On 15 March it was announced by the international Human Rights Watch organisation (HRW) that Uzbek authorities have forced them to shut down their office in the capital Tashkent. The closure follows years in which the Uzbek government has obstructed the organization’s work by denying visas and work accreditation to staff. According to HRW the expulsion comes at a time of “a deepening human rights crisis in Uzbekistan” with more than a dozen journalists and activists in prison and torture widespread. In a statement by Executive Director Kenneth Roth posted on the group's website, HRW said it was officially informed of the move on March 10. "With the expulsion of Human Rights Watch, the Uzbek government sends a clear message that it isn't willing to tolerate critical scrutiny of its human rights record," the statement added. Roth wrote that HRW would continue to report on rights abuses in Uzbekistan. There was no immediate reaction from the Uzbek officials.
According to the director of HRW's Tashkent office, Steve Swerdlow, the government wields almost total control over civil society and has closed off the country almost entirely to the outside world. "The sense of isolation is very palpable when you get to Tashkent," Swerdlow says. "In a sense, you can almost feel you are entering a vacuum, a time warp of sorts." Islam Karimov has run Uzbekistan for two decades with vast powers and tolerates little dissent. As stated by HRW “Uzbekistan has now unambiguously joined a shortlist of repressive governments that prevent Human Rights Watch from carrying out or work on the ground”. It added that over the last seven years it has expelled nearly all international non-governmental organizations and consistently denies access to human rights monitors.
Tashkent came under international condemnation after government forces cracked down on a popular uprising in the eastern city of Andijon in May 2005. The bloody clampdown prompted the European Union to impose limited sanctions on Uzbekistan, which were eventually lifted. Following the Andijon events, the government put pressure on international media organizations and NGOs operating in the country, denying them official registration.
Western contradictory stance
But while criticizing Tashkent for systematic violations of human rights and a lack of democratic reforms, Western states like the United States have acknowledged Uzbekistan's vital role in supporting NATO-led troops in neighbouring Afghanistan. "Uzbekistan is increasingly playing a strategic role in the war in Afghanistan," Swerdlow says. "For that reason, NATO and Germany, which has an air base in Uzbekistan now, and the United States, which is using what is known as the northern distribution network to route these supplies, and the EU, have been increasingly warming ties with Uzbekistan and engaging with the government."
Swerdlow calls on the international community, in particular the United States and the European Union, to condemn Uzbekistan's actions in regard to HRW and overall human rights issues in the country. They should make it clear to the Uzbek government that there will be real consequences for not living up to its international human rights commitments, Swerdlow said. According to him it seems as the Uzbek government thinks that they shouldn't listen to any criticism anymore, because of their geopolitical importance.
Sources: RFE/RL Photo: Flickr: maonee