TASHKENT, UZBEKISTAN – In his first major international address to the 2017 United Nations General Assembly, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev pledged systemic reforms across all sectors.
“We are deeply convinced that people should not serve the government, but that the government should serve the people,” Mirziyoyev said.
But four years later and with the presidential elections approaching, human rights defenders are calling these promises a pipe dream.
“The good news is that fundamental problems have been diagnosed,” said Abdurakhmon Tashanov, head of the Ezgulik Human Rights Society in Tashkent. “Mirziyoyev and his administration admit and claim to fight them. But it’s time for real steps and solutions. “
Ezgulik, an independent grassroots organization with more than 200 human rights defenders across Uzbekistan, is primarily funded by Sweden and other Western donors. For three decades, he watched over prisons and led the fight to secure the release of political prisoners.
The state, wary of its external support, closely monitored its activities. But Tashanov now sits on several boards, involving government and non-government actors, and the group’s activities are covered by the Uzbek media.
Rights now openly discussed
Despite some changes since Islam Karimov’s death in 2016, Tashanov sees vestiges of the authoritarian ruler’s system, including paranoia. The main progress, he says, is that the public discusses human rights openly.
“Do you want solutions?” he asks rhetorically. “Well, take care of the rights of your people and follow international and local recommendations. ‘Liberalization’ means trusting civil society. You must create a human rights system that is not just governmental. We want to help. “
Activists never expected a linear progression, adds Tashanov.
“The government is definitely afraid of losing control and is trying to find a balance. But this has not been the case so far, especially with regard to media freedom, freedom of expression and political freedoms. “
Tashanov observes that the government is closely monitoring the upheavals in Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Ukraine and “fears that this will happen in Uzbekistan”.
For Ezgulik, the defense of human rights in Uzbekistan should not be limited to protesting, denouncing, humiliating and denouncing the policy of the state. “For citizens to become a force for positive change, the system must foster strong civic institutions,” Tashanov says.
Asking the state to respect rights doesn’t mean activists are in opposition, he argues. The organization for the protection of liberty and the advocacy for justice are not in themselves against the interests of the country or the government.
“Uzbekistan must have space for pluralism. The government has international obligations to provide these constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, ”Tashanov told VOA.
The Justice Department recently denied registration of a new group, the Social Democratic Party for Truth and Development, saying it faked thousands of supporters’ signatures. The party undertakes to submit a new request and complains that the police and security services interfered in the process.
Tashanov does not think that the five official parties with seats in the Uzbek parliament are credible. “They are puppets,” he says, “without any firm commitment to justice.”
Party accused of repression
“We do not agree”, said Alisher Kadirov, leader of the democratic party Milliy Tiklanish (national renaissance) and vice-president of the Uzbek legislative chamber.
Kadirov’s party and his allies have come under heavy criticism from international human rights groups for changing penal and administrative codes to crack down on public protests.
“We expected this kind of response, especially from the West,” Kadirov said. “Our citizens have the right to protest, criticize and petition the government. All we have done recently is enact laws that ensure the freedom to protest does not stir up public unrest.
When reminded of Uzbekistan’s human rights record over the past three decades, which prevented citizens from complaining about politicians, let alone leaders, he responded with a question.
“So because of this we can no longer place restrictions on anything that could lead to public unrest?”
Why not expand instead of contracting freedoms?
“We don’t need to shed blood to become a free and democratic society,” Kadirov replies. “Citizens who protest must not commit violence. They should not threaten the peace. “
Are not the necessary mechanisms already in place to prevent such things? Isn’t Uzbekistan ultimately a police state where public demonstrations are hardly ever allowed?
“We shouldn’t be such a system,” Kadirov said. “We want a system in which citizens can express their dissatisfaction with politicians and leaders without violating the rights and freedoms of others.”
Tashanov said the legal changes could be used to punish anyone the system sees as a threat, even if he or she is simply claiming a right to free speech and peaceful assembly. Uzbek central and local governments have long been accused of manipulating the laws to silence critical voices.
But for Kadirov, “there is no freedom without security”.
He is generally expected to run for president and insists the elections will not have puppet candidates.
“My party will field a real competitor; we welcome competition. We will offer a choice, ”Kadirov said.
He urges the international community to support Uzbekistan rather than criticize it. “If you want us to be successful, then help us, work with us.”
More recently, however, Kadirov’s signature problem has been speaking out against LGBT rights. “We… will not and should not tolerate these people,” he said.
“Some of them,” he said, “are just sick and we should treat them. Others are criminals and we must punish them. “
Like many anti-LGBT people in Uzbekistan, he categorically asserts that the laws should not apply.
But Uzbekistan this year joined the United Nations Human Rights Council, which has long championed LGBT rights. Kadirov said Uzbekistan, like other countries, could opt out of certain commitments.
“Do not do business with those who make it a condition of engagement,” he said, urging Tashkent to say an absolute “no” to anyone who advocates for LGBT rights.
In Uzbekistan, consensual same-sex sex is illegal. Homosexuals can be arrested at any time and face prosecution, imprisonment and homophobic threats. International human rights organizations have called for decriminalization, but Uzbekistan will have to confront Kadirov and his supporters if he chooses to do so.