Foto: Umida AKHMEDOVA
(Bishkek) – Uzbek authorities should immediately release and drop their criminal case against Uktam Pardaev, a prominent human rights activist arrested on November 16, 2015, the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, Human Rights Watch, International Partnership for Human Rights, and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said today.
Police arrested Pardaev, head of the Independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, in his home in Jizzakh on charges of extortion and bribery, confiscating a camera, computer, several documents and flash drives. They also searched his brothers’ home. Pardaev, who faces up to 10 years in jail if found guilty, was held incommunicado for four days in the Do’stlik district pre-trial detention facility without access to his lawyer and was unable to contact family members until his lawyer visited him on November 20.
“Pardaev has long campaigned against corruption and abuse of power in a region of Uzbekistan where many are afraid to speak out,” said Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. “His prosecution fits a typical pattern of fabricated criminal charges brought to silence human rights defenders and should be dropped immediately.”
Pardaev, 37, is known for his work uncovering local corruption and monitoring the forced labor of adults and children in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields. Authorities have persecuted him for his peaceful work for years, denying him an exit visa from Uzbekistan on political grounds. In recent months, however, Pardaev had told diplomats and international organizations about local authorities’ increasing pressure on him in the form of constant surveillance and harassment.
In October, Pardaev told Human Rights Watch that he feared imminent arrest at the hands of the local branch of Uzbekistan’s feared National Security Services, known by its acronym SNB. Pardaev also reported that the SNB summoned for interrogations friends, colleagues, and other people he attempted to assist, threatening and in some cases beating them.
“Pardaev is a human rights activist respected in Jizzakh and other parts of Uzbekistan for his independent human rights work, monitoring of the cotton harvest, and tireless work against corruption,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If Uzbek officials take issue with his reports on corruption and other abuses they should be willing to discuss them in the public sphere rather than locking him up on fake charges.”
Authorities have charged Pardaev with bribery and extortion, based on testimony from nine witnesses. The authorities claim Pardaev defrauded the witnesses by promising to secure jobs for them and buy land on their behalf.
Local human rights defenders told the human rights groups they believe that the charges against Pardaev are fabricated and were initiated to punish him for his well-known human rights activities.
In the past decade Uzbek human rights defenders have often faced malicious prosecution and trumped-up charges in similar circumstances. Typically, in cases that appear to be orchestrated by the authorities, a local person approaches the human rights defender, purportedly seeking aid, and later testifies against the activist. The rights defenders have often been accused of financial crimes such as fraud and extortion, but also of others such as human trafficking.
“We are gravely concerned about the fate that most likely awaits Pardaev if he’s convicted,” said Brigitte Dufour, director of International Partnership of Human Rights. “Not only should the Uzbek government allow human rights defenders to monitor conditions in the cotton fields and elsewhere, they should also refrain from repressing them and, above all, protect them. However, it is clear that the Uzbek government does none of these things and its international partners such as the World Bank and International Labor Organization should hold Tashkent to account.”
Well over a dozen human rights defenders and numerous independent journalists and opposition activists are in prison in Uzbekistan in retaliation for their work or criticism of the government. Many are in serious ill-health and have suffered torture or ill-treatment in prison. Thousands of other independent Muslims are imprisoned on politically motivated charges.
People imprisoned in Uzbekistan for expressing political and religious views are often denied due process and face torture and other ill-treatment at all stages of investigations and incarceration.
“The brutal treatment of Uzbek rights activists monitoring the cotton industry exposes Tashkent’s commitment to sweep abuses under the carpet and an unwillingness to improve its abysmal human rights record,” said Marius Fossum, Central Asia regional representative at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “This underlines the need for the involvement of international mechanisms: the time is ripe to establish a United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Uzbekistan.”