judicial proceedings, Mauritania’s Supreme Court in January set aside a ruling by the Court of Appeals that upheld the death sentence and referred the case to a new panel of judges for review.

“Mauritania has no business charging anyone with ‘apostasy,’ much less sentencing a blogger to death for such an absurd charge based on an article he wrote,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s good that the appeals court is reviewing this case, but he never should have been charged in the first place.”

Human Rights Watch raised concerns about the conviction, lengthy procedure, and extreme sentence Mkhaitir is facing for a speech offense with Justice Minister Mohamed Ould Daddah during a meeting in Nouakchott on October 19. “Mkhaitir is entitled to a fair trial in line with our international commitments,” he told Human Rights Watch. “I hope that he will be tried by the end of the year.”

It has almost been four years since Mauritanian authorities arrested Mkhaitir after the Mauritanian news website Aqlame published his blogpost on the marginalization of certain groups in Mauritania. He spent 12 months in pretrial detention, and a court sentenced him to death in December 2014 for “speaking lightly” of the Prophet and heresy.

In 2016, the Court of Appeals in Nouadhibou lowered the charges from “apostasy” (zendagha) to “disbelief” (ridda) but maintained the death sentence. The defense appealed the case to Mauritania’s Supreme Court, which set aside the lower court’s decision on January 31, 2017, and sent the case back to a new panel of judges from the same Court for a new hearing.

Some Mauritanian activists have noted that there has been an outpouring of protests over the article on religious grounds. Over the last two-and-a-half years, thousands of protesters have gathered on a number of occasions to call for Mkhaitir’s execution. On November 3, Mohamed Diop, journalist for the Mauritanian news agency Alakhbar, reported that police authorities prevented protesters calling for Mkhaitir’s execution from marching in the streets of Nouakchott and arrested four of them.

Mauritanian human rights activists who have publicly supported Mkhaitir have received death threats, Aminetou Mint Ely, a prominent women’s rights leader, told Human Rights Watch. In December 2016, Mkhaitir’s parents fled the country and sought asylum in France stating that they could no longer live in Mauritania under permanent threats.

Mauritania’s prosecution of Mkhaitir for his writing violates the international law guarantees protecting free speech, such as those enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Mauritania has been a party since 2004. The Mauritanian constitution guarantees freedom of opinion, thought, and expression. Restriction of speech, and in particular criminal prosecutions, should only be used as last resort, for a justifiable reason, when the law is clearly defined and the restriction is proportionate. Mkhaitir’s speech, given it could not conceivably be construed as incitement to violence or hatred, should never have been subject to prosecution.

Both United Nations and African human rights standards on the right to life encourage states to move toward abolition of the death penalty and in those states that retain the death penalty make clear it should be limited to the most serious crimes and can only be imposed after a fair trial. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has stated that: “In those States which have not yet abolished the death penalty it is vital that it is used for only the most serious crimes – understood to be crimes involving intentional killing.”

Mauritanian prosecutors should drop the charges against Mkhaitir, Human Rights Watch said, and Mauritanian legislators should repeal penal code provisions that violate freedom of expression, including Article 306, which provides the death sentence for apostasy. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Rights bloggers and activists in Ho Chi Minh City during a hunger strike to call for freedom of political prisoners, July 2015.

© 2015 Dan Lam Bao

(New York, November 3, 2017) – The Vietnamese government should immediately release everyone it has detained or imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch posted a new web page highlighting the cases of 15 of more than 100 people imprisoned for political or religious reasons.

International leaders and trade partners attending the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Da Nang on November 10, 2017, should call on Vietnamese authorities to end the government’s systematic persecution of peaceful critics and ensure the basic rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion for its citizens.

“While doing photo-ops and trade deals with the leaders of Vietnam’s one-party state, foreign officials in the country for APEC should not turn a blind eye to the over 100 political prisoners those very same leaders have put behind bars,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “At the same time that Vietnam is playing the role of a friendly host to welcome international delegations, the authorities are intensifying their crackdown on anyone with the courage to speak up for human rights and democracy.”

Since its formation in 1976, the modern, unified Vietnamese state has imprisoned people for the exercise of basic freedoms. At present, at least 105 peaceful critics (list below) are in prison for expressing critical views of the government, taking part in peaceful protests, participating in religious groups that don’t have the authorities’ approval, or joining civil or political organizations that the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam deem threats to its monopoly on power.

On October 25, in the most recent sentencing, the People’s Court of Thai Nguyen sentenced 24-year-old student blogger Phan Kim Khanh to six years in prison for “conducting propaganda against the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” Upon release, he will serve an additional four years of probation restricting his movement to his residential ward. The verdict should be quashed and Phan Kim Khanh should be immediately released, Human Rights Watch said.

Neither a glittering APEC summit nor new trade deals can cover up the ugly reality that Vietnam still runs a police state that brooks no dissent.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Within the past 12 months, the police have arrested at least 28 people for sweeping “national security” offenses that are used to punish critical speech. The most recent arrest was on October 17, when the police detained an environmental activist, Tran Thi Xuan, in Ha Tinh province and charged her with activities aimed at overthrowing the government.

Vietnamese rights bloggers and activists face police harassment, intimidation, intrusive surveillance, detention, and interrogation on a daily basis. Many are denounced on state media and national television, and others are subjected to public criticism in their neighborhoods. Police frequently prohibit rights campaigners from leaving the country or place them under temporary house arrest to prevent them from joining a protest or meeting with foreign diplomats. Activists have faced increasing numbers of beatings and assaults by men in civilian clothes operating under the protection of the authorities. Vietnamese activists who are arrested are often placed in lengthy police detention before their trial, without access to legal assistance or family visits.

“Neither a glittering APEC summit nor new trade deals can cover up the ugly reality that Vietnam still runs a police state that brooks no dissent,” Adams said. “Any leader of a democracy who goes to APEC but doesn’t take up the cause of Vietnam’s political prisoners should be ashamed at missing the opportunity to do the right thing on a global stage. International donors and trade partners should press Vietnam for systemic change to a more democratic system that respects human rights and the rule of law.”

Human Rights Watch List of Political Prisoners
October 2017

The following is a list of people imprisoned in Vietnam for expressing critical views of the government, taking part in peaceful protests, participating in religious groups not approved by the authorities, or joining civil or political organizations that the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam deems threats to its monopoly on power. This list only includes people who have been convicted and remain in prison and does not include the significant number of detainees who have been arrested, are currently facing trial, and have not yet been convicted. It is also almost certainly incomplete, as it only includes convictions that Human Rights Watch has been able to document.

Due to difficulties in obtaining information about convictions and sentences in Vietnam, this list may differ from those compiled by other organizations, and such differences do not necessarily reflect inaccuracies. Vietnam should be urged to open its legal system – including case files and proceedings – to public scrutiny.

  1. Phan Kim Khánh, born 1993
  2. Nguyễn Văn Oai, born 1981
  3. Trần Thị Nga, born 1977
  4. Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh (also known as Mẹ Nấm), born 1979
  5. Rơ Ma Đaih (Ama Pôn) born 1989
  6. Puih Bop (Ama Phun), born 1959
  7. Ksor Kam (Ama H’Trưm), born 1965
  8. Rơ Lan Kly (Ama Blan), born 1962
  9. Đinh Nông (Bă Pol), born 1965
  10. Trần Anh Kim, born 1949
  11. Lê Thanh Tùng, born 1968
  12. Cấn Thị Thêu, born 1962
  13. Ksor Phit, born 1970
  14. Siu Đik, born 1970
  15. Nguyễn Hữu Quốc Duy, born 1985
  16. Ksor Púp (Ama Hyung)
  17. Siu Đoang, born 1983
  18. A Jen, born 1984
  19. A Tik, born 1952
  20. Đinh Kữ, born 1972
  21. Thin, born 1979
  22. Gyưnborn 1980
  23. Nguyễn Đình Ngọc (also known as Nguyễn Ngọc Già), born 1966
  24. Ngô Thị Minh Ước, born 1959
  25. Nguyễn Hữu Vinh (also known as Ba Sàm), born 1956
  26. Nguyễn Tiến Thịnh
  27. Hoàng Văn Thu
  28. Nguyễn Lê Châu Bình
  29. Nguyễn Văn Thông, born 1965
  30. Kpuih Khuông
  31. Rmah Khil
  32. Rmah Bloanh
  33. A Kuin (also known as Bă Chăn), born 1974
  34. Ngư (also known as Bă Săn), born 1972
  35. Điểu B’ré (also known as Bạp Bum), born 1969
  36. Điểu By Ơ, born 1967
  37. Đinh Yum, born 1963
  38. Rơ Mah Plă (also known as Rmah Blă; a.k.a Ama Em), born 1968
  39. Siu Tinh (also known as Ama Khâm), born 1978
  40. Rưn
  41. Chi
  42. Đinh Lý
  43. Đinh Ngo
  44. Thạch Thươl, born 1985
  45. Ngô Hào, born 1948
  46. A Tách (also known as Bă Hlôl), born 1959
  47. Rung, born 1979
  48. Jơnh (also known as Chình), born 1952
  49. A Hyum (also known as Bă Kôl), born 1940
  50. Byưk, born 1945
  51. Đinh Lứ, born 1976
  52. Đinh Hrôn, born 1981
  53. Đinh Nguyên Kha, born 1988
  54. Phan Văn Thu, born 1948
  55. Lê Duy Lộc, born 1956
  56. Vương Tấn Sơn, born 1953
  57. Đoàn Đình Nam, born 1951
  58. Nguyễn Kỳ Lạc, born 1951
  59. Tạ Khu, born 1947
  60. Từ Thiện Lương, born 1950
  61. Võ Ngọc Cư, born 1951
  62. Võ Thành Lê, born 1955
  63. Võ Tiết, born 1952
  64. Lê Phúc, born 1951
  65. Đoàn Văn Cư, born 1962
  66. Nguyễn Dinh, born 1968
  67. Phan Thanh Ý, born 1948
  68. Đỗ Thị Hồng, born 1957
  69. Trần Phi Dũng, born 1966
  70. Lê Đức Động, born 1983
  71. Lê Trọng Cư, born 1966
  72. Lương Nhật Quang, born 1987
  73. Nguyễn Thái Bình, born 1986
  74. Trần Quân, born 1984
  75. Phan Thanh Tường, born 1987
  76. Hồ Đức Hòa, born 1974
  77. Nguyễn Đặng Minh Mẫn, born 1985
  78. Tráng A Chớ, born 1985
  79. Kpuil Mel
  80. Kpuil Lễ
  81. Siu Thái (also known as Ama Thương), born 1978
  82. Phạm Thị Phượng, born 1945
  83. Trần Thị Thúy, born 1971
  84. Siu Hlom, born 1967
  85. Siu Nheo, born 1955
  86. Siu Brơm, born 1967
  87. Rah Lan Mlih, born 1966
  88. Rơ Mah Pró, born 1964
  89. Rah Lan Blom, born 1976
  90. Kpă Sinh, born 1959
  91. Rơ Mah Klít, born 1946
  92. Nguyễn Hoàng Quốc Hùng, born 1981
  93. Trần Huỳnh Duy Thức, born 1966
  94. Rmah Hlach (also known as Ama Blut), born 1968
  95. Siu Kơch (also known as Ama Liên), born 1985
  96. Nhi (also known as Bă Tiêm), born 1958
  97. Siu Ben (also known as Ama Yôn)
  98. Rơ Lan Jú (also known as Ama Suit)
  99. Nơh, born 1959
  100. Rôh, born 1962
  101. Pinh, born 1967
  102. Siu Wiu
  103. Brong, born 1964
  104. Y Kur BĐáp
  105. Y Jim Êban
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

By Anahit Chilingaryan

On the evening of September 28, Narine Avetisyan, editor-in-chief of a regional television station, got a call about workers laying asphalt on a road in the pouring rain in Vanadzor, Armenia’s third largest city. She went to investigate.

According to Avetisyan, soon after she arrived and started asking questions, the head of the construction company told her to go away, that the road work was none of her business. She said that when she didn’t leave, the director and several colleagues threw her to the ground, twisted her arms behind her back, and dragged her along the ground, demanding her phone. She said they seized her phone and deleted the video of the construction site. In response to a Human Rights Watch query, the director denied the charges.

Avetisyan filed a police complaint that evening. Investigators initiated a criminal investigation and brought charges against the company director for hindering the work of a journalist. But according to Avetisyan, the charges say nothing about her being physically attacked by the director and other workers.

Attacks on journalists are not uncommon in Armenia, and highlight the vulnerability of those who work in the media here.

In another incident a week later, Paylak Fahradyan, a journalist for the online news site Armday.am, was investigating a dispute involving a local hospital in the village of Shatin. Fahradyan said that when he began asking the doctor at the center questions about corruption allegations, the doctor and a hospital nurse tried to grab his camera. When he refused to delete his footage, they forced him into a room in the hospital, threatening to hold him until he did so. Fahradyan managed to leave the room about 10 minutes later, after he called the police. Investigators initiated a criminal case, but no charges have been brought so far. Human Rights Watch’s queries to the hospital staffers  received no response.

Outside observers have raised concerns about conditions for journalists in Armenia. During a recent visit to the country, Harlem Désir, the representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), expressed concerns about attacks on journalists. He emphasized the need for safe working conditions, especially while covering public events or topics of public interest.

These cases are two of many attacks on journalists in Armenia who are just trying to do their job. The authorities need to ensure that media workers can do their work without fear of assault; effective, impartial investigations by Armenian authorities of these and similar incidents would be a good start.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Erkin Musaev © 2017 Hugh Williamson

(Tashkent) -- The most striking thing about Erkin Musaev is his optimism. With a pleasant smile and gentle manner, he told us over dinner in Tashkent about his ideas for improving Uzbekistan, his homeland.
 
Uzbekistan is going through a reform shake-up under president Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who last year took over the reins following the death of the authoritarian leader Islam Karimov. There have been some important human rights changes, but severe patterns of abuse still exist.
 
Many people are excited about the changes but Musaev, 50, is an unlikely candidate to be one of them. He was a senior official for Karimov’s administration for many years, and one of his representatives to NATO. Yet in 2006 he found himself facing bogus espionage charges, and was thrown in jail, convicted and sentence to 20 years in prison. Musaev was severely tortured, and his health suffered during his 11 years behind bars. But then, in August, he was released -- one of more than 10 former political prisoners set free since Mirziyoyev assumed the presidency.
 
“Since my release I’ve written to president Mirziyoyev and offered to support what he is doing,” Musaev told us, referring to the president’s efforts to respond to ordinary people’s problems through a new network of local complaint centers across Uzbekistan.
 
Considering the horrors Musaev lived through in prison, his eagerness to look forward is both refreshing and deeply impressive. A specialist in military technology, Musaev worked in the 1990s for the Defense Ministry, at one point also joining a US-sponsored exchange program to study English in Texas. His NATO posting from 1997 to 2001 took him to Brussels, where he heard for the first time of concerns about Uzbekistan’s human rights record.
 
In 1999 he attended an EU-Uzbekistan meeting on human rights during which the EU representatives raised concerns about torture in Uzbek prisons. In the coffee break he recalls complaining to one of the European delegates: “There is no torture in Uzbekistan!”
 
He pauses in his story, the bitter irony clear to him -- that this government official who defended Tashkent’s record would just a few years later himself suffer the torture he asserted did not exist.
 
Later, he went to work for the Tashkent office of the UN Development Program, working on border management issues.
 
He was arrested at Tashkent airport on January 31, 2006 and later coerced to sign a confession that he had spied for the US, the UK and UN. One theory is that Karimov was angry at Western governments’ critical reactions to the killing of hundreds of protesters by government security forces in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan in May 2005. As a UN employee, Musaev was an attractive target.
 
Musaev said the circumstances of his arrest and interrogation would be laughable, if they were not so serious. The first reason border guards gave for arresting him was that they allegedly found a CD containing state secrets in his luggage. “The CD was planted in my luggage” Musaev said, noting that the guards were hardly subtle with their plan. “The CD was labelled clearly: ‘secret information, Ministry of Defense.’”
 
After months of interrogation and harrowing torture at his captors’ hands, Musaev “made up a history” of his alleged spy activities. Musaev explained that such a strategy was the only way to halt the torture. “The café I said I frequented did not actually exist, nor did the information I allegedly handled.”
 
While he was in detention UN bodies repeatedly said they had gathered credible evidence that Musaev was tortured in prison. But hearing about it from the man himself is chilling. Held in a cramped cell in the basement of the SNB security services for six months, he was beaten repeatedly on his head, chest and feet. He felt like there was also little oxygen to breathe properly. “Those torturers are still working there” he said.
 
In a 2008 public letter written after a prison visit, his wife, Rayhon Musaeva, said he had been beaten so badly his face was unrecognizable. He was deprived of sleep and water on occasion throughout his prison time.
 
“Often they would prevent us from sleeping for no reason, coming into my cell at 5 a.m. and forcing me to ‘take a jog’ in the prison compound in the freezing cold” he told us. “At times, they [prison guards] doused me with freezing cold water and then let me freeze. On another occasion, I was placed into an extremely cold, closed cell for 10 days straight.”
 
Musaev, an educated man who read books by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Barack Obama while in jail, helped other prisoners write letters to relatives or to lodge complaints. “My prison nickname was ‘the writer,’” he said, estimating that he wrote 150 letters a year for himself and others. He admitted, however, that most, if not all, probably did not reach their destinations.
 
He also wrote a book while in prison, with stories about his fellow prisoners. But guards confiscated and destroyed the manuscript, suspicious because it was written in Russian, not Uzbek.
 
Even this story doesn’t disrupt his optimism. He is clearly determined to catch up with the outside world and move on with life as quickly as he can. He is brimming with ideas of how to make prisons more humane, noting some modest improvements under Mirziyoyev while stressing how unjust the overall system remains.
 
And does he have an underlying secret of how he survived and remained positive? His reply: “Solzhenitsyn says that we should fight for justice until the end. If we don’t get justice, then the repression will repeat itself. That’s’ what I’m trying to do.”

Hugh Williamson is the Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Steve Swerdlow is the Human Rights Watch researcher working on Uzbekistan. Human Rights Watch issued a report on October 24, 2017 assessing progress on human rights in Uzbekistan after a year under the country’s new president, Shavkat Miryziyoyev.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The Uzbek government during President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s first year in office has taken some positive steps to improve the human rights situation, but should now transform them into institutional change and sustainable improvements. 

(Bishkek) – The Uzbek government during President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s first year in office has taken some positive steps to improve the human rights situation, but should now transform them into institutional change and sustainable improvements, Human Rights Watch said today. The findings are based on Human Rights Watch’s first in-country research in seven years, including meetings and interviews with government officials, civil society activists, former political prisoners, and ordinary citizens.

Human Rights Watch also issued a video on recent developments in Uzbekistan. It includes comments by Muhammed Bekjanov, a former political prisoner who was one of the world’s longest-held journalists, imprisoned for nearly 18 years, until his release in February 2017.

“At this moment of hope for the country, the Uzbek government should transform the modest steps already taken in the right direction into lasting human rights protection for all of Uzbekistan’s citizens,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The test for Tashkent is to turn positive moves into enduring structural improvements.”

Mirziyoyev’s administration should make fulfilment of its international human rights obligations a hallmark of the country’s new political era, Human Rights Watch said. The Uzbek government should send a clear message that peaceful criticism of government policies – whether by rights activists, journalists, artists, or religious believers – will not merely be tolerated but genuinely valued in Uzbekistan’s transition to a more open and democratic society.

Last month, Human Rights Watch met with a wide spectrum of government officials and interviewed civil society activists, former political prisoners, relatives of current political prisoners, as well as ordinary citizens in Tashkent and other cities in Uzbekistan. The findings highlight the positive steps the Uzbek government has taken to improve the human rights situation and identify the key concerns it should urgently address to make improvements sustainable.

Mirziyoyev assumed the presidency in September 2016, following the death of Islam Karimov – the Central Asian country’s authoritarian ruler for 27 years – in late August. Since then, the Uzbek government has released at least 16 political prisoners, relaxed certain restrictions on free expression, removed citizens from the security services’ notorious “black list,” and increased the accountability of government institutions to citizens. It has also banned the forced mobilization of teachers, doctors, and college students to labor in fields for the annual cotton-picking season.

Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 19, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

While these moves have offered hope that Mirziyoyev may break with the ruthless legacy of his predecessor, it remains to be seen whether Uzbekistan’s still-authoritarian political system will meaningfully improve and end grave abuses, including widespread torture, politically motivated imprisonment, and forced labor in cotton fields.

Detailed recommendations Tashkent should undertake to improve the human rights situation include immediately ending the practice of arbitrarily extending prison sentences, ensuring genuine media freedom, registering nongovernmental organizations that take on politically sensitive issues, and immediately abolishing exit visas required for foreign travel.

Uzbekistan in a New Political Era: Cautious Optimism for Change

A little more than a year has passed since Uzbekistan’s second president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, assumed power after the death of Islam Karimov, the Central Asian nation’s former authoritarian leader. Since the transition, the Uzbek government has begun to take steps to improve the country’s abysmal human rights record.

These moves – coupled with currency reforms and a foreign policy pragmatically focused on repairing relations with Uzbekistan’s immediate neighbors Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – have contributed to a sense of hope in Uzbekistan about the possibility for change not witnessed in many years.

President Mirziyoyev’s conscious attempt to break with the legacy of his predecessor is probably best exemplified by the extensive network of presidential reception centers established across the country, which have the specific task of responding to individual citizens’ grievances. For instance, Gulnora Ikramova, a long-time rights defender, explained that while the centers are not addressing serious rights abuses, they have, to her knowledge, on occasion proven effective in addressing everyday social, communal, and practical issues of citizens that had long been ignored during Karimov’s reign:

Many social problems that lingered for years under Karimov have now been resolved quickly by the [presidential reception] centers. Take our neighborhood, where the streets had been dark and dangerous for years. After my call to the center, street lights have finally been installed.

Mirziyoyev has also, unlike Karimov, been willing to acknowledge the persistence of human rights abuses, even on the international stage. The president’s highly publicized National Action Strategy 2017-2021, which is invoked regularly in official discourse and slogans that are prominently displayed, includes pledges to improve public administration, strengthen protections for vulnerable segments of the population, and liberalize the economy, as well as new legislation to strengthen judicial independence.

The optimism and heightened expectations of millions of Uzbeks are palpable inside the country. But it is far from clear if Uzbekistan’s still-authoritarian government will transform the modest steps it has taken thus far into institutional change and sustainable human rights improvements. Grave abuses such as torture, politically motivated imprisonment, and forced labor in the cotton fields remain widespread.

The tension present between positive moves and steps backward was especially apparent in October when, in the span of a few weeks, Uzbek authorities released five long-time held political prisoners – journalist Solijon Abdurakhmanov, political opposition activist Muhammadali Karabaev, and human rights defenders Azam Farmonov, Ganihon Mamatkhanov, and Akzam Turgunov – while arresting author Nurullo Muhammad Raufkhon and journalist Bobomurod Abdullaev on new charges.

Politically Motivated Imprisonment, Torture, Ill-Treatment in Detention

While the Mirziyoyev administration has yet to acknowledge the existence of politically motivated imprisonment in Uzbekistan, it has since September 2016 released at least 16 people imprisoned on politically motivated charges. They are: Solijon Abdurakhmanov, Muhammad Bekjanov, Botirbek Eshkuziev, Azam Farmonov, Bahrom Ibragimov, Davron Kabilov, Muhammadali Karabaev, Samandar Kukanov, Ganihon Mamatkhanov, Erkin Musaev, Bobomurod Razzakov, Davron Tojiev, Akzam Turgunov, Rustam Usmanov, and Ravshanbek Vafoev. In March 2017, authorities also released Jamshid Karimov, an independent journalist and Islam Karimov’s nephew, from forced psychiatric treatment.

The number of prisoner releases over the past year, especially five prisoners freed over a short period in October, stands in stark contrast with the one or two prisoners released each year on average during Karimov’s reign, and signals some hope that the Uzbek government could move toward freeing thousands of political prisoners in Uzbekistan.

Following his release from prison, freed journalist Muhammad Bekjanov is now writing a memoir on his time in Jaslyk prison, Yangibozor, September 2017 © 2017 Steve Swerdlow

Musaev, a former United Nations staff member convicted of fabricated charges of espionage was granted early release 11 years into his 20-year sentence. But most of the others had already reached the end or were within one or two years of the end of their prison terms – some of which had been arbitrarily extended on bogus grounds – or were elderly or in ill-health.

Thousands of individuals imprisoned on politically motivated charges remain behind bars and many have experienced torture or ill-treatment.

Human rights activists in prison include Mehrinisso Hamdamova, Zulhumor Hamdamova, Isroiljon Kholdorov, Gaybullo Jalilov, Chuyan Mamatkulov, Zafarjon Rahimov, Yuldash Rasulov, and Fahriddin Tillaev.

Journalists in prison include Bobomurod Abdullaev, Gayrat Mikhliboev, Yusuf Ruzimuradov, and Dilmurod Saidov.

Imprisoned religious figures and other perceived government critics include Aramais Avakyan, Ruhiddin Fahriddinov, Sobir Hamidkariyev, Nodirbek Yusupov, Dilorom Abdukodirova, and Ravshan Kosimov. Kudratbek Rasulov, an opposition activist, also remains behind bars.

Prison authorities in Uzbekistan also continue to use Article 221 of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code regarding “violations of prison rules” to arbitrarily extend the sentences of people imprisoned on politically motivated charges. 

In February, authorities released Muhammad Bekjanov, one of the world’s longest imprisoned journalists. He was kidnapped in Ukraine before his arrest in 1999, and severely tortured in prison, and his sentence was arbitrarily extended in 2012 by five years. In a meeting with Human Rights Watch in September 2017 at his home in northwestern Uzbekistan, Bekjanov described some of the torture he and other prisoners, including the currently imprisoned journalist Yusuf Ruzimurodov, suffered shortly after his kidnapping in Ukraine in 1999 and transfer back to Tashkent:

We arrived in Tashkent still blindfolded on the airplane, and (I noticed later) the skin on my arms was turning black from the handcuffs which almost cut through the bone they were on so tight. We were immediately taken to the Ministry of Internal Affairs basement, where the officers began beating our legs with rubber truncheons. They beat us all the time from the evening until the morning, only pausing for 5 or 10 minutes at a time. They broke my right leg, and when they got tired of beating my legs they beat other areas. After three days of that I could no longer walk and could not bear the beatings any further. This went on daily for at least a month and a half, as the officials tried to force me to make a false confession. When I refused they would beat me harder. They beat me so hard that I forgot the names of my own daughters.

Erkin Musaev, another former political prisoner, suffered harrowing torture in pretrial detention. He told Human Rights Watch in September 2017:

Often, they would prevent us from sleeping for no reason, coming into my cell at 5 a.m. and forcing me to ‘take a jog’ in the prison compound in the freezing cold. At times, they [prison guards] doused me with freezing cold water and then let me freeze. On another occasion, I was placed into an extremely cold, closed cell for 10 days straight.

The Uzbek government has also yet to fulfill the longstanding recommendation of UN bodies to close the Jaslyk prison colony – a detention facility long associated with some of the most egregious torture cases. Authorities continue to send people imprisoned on politically motivated charges there, including rights defender Azam Farmonov, until his release in early October.

Judicial Reform, Torture, and the Independent Legal Profession

The Uzbek government has emphasized judicial reform as a priority under the National Action Strategy and has adopted two recent presidential decrees – one in October 2016 and the other in February 2017 – designed to increase independence of the judiciary. In February, the government introduced a new institution – the Supreme Judicial Council – a body of the judiciary that, among other things, appoints, supervises, and disciplines or dismisses judges working in courts below the Constitutional and Supreme Courts and several other key courts. The decrees also put in place a system under which judges may gradually move to tenured appointments, increasing their independence from the executive branch.

While the extent to which these measures will improve citizens’ experience of justice in the court system remains to be seen, they have edged Uzbekistan’s judicial practices more closely in line with international standards outlined in the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary. Another amendment introduced in April reduced the time arrestees could be held in pretrial detention prior to a court hearing, from 72 to 48 hours, fulfilling a long-standing recommendation by the UN Human Rights Committee and the Committee against Torture.

These initiatives are important, not least because torture has been rampant in Uzbekistan and occurs with near-total impunity. Forum 18, a non-governmental organization that monitors religious freedom, recently reported a torture case in the northwestern city of Nukus, where police officers jailed a Jehovah’s Witness, hitting him “on his kidneys, chest, stomach, and face. They then demanded that he do 150 squat exercises without taking a rest. When he was able to do only 120, the officers again beat him in the face.” Later, police “kicked him on the back” and subsequently “[in freezing conditions] poured cold water on the floor of the cell and kicked him in the head.”

Ravshan Kosimov, current political prisoner, imprisoned on politically motivated charges since 2009 © 2009 Malika Kosimova

In September, lawyers reported to Human Rights Watch that the rights of detainees are routinely violated at each stage of investigations and trials, despite habeas corpus amendments that went into effect in 2008. Suspects are often not permitted meaningful access to lawyers, and police use torture to coerce confessions from detainees. Authorities routinely refuse to investigate allegations of abuse. Uzbek authorities will need to take demonstrable and verifiable action to end this situation and hold those responsible to account.

Since 2013, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has not carried out independent monitoring of Uzbekistan’s prisons and places of detention. In 2013, ICRC announced its suspension of its monitoring programs due to an inability to conduct prison visits and confidential meetings with prisoners free of government interference. In meetings with Human Rights Watch in September, Uzbek government officials acknowledged the importance of the ICRC’s monitoring role, indicating an openness to the organization resuming its work. Officials also said that ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), is currently under consideration.

The government has also increased the independence of Uzbekistan’s Ombudsman for Human Rights, Ulugbek Muhammadiyev, appointed just two years ago. An August 2017 law enables the Ombudsman’s Office to intervene on behalf of citizens in various legal cases as a pro bono public defender, and the provision of an independent line-item for the ombudsman’s activities in Uzbekistan’s state budget increases the office’s independence from other executive branches of government. The August 2017 law brought the powers of the human rights ombudsman closer into line with the UN “Paris Principles” that relate to the status and functioning of national institutions for the protection and promotion of human rights.

In September, Ombudsman Muhammadiyev told Human Rights Watch about his office’s increasing efforts to conduct unannounced monitoring visits of prisons across Uzbekistan and to create more opportunities for citizens to meet with his office and lodge appeals. Such efforts are important and positive, but Human Rights Watch also learned of efforts by prison officials, as recently as April 2017, to intimidate prisoners during the ombudsman’s prison visits, and of more systematic efforts to confiscate the written appeals prisoners prepare and attempt to send to his office and other government officials. Erkin Musaev, a political prisoner released in August, told Human Rights Watch about his experience when the ombudsman visited his prison, the Bekobod prison colony, in April 2017:

Ten minutes before the ombudsman’s arrival they lined up prisoners for our cellblock. They asked two of them to step forward and beat them up brutally in front of all of us. ‘Just try to complain about our prison to the ombudsman when he comes,’ they said, ‘and you’ll see what happens to you.’ Other prisoners who attempted to see the ombudsman were ‘re-directed’ to the warden’s office and kept there until after the ombudsman had left. They set out special food items and cleaned the prison before he came and then to compensate for the money spent fed the prisoners stale meat for the next week. After that experience, I wrote a letter to the ombudsman pleading with him not to come back to our prison.

Lawyers also told Human Rights Watch that a 2009 law that restructured the legal profession and abolished the previously independent bar associations, subordinating their replacement to the government, continues to severely restrict the independence of lawyers. Under the new law, all lawyers were required to re-apply for their licenses and to re-take a bar examination every three years. In the eight years since, several lawyers who consistently take on politically sensitive cases or raise allegations of torture have been disbarred, or otherwise left the profession and there has been a chilling effect on those who remain licensed to practice.

Cooperation with UN Institutions

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, visited Uzbekistan in May 2017 – the first ever such visit by a high commissioner for human rights to Central Asia – signaling a willingness on the part of authorities to engage more closely with UN human rights bodies. Also, in October 2017, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief made an official visit to Uzbekistan, the first such visit by a UN human rights thematic mandate holder to Uzbekistan in 15 years.

During Hussein’s visit, Tashkent agreed to resume cooperation with the high commissioner’s regional office in Bishkek. In public comments Hussein commended Mirziyoyev for his stated commitment to reforms and urged him to follow through on releasing wrongfully imprisoned activists, cooperate with UN human rights monitors, end forced labor, and lift restrictions on media. Later, the Uzbek government announced it would allow a permanent representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to be based in Tashkent. There are 13 other UN mandate holders with outstanding requests to visit Uzbekistan who have been refused access since 2002, including the special rapporteurs on torture, the situation of human rights defenders, and the independence of lawyers and judges.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2017, Mirziyoyev seemed determined to move on from Karimov’s legacy, expressing the goal to build “a democratic state and a just society” where “human interests come first.” Mirziyoyev added: “We are deeply convinced that people must not serve government bodies, rather government bodies must serve the people.”

Civil Society

In contrast to the situation under Karimov, the Mirziyoyev administration has slightly relaxed restrictions on the holding of modest peaceful demonstrations, such as those by the small group of activists who make up the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, headed by veteran rights activist Elena Urlaeva. But critical voices, including independent rights activists, journalists, and lawyers, are still largely suppressed.

Civil society in Uzbekistan continues to operate under tight restrictions, and no independent domestic human rights organization has been allowed to register since 2003. Additionally, a June 2015 law strictly regulates the activities of nongovernmental organizations, requiring an onerous and burdensome process of receiving prior approval from the Ministry of Justice by at least 20 days before conducting virtually any activity. Many local and international nongovernmental organizations have reported that the June 2015 law has seriously hindered their ability to operate.

Civil society forum in Tashkent with Human Rights, Tashkent, September 2017 © 2017 Steve Swerdlow

Government officials in September reported the existence of thousands of nongovernmental organizations in the country, but offered no information on attempts by the Ministry of Justice to invite activists and groups who work on politically sensitive or critical civil and political issues to gain legal registration. In contrast, one long-time human rights activist whose name is being withheld for security reasons and whose organization monitors religious freedom and civil and political rights reported that he had attempted to obtain registration unsuccessfully for seven years and had still been unable to do so in the year since Mirziyoyev assumed the presidency.

By contrast, civil society groups that work on social and economic issues appear to have greater flexibility to operate within strict regulations set by authorities. There were also tentative signs the space for broader nongovernmental organization activity could widen. In September, Human Rights Watch had contact with a range of nongovernmental organizations working on women’s rights, environmental issues, and the rights of people with disabilities, and heard from NANNOUZ, an nongovernmental organization umbrella association, about work to support people living with HIV/AIDS. Still, one nongovernmental organization working on socio-economic issues said it still faced intimidation by authorities.

In March, authorities forced long-time rights activist Elena Urlaeva to stay in a psychiatric hospital for nearly a month in retaliation for her work. Authorities detained her again in October, this time with the photojournalist Timur Karpov as they tried to monitor conditions for laborers in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields.

Mirziyoyev announced in August that the country’s exit visas – a Soviet relic that authorities have used as a tool to prevent a wide array of perceived critics, including artists and activists, from foreign travel – would be abolished in January 2019.

Media Freedom

While the media sphere remains highly controlled, in July a new 24-hour news channel, Uzbekistan 24, featured criticism of Karimov’s economic and social policies. Earlier in 2017, Uzbekistan 24 began regular broadcasts of talk shows on topical issues, including social and economic and social, concerns, and but at times more sensitive subjects such as on child labor in the cotton sector. For a brief period, these programs were broadcast live, but this ended abruptly in August, although broadcasts of recorded versions of the shows continues. Local media outlets such as kun.uz have acquired a reputation for more critical reporting.

The Uzbek government has made overtures to international media, giving access to a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, hosting an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) media forum in October that included several journalists, and inviting others to upcoming international conferences. The government announced in June that the BBC’s Uzbek service would be allowed to base a correspondent in Tashkent, although accreditation has not yet been issued. In the past year, however, other reporters from international outlets, such as the German reporter Edda Schlager, have been detained during their reporting trips.

On September 27, Uzbek security services detained Bobomurod Abdullaev, an independent journalist, in Tashkent, on what appears to be a politically motivated charge. He was charged with “attempts to overthrow the constitutional regime” under Article 159 of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code, and faces up to 20 years in prison. He remains in custody.

On the same day, police also detained Nurullo Muhummad Raufkhon, an Uzbek author, at Tashkent airport, after he arrived from Turkey following two years of exile. He was charged with extremism for his book Bu Kunlar (These Days), which criticizes Karimov. He was released on October 1, but still faces charges.

To date, the internet in Uzbekistan is highly censored, with access blocked to many critical websites, including independent media such as Fergana News, Radio Free Europe’s Uzbek service, and other sources of news.

Freedom of Religion

Since the late 1990s Uzbekistan has maintained some of the world’s most restrictive policies on the exercise of worship or belief. Authorities highly regulate religious worship, clothing, and sermons delivered by the country’s imams, and ban all forms of proselytism. Peaceful religious believers are often branded “religious extremists.”

Following his two-week visit to Uzbekistan this month, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief summarized his findings that while Uzbek laws theoretically guarantees freedom of religion, in practice religious practice is subject to “excessive regulations that prioritize security over freedom,” with the government’s approach promoting “toleration instead of freedom.” He said that “[w]hat is required is not just the adoption of new laws, but also meaningful institutional reform, and credible change on the ground.”

The government has for many years maintained a “black list” – made up of thousands of individuals suspected of belonging to unregistered or extremist groups. Those on the list are barred from obtaining various jobs and travel, and must report regularly for police interrogations.

In August 2017, authorities announced a reduction of the number of people on the “black list” from 17,582 to 1,352, softening certain religious freedom restrictions. In public remarks accompanying the move, President Mirziyoyev emphasized the need to rehabilitate citizens who had been “misled” by radical groups.

Despite this positive move, thousands of religious believers – religious Muslims who practice their religion outside strict state controls – remain imprisoned on vague charges of extremism. In May, authorities convicted 11 Muslims on extremism charges that appeared fabricated. Surat Ikramov, a human rights activist, said the charges were bogus, that the men only “ate, rested, and prayed together,” and that the men’s confessions were procured through torture.

Followers of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi are prosecuted for religious extremism. Hundreds of Nursi followers have been arrested or imprisoned in the last decade. Authorities harass Christian communities. In April, a court in the northwestern Karakalpakstan autonomous region imposed short prison terms on four Protestant men – Marat, Joldasbai, Atamurat, and Salamat. Judge Sailaubai Mambetkadyrov of the Criminal Court in Nukus, Karakalpakstan’s regional capital, handed down the 15-day prison terms to punish them for meeting for worship in a home.

Authorities continue to arbitrarily extend sentences of religious prisoners for alleged violations of prison regulations. Such extensions occur without due process and can add years to a prisoner’s sentence, raising concerns that the practice appears designed to keep religious prisoners behind bars indefinitely.

For example, as reported by Forum 18, imprisoned rights defender and religious believer Mehrinisso Hamdamova was sentenced on politically motivated charges of extremism to seven years in April 2010. She was due to be released in November 2016 but, despite suffering from a myoma (a tumor associated with uterine cancer), was given an additional three-year prison term. In August 2016, her sister Zulhumor who had been due for release in May 2016, had her prison term extended by three years for alleged violation of prison rules. Both sisters’ health has long caused serious concern, and authorities have denied them medical treatment.

Forced Labor in the Cotton Fields

For years the Uzbek government has forced Uzbek citizens, including education and health workers, students, and people receiving public benefits, to pick cotton for the state-run cotton industry involuntarily and under the threat of penalty, such as dismissal or expulsion from their jobs or loss of benefits.

In September 2017, the Uzbek government recalled university students and some health and education workers from forced labor in the cotton fields. But other workers remained involuntarily in the fields or faced extortion to pay for workers to replace them if they left. On September 21, 2017, Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov ordered officials to recall students and education and medical workers, who had been picking cotton under threat of penalty since the harvest began on September 10, despite an August degree banning the recruitment of such workers.

Bringing students home from the fields is a significant change and shows the importance of political will in ending forced labor. Now it is crucial for Uzbekistan’s international partners, including the United States, European Union, other states, and international financial institutions, to urge the government to allow all involuntary workers to return from the fields without penalty – including being required to pay for someone else to work in their place – and to monitor and publicly report on findings.

Human rights activist Malohat Esqhonqulova discusses her work monitoring the cotton fields in Uzbekistan for forced labor, Tashkent, September 2017 © 2017 Steve Swerdlow

Mirziyoyev addressed forced labor in his speech to the UN General Assembly. It was the first time an Uzbek president acknowledged the issue on the international stage, after a decade of international pressure from governments and other stakeholders and campaigning by the Cotton Campaign – a global coalition of human rights, labor, investor, and business organizations dedicated to eradicating child labor and forced labor in cotton production. Forced labor was raised again in a meeting with the World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, on September 20.

These significant developments show that Uzbekistan can end the decades-long practice of mobilizing massive forced labor to harvest cotton. But these positive steps should not obscure the persistence of forced labor in the current cotton harvest or the continuing threats against activists trying to monitor the situation. The Uzbek government should follow these steps with meaningful reforms to end this repressive and exploitative form of production once and for all.

Preliminary monitoring by independent monitors in September and October shows that teachers and health care workers in some districts were recalled, but workers in other districts were not. Interviews with independent monitors revealed that even as workers are being brought back from the fields, some local officials are extorting funds from businesses and individuals to pay for “replacement” workers. In some areas, returning teachers were made to pay about US$40, half their monthly wage, to hire a replacement worker.

In the Fergana region, officials told business owners that refusal to participate in the collection would be tantamount to an “anti-state action” that would result in a visit from the tax inspector. Most independent monitors continue to work in secret because authorities carried out multiple arrests and even physical assaults on monitors during the 2015 and 2016 harvests.

Independent monitors told Human Rights Watch in September 2017 that in various regions, such as Bukhara, public sector workers were forced to sign forms that they would “voluntarily” pick cotton. Human Rights Watch also learned of instances, such as in the Parkent district of the Tashkent region, where authorities forced teachers and medical personnel to conceal their actual professions when signing up to participate in the harvest.

For the third year in a row, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has contracted with the World Bank, which has invested more than US$500 million in projects that benefit agriculture, to monitor forced and child labor in World Bank project areas. A recent letter from the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) expressed serious concern regarding the ILO’s monitoring methodology and recommended improvements in its mandate during the 2017 harvest.

All stakeholders, including the ILO and the World Bank, should closely monitor the situation on the ground from the harvest, including information provided by nongovernmental monitors, and judge progress toward eliminating forced labor in terms of how that reality matches the president’s statements.

Recommendations

This is a real moment of hope for the human rights of the Uzbek people. The key is for the Uzbek government to transform the modest steps it has taken thus far into institutional change and sustainable improvements. The Uzbek government should consolidate the country’s new political era by acting to fulfil its international human rights obligations.

Mirziyoyev’s government should send an unambiguous message that peaceful criticism of government policies – whether by human rights activists, journalists, artists, or religious believers – is inherently valued and useful in Uzbekistan’s transition to a more open and democratic political era. The following are specific recommendations Human Rights Watch urges the Uzbek government to take to improve the human rights situation:

  • Immediately and unconditionally release all wrongfully imprisoned human rights defenders, journalists, members of the political opposition, and other activists held on politically motivated charges;
  • End the practice of arbitrarily extending prison sentences for minor offenses or “violations of prison rules” under article 221 of the criminal code;
  • Take meaningful measures to end torture, implementing in full the recommendations of the UN special rapporteur on torture, the UN Committee Against Torture, and the UN Human Rights Committee, including closure of the Jaslyk prison colony, the resumption of prison monitoring by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Covenant against Torture (OPCAT);
  • Ensure genuine media freedom, end censorship of the internet, cease harassment of journalists, and allow domestic and international media outlets, including those that have been forced to stop operating in Uzbekistan, to register, and grant accreditation to foreign journalists;
  • Allow domestic and international human rights organizations to operate without government interference, including by promptly re-registering those that have been liquidated or otherwise forced to cease operating in Uzbekistan;
  • Repeal the June 2015 law which imposes on nongovernmental organizations the onerous and burdensome process of receiving prior approval from the Ministry of Justice for a variety of activities;
  • Immediately abolish the system of exit visas required for Uzbek citizens to travel abroad;
  • End religious persecution, including by decriminalizing peaceful religious activity, and ending the imprisonment of thousands of people for their nonviolent religious expression;
  • Build on the visit by the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion in October 2017, issue invitations to the remaining 13 UN monitors who have asked to visit Uzbekistan, and implement recommendations by independent monitoring bodies, including UN treaty bodies and special procedures;
  • Effectively end forced labor of adults in the cotton sector, implement fully government decrees banning the mobilization of public sector workers and students, allow independent nongovernmental organizations and activists to conduct their own monitoring without harassment; and
  • Ensure accountability for the 2005 Andijan massacre, during which government forces shot and killed hundreds of mostly peaceful protesters, and cease harassment and other abuses of refugees who returned to Uzbekistan after leaving the country following the massacre, and of families of refugees who remain abroad.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am