Reports from Uzbekistan suggest there is little evidence of human rights 
improvements that would warrant the removal of sanctions.

By Caroline Tosh in London and IWPR staff in Central Asia


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Reports from Uzbekistan suggest there is little evidence of human rights 
improvements that would warrant the removal of sanctions.

By Caroline Tosh in London and IWPR staff in Central Asia

As the European Union prepares to vote on whether to lift the sanctions it 
imposed on Uzbekistan in the wake of the Andijan violence two years ago, human 
rights activists and journalists in the country as well as international 
experts warn that any relaxation of the measures will send the wrong message to 

Germany, which currently holds the EU presidency, appears to be pushing for 
awkward human rights concerns to be quietly dropped from the agenda in pursuit 
of a new EU strategy for engaging with Central Asia. Radio Free Europe/Radio 
Liberty, RFE/RL, reported on May 11 that EU ambassadors were deadlocked on 
whether sanctions should be renewed, softened or dropped.

Uzbek officials have sensed the new mood over recent months, and have in turn 
sought a rapprochement with Europe on their terms. 

If Tashkent gets a clean bill of health when EU foreign ministers meet on May 
14, it will have achieved this without addressing fundamental human rights 
concerns, and specifically without instituting the international inquiry 
requested by the EU, the United Nations, and countries such as the United 

Government soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians in the eastern town almost 
exactly two years ago, on May 13, as people gathered in protest over the trial 
of 23 local businessmen accused of Islamic extremism – said by their families 
to be innocent.

The massacre is widely thought to be the worst atrocity committed by a 
government against demonstrators since the Chinese army killed several hundred 
protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The Uzbek authorities say 187 were killed, but human rights organisations put 
the figure closer to 800, and argue that a determined effort by the Uzbek 
authorities to shut down non-government organisations, NGOs, and independent 
media has meant the truth behind events has never emerged.

Human rights groups are urging the EU to maintain the sanctions, and are 
calling for them to press for an international inquiry into Andijan and raise 
other human rights concerns.


Sanctions were imposed because of the Uzbek government’s continued refusal to 
allow an independent international inquiry into the massacre, which was 
requested first by UN human rights commissioner Louise Arbour and then by the 
US government. 

In November 2005, the EU announced a series of measures against the Uzbek 
government. These were: 
• A partial suspension of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement which 
governs EU-Uzbek relations. 
• An embargo on EU sales of weapons to Uzbekistan 
• A year-long visa ban on 12 senior officials believed to have played a part in 
the use of force against demonstrators.

President Islam Karimov’s government has shown little sign of bowing to the 
demand for an inquiry, maintaining its position that Andijan happened as a 
result of an uprising mounted by Islamic radical groups. 

When the sanctions came up for renewal in November 2006, the Uzbek authorities 
did some intensive lobbying in Brussels and agreed at least to discuss the 
Andijan events with EU representatives. In response, Brussels agreed not to 
widen the scope of the sanctions, although they were extended for another six 

The gulf between the official EU position on what had to happen for relations 
to improve and Tashkent’s take on the matter was evident when Uzbek foreign 
minister Vladimir Norov told reporters that the purpose of inviting EU experts 
to a meeting on Andijan was to set them right and tell them that the violence 
involved a premeditated terrorist act by Islamists.

When EU foreign ministers reviewed the matter again in March 2007, Germany’s 
Frank-Walter Steinmeier – who has led the effort to re-engage with Tashkent – 
assured his colleagues that there were “openings that must be developed” in the 
dialogue. Ministers left the sanctions in place pending a further review on May 
14, one day after the anniversary.


Considering the importance of the May 14 meeting, the Uzbek government has made 
a number of apparently quixotic decisions that are not calculated to help its 

Two civil society activists were given long jail sentences within days of each 
other. Gulbahor Turaeva, a member of Anima-Kor, an NGO which works to protect 
the rights of doctors and patients, got six years on April 24, and Umida 
Niazova, a journalist and human rights activist, was handed a seven year term 
on May 1 – both after trials that appeared deeply flawed.

The EU presidency issued a statement on May 4 expressing “great concern” about 
the harsh sentences and urging an immediate review of both cases. 

“The two sentences send a worrying signal by Uzbekistan in the perspective of a 
EU decision on whether to renew specific sanctions adopted in 2005 in relation 
to the Andijan tragedy, and while Uzbekistan has agreed to hold a dialogue with 
the EU on human rights,” said the statement.

Earlier, Tashkent had told Arbour that officials were “too busy” to meet her on 
her tour of Central Asia in late April and early May. As a result, she missed 
Uzbekistan out from her tour of the region - which, considering she visited 
Turkmenistan, seen by many as an even worse offender on human rights in recent 
years, was something of a snub.

It was Arbour who issued the original UN report calling for an investigation 
into Andijan.

On April 3, the authorities refused to extend the accreditation of Andrea Berg, 
director of Human Rights Watch’s office in Tashkent. The decision was not 
surprising - most foreign non-government groups have been squeezed out of the 
country since Andijan – but the timing was poor in view of the forthcoming EU 

The authorities tried to repair the damage done by these decisions, which 
arguably only raised more questions about them and highlighted underlying 
concerns about human rights even closer to the date of the EU’s deliberations. 

Berg was summoned to meet Foreign Minister Norov on April 21, and he granted 
her accreditation after all - but only for three months. 

Niazova was released on May 8, her jail term reduced to a suspended sentence 
with severe restrictions on her movements. This decision mirrored the timing of 
the release of journalist Ulugbek Haidarov, whom the authorities freed ahead of 
the EU sanctions in November.

But Turaeva was not released – for good measure, she received an additional 
sentence, lengthening the time she will spend in prison to 11 years. The 
authorities have made a particular point of removing from circulation anyone 
who was an eyewitness to events in Andijan. Turaeva had reported seeing 
hundreds of corpses heaped together by the authorities after the shootings.

Human Rights Watch pointed out the unfortunate timing, as news of the verdict 
came out on May 9, just as a high-level EU delegation was in Tashkent for a 
talks that formed part of the EU-Uzbek “human rights dialogue” – part of the 
EU’s apparent strategy of talking about the subject rather than demanding 

“Turaeva’s first sentencing was bad enough,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and 
Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This second verdict is 
outrageous, and underscores why the EU should focus its dialogue with Tashkent 
on the need to release Turaeva and the other rights defenders.” 


Aside from gestures, have the Uzbeks done enough to merit the lifting of 
sanctions? Does even the most liberal interpretation of “progress” on human 
rights stand up?

On the principal question - an impartial investigation carried out by 
international experts - the answer is no. The government has shown no sign of 
entering into a debate on the preconditions for such an investigation, although 
it is happy to engage in the “dialogue” proposed by the EU since this does not 
presuppose an inquiry. 

Although the EU document setting out sanctions does not list improvements in 
other areas as a condition for ending the restrictions, it is more than likely 
that general improvements - or the lack of them - will be cited as reasons for 
the decision taken by European foreign ministers.

If sanctions are dropped, it will underline the difference between the 
approaches of the EU and the US. 

Until Andijan, the Americans were allies of Uzbekistan, which had provided them 
with the use of a military airbase for operations in Afghanistan following the 
9/11 attacks on the US. 

The relationship broke down when the US administration joined international 
calls for an investigation into the Andijan violence, and the Uzbeks demanded 
they leave the airbase.

In March, US ambassador Jon Purnell presented the Uzbek government with the 
State Department’s annual report on human rights for 2006. The report is 
damning, saying the human rights situation continued to deteriorate and citing 
such violations such as the torture of detainees by law-enforcement officers, 
the incarceration of regime critics and human rights activists in mental 
hospitals, the persecution of independent journalists, and appalling prison 

The day before it was formally presented, Uzbekistan’s foreign ministry 
denounced the report as “prejudiced and unfair”. The ministry said the State 
Department’s monitoring was “tendentious and counterproductive”.

It is difficult to get access to information in Uzbekistan thanks to the 
government’s determined effort to silence journalists and close off both 
information sources and media outlets. 

However, IWPR interviews with people in Uzbekistan as well as experts outside 
the country suggest there has been a distinct lack of progress since 2005 with 
regard to arbitrary detention and trial, political rights, and media freedom.


Including Turaeva, Human Rights Watch says at least 14 human rights defenders 
are currently detained on politically motivated charges, including the serious 
offence of “anti-state activities”. 

Local groups are under great pressure, Elena Urlaeva, a member of the Uzbek 
Human Rights Alliance who was imprisoned for four months in a psychiatric 
hospital after being arrested at a rally in Tashkent in 2002, says she fears 
the organisation will soon be closed down.

Her colleagues are constantly harassed, followed and photographed, and the 
office is under 24-hour surveillance by police, she said.

Urlaeva says the persecution of activists is severely hampering their ability 
to work both in the country and outside it too - with some banned from 
travelling altogether, and others detained or given rigorous checks at border 

She was arrested in March on the border with Kyrgyzstan while coming back from 
a UN meeting in Bishkek. She and her elderly mother were detained for eight 

“The human rights situation in Uzbekistan has worsened compared with last year. 
We [activists] cannot travel to other countries. Many of our members are under 
virtual house arrest,” she said.

In the last two years, the government has closed down many international NGOs 
on a number of pretexts, including failure to register with the authorities or 
to provide information on their activities.

The scope for even discussing sensitive subjects such as human rights has 
narrowed, according to people interviewed for this report. 

“In the past, there was a possibility that human rights might improve. You 
could talk about violations of human rights,” said one local journalist. “Now 
that’s out of the question. If a human rights activist acts to help someone… he 
may end up in prison himself. You can see that by the number of cases in which 
activists have been pressured, assaulted, arrested, or accused of extorting 


The position of independent journalists is also becoming increasingly 

“The authorities’ attitude to the media hasn’t changed. It’s the same as ever,” 
said a political analyst based in Tashkent. “All media outlets are under the 
authorities’ control, and the very idea that they might stand up to them is 
ridiculous – they don’t even discuss what the authorities are doing.”

As far as access to information was concerned, the analyst said, “The 
authorities provide the public with whatever information deem necessary. 
Anything that doesn’t fit their criteria is blocked - even information about 
what’s happening inside the country…. Most information remains secret.” 

According to Urlaeva, changes to media law now mean harsh measures can be taken 
against those who distribute foreign reports on human rights that criticise 
Uzbekistan. “Previously, we would print out reports by international 
organisations such as Human Rights Watch and interesting articles about 
Uzbekistan, copy them and hand them to others. Now writing for an internet 
publication may be deemed anti-constitutional propaganda,” she said.

In Andijan, a local reporter said the information blockade meant that the media 
situation is “dead, and it’s inconceivable that it will revive”. 

“The local press write about incredible achievements that the average person 
wouldn’t recognise,” he said. “They write about the high standard of living, 
when people haven’t seen anything of the sort in the last 14 years. 

“There’s no media freedom to speak of. One might put it this way - the media in 
Andijan are free to fantasise as much as they want. Other than that, there’s 
nothing that can be written about.” 

Foreign media are no longer able to operate inside Uzbekistan and their 
reporters - both local and international - are not granted the accreditation 
they need to work legally. Germany’s Deutsche Welle has had to close down, 
joining the BBC and RFE/RL, which closed their Tashkent offices earlier. 

Journalists in Uzbekistan say the amended media regulations which came into 
force on January 15 have given the government more control over media and led 
to increased self-censorship. The new law defines websites as media outlets – 
which means they must register with government, provide information on their 
employees, and give the authorities copies of all publications.

In spite of a constitutional ban on censorship, an RFE/RL report in April said 
the authorities were further restricting access to independent media by 
blocking websites.

In its annual report for 2007, press freedom organisation Reporters Without 
Borders said that “arrests, internment and blocked websites were routine for 
journalists in 2006”.

It also noted that the Uzbek government warned last year that journalists 
working for foreign media that criticised government policy risked losing their 

Craig Murray, formerly Britain’s ambassador to Tashkent, said the Uzbek 
government’s crackdown on independent media has had the desired effect. 

“Uzbekistan is off the radar to almost everyone. There is no public opinion on 
the subject because international media organisations have been successfully 
banned,” he told IWPR. 

This stifling of media means that human rights abuses go largely unreported, he 


When he found himself head of state of an independent Uzbekistan in 1991, Islam 
Karimov moved quickly to neutralise potential sources of opposition. As a 
result, there is no legal political opposition. 

Constitutional amendments and a new law governing political parties which come 
into force from January next year appear at first sight to be a move towards 

The new party law introduces the concept of a parliamentary opposition for the 
first time. It also gives the parliamentary majority a say in the appointment 
of the prime minister. 

President Karimov proposed the changes in November, and they were duly passed 
by parliament in March this year. In a speech in December, Karimov made remarks 
that suggested there will be little real change. 

He spoke of “further expanding the rights and powers of political parties, 
giving them more influence over the elected bodies and the state 
administration”, but indicated that the “parliamentary opposition” would be 
made up of the five legal parties, “some [of which] will opt to become the 

The five officially registered parties in the country all back the president. 
They are virtually invisible between elections, and do not offer alternative 
political visions. Karimov, however, suggested that they had “gained in 
political prestige and maturity”, that they ran “competitive” campaigns in 
recent elections, and that they were now ready to take on the vigorous new role 
the law would assign them. 

Analysts say it is highly unlikely that a real multi-party system will develop 
in the foreseeable future. 

True opposition parties - such as Birlik and Erk - are banned, cannot stand for 
election, and their leaders remain in exile. As a local commentator told IWPR’s 
News Briefing CentralAsia agency in March, Erk and Birlik “have not been 
granted registration for many years. These two parties will never be able to 
take part in parliamentary elections or nominate candidates”.


Another area where there has been little demonstrable improvement is the use of 
physical abuse including torture, particularly to extract confessions as a way 
of securing an automatic conviction. 

In December 2005, Theo van Boven, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, said 
torture was an “endemic problem” in Uzbekistan.
Maisy Weicherding of Amnesty International told IWPR that torture was a 
serious, ongoing problem. Amnesty receives widespread reports of people who say 
they were tortured - including independent journalists, human rights activists, 
devout Muslims, secular oppositionists, and even some former government 

Weicherding says the EU needs to raise individual cases where there is evidence 
of serious abuse such as torture, “It's very important for them to take a 
principled stand in order to raise human rights standards.”

Shahida Yakub of the Uzbekistan Initiative–London group is particularly 
concerned at the treatment of Muslim believers, who are often detained and 
accused of links with extremism. These people, she said, form the most 
persecuted group in Uzbekistan, with at least four people disappearing in the 
last year. Unlike the persecution of human rights defenders, such cases are 
rarely reported in the media. 


Most of the people interviewed for this report were concerned at the 
implications of the EU giving Uzbekistan a clean sheet - an end to sanctions in 
exchange for vague promises to talk about human rights. 

Murray, who was recalled from Tashkent after criticising the use of torture, 
said he would be “pleasantly surprised” if the EU maintained the sanctions in 
the face of German pressure. 

The recent jailings of human rights activists, the closing down of 
international media organisations, and Tashkent’s “total failure” to address 
the EU demand for an Andijan inquiry make the German position “totally 
indefensible,” he said.

“The astonishing thing is that, beyond any shadow of a doubt, there is no 
argument [to be made] that the human rights situation has got better,” he said.

Yakub said that if sanctions were lifted it would come as a bitter 
disappointment for Uzbeks, who feel their rights are being traded for economic 
gain, “People in Uzbekistan feel that no one cares about what is happening in 
the country. There is a feeling that the EU is putting its energy interests 
over its support for democracy.”

An Uzbek who fled to Kyrgyzstan after the Andijan violence echoed this view, 
saying, “I think it is too early to drop the EU sanctions on Uzbekistan. They 
[Uzbek authorities] should first improve matters regarding human rights, and 
create some space for opposition.” 

For now, she concluded, “Uzbekistan has turned into a police state.” 

Berg of Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned at what she sees as a weakened 
EU stance in recent months, and says "the international community has sent too 
many positive signals to Uzbekistan - in spite of the worsening situation 

"EU human rights officials say they can see some progress and give statements 
that things are going the right way - but I'm living here, and working here and 
dealing with human rights violations every day," she said.

If the EU drops the sanctions, Weicherding is similarly concerned about the 
message this would send out. “That would signal that they’ve improved [human 
rights] and have done well, so don't have to do anything any more. The state in 
Uzbekistan has not really improved, despite what the authorities would like to 
assert,” she said.

While she says the EU has not disclosed what benchmarks it will use to measure 
the human rights situation as it reviews sanctions, she warns that recent 
“expert talks” held by the EU and Uzbekistan are no substitute for a proper 
independent enquiry into Andijan.

She added that EU officials must not be swayed by political considerations, 
such a fear of losing influence in Central Asia, in particular in the energy 

The EU has drafted a new engagement strategy which it hopes will help Europe 
gain a stronger hold in the Central Asian republics. The oil and gas sectors in 
Kazakstan and potentially Turkmenistan could be important energy sources for 
Europe, but Uzbekistan exports only limited amounts of gas, which is bought by 

Sanobar Shermatova, a Moscow-based Central Asian expert, argues that the 
sanctions are important as they give a clear message that breaches of human 
rights mean that Uzbekistan is not considered an equal partner in the eyes of 
the EU.

But she says that the EU’s attempts to woo the wider region in order to access 
energy resources weaken its censure of the human rights situation.

“Uzbekistan well understands that it is not about democracy, but energy 
cooperation. I think that the US and EU no longer believe democracy is possible 
in Central Asia,” she said.

It is Germany that has done most of the pushing for sanctions against the 
country to be relaxed. To date, the German view seems to be that suspending 
relations with Uzbekistan has done little to improve human rights in any case.

Critics of the German approach argue the country has undermined the sanctions 
from the start, by allowing former interior minister Zokir Almatov - who was on 
the EU’s visa-ban list - into Germany for medical treatment.


James Nixey, an expert on Central Asia and Russia at the Royal Institute of 
International Affairs in London, does not think the Uzbek leadership will 
comply with the EU’s demands. 

“The authorities there don’t like to be lectured and are too proud to bow to EU 
demands, so taking this approach of imposing sanctions may put them on the 
defensive,” he said.

Like many analysts, he questions how effective the minimal sanctions have been. 
“Several of the Uzbek leadership travelled to the EU for medical reasons, so 
they were pretty leaky form the start,” he said.

Nixey thinks it will take another event on a scale similar to Andijan before 
the international community takes more decisive action against Uzbekistan.

Murray does not believe the EU can exercise much power over Uzbekistan. 

“Karimov’s attitude towards the EU is amused and contemptuous. He has no 
interest whatsoever in forging links with it. He’s not interested in having a 
market economy,” he said.

Central Asian expert Nick Megoran says improving the human rights situation is 
not a priority for the Uzbek authorities. As the country moves away from the 
West into a closer alliance with Russia and China, it has becomes less 
concerned with the image it conveys to the rest of the world.

Megoran said the EU packs little weight in Central Asia.

“The EU has been critical of Uzbekistan's human rights record and it would like 
to trade with Central Asia more, but the EU isn't particularly important to 
Uzbekistan,” he said.

“Islam Karimov is a very independent character - he's no one's puppet. The 
ability of states such as the US, Britain, France of Germany to do anything is 
very limited,” he said.


Others argue that the EU should not abdicate its responsibility by allowing 
Tashkent to believe it can do nothing and still be rewarded. 

In a letter to EU foreign ministers urging them to keep the sanctions in place, 
Human Rights Watch said “the worsening human rights situation in Uzbekistan is… 
directly linked to the EU’s soft-pedalling on this record. The Uzbek government 
not only failed to take any positive steps to address abuses, but obviously 
felt no compulsion to refrain from further abuse despite the looming sanctions 
review, no doubt because of the positive signals it received from the EU. 

“This startling fact should alone prompt the EU to immediately recognise the 
utter failure of its policy.”

At a meeting of the European parliament’s human rights subcommittee on May 3 - 
ahead of the sanctions review - German foreign ministry official Rolf Schulze 
said that “isolation of Uzbekistan is not an option”. 

Rolf Timans, head of the Unit for Human Rights and Democratisation at the 
European Commission, suggested holding talks was more realistic than expecting 
substantive action from the Uzbeks. 

“One has to be realistic,” he said. “One should not expect that the Uzbek 
authorities will release such [political] prisoners overnight. We have to start 
discussing human rights first. Let’s not expect that the results will be 
forthcoming immediately.” 

Helene Flautre, a French Green member of parliament, delivered a stinging 
response at the meeting. “I hope that there are no Uzbek officials in the 
room,” she told Timans. “Your words suggest that they hardly need to make an 

Caroline Tosh is an IWPR reporter in London. IWPR and News Briefing CentralAsia 
staff and contributors provided additional reporting and interviews.

The names of interviewees in Uzbekistan have been withheld in the interests of 
their security.

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