UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - Friday 2 April 2004

UZBEKISTAN: Activists warn of crackdown following a week of violence

ANKARA, 2 Apr 2004 (IRIN) - Following a government crackdown in the wake of this week's violent attacks in Uzbekistan, which killed at least 44 people and injured scores more, activists warn of a further decline in the state of human rights.

"Right now we are seeing arbitrary arrests and the kind of reaction that we feared from the Uzbek government, suggesting perhaps a broader crackdown," Acacia Shields, Central Asia researcher for the international watchdog NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) told IRIN from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, on Friday. "It's time for the international community to speak out and call on Uzbekistan to observe human rights during its investigations."

A wave of arrests immediately after the attacks indicated that the Uzbek government had been using the occasion to target peaceful Muslim dissidents and their relatives, a statement by the rights group said. HRW said it had received reports of arbitrary detentions taking place within hours of the attacks, most of which involved former religious prisoners and their relatives, many of whom were still being held incommunicado.

Tashkent's reaction to a spate of suicide bombings and other attacks starting Sunday, mostly targeting police, recalls the wave of arbitrary arrests that followed the bombing of government buildings in Tashkent in February 1999. Additionally, the arrests were consistent with the Uzbek government's policy of prosecuting peaceful Muslim dissidents on charges of religious "extremism," who were not charged with any acts of violence, Friday's statement added.

Many of the 44 victims who died this week were militants killed in confrontation with government forces, including 20 alleged terrorists who officials said blew themselves up after they were cornered on Tuesday. However, official accounts have contradicted witnesses at the scene who said some of the militants were killed in shootouts, the Associated Press reported.

Meanwhile, the fallout from the violence - and its impact on an already poor human rights record - continues to be debated on the ground.

"Earlier we warned that there would be persecution against dissidents - not only religious, but opposition as well," Vasilya Inoyatova, head of Ezgulik, a local rights group, told IRIN from Tashkent, noting seven people had been arrested in the southeastern province of Ferghana on Friday.

"Yesterday [Thursday], I asked the British Ambassador what the international community could do regarding the repression. Today, I want to ask the American Ambassador the same thing," she said. How long would London and Washington stand on the sidelines before taking action against what HRW has referred to as one of the poorest human rights records in Central Asia, she asked.

But not everyone agreed with HRW's assessment of the situation. Mikhail Ardzinov, head of the Independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, told IRIN from Tashkent that it was a biased evaluation. "Terrorist acts have occurred and the authorities have taken urgent measures. According to official data, some 30 people have been detained. They are being interrogated and this is a natural part of any investigation by the authorities."

As for claims that innocent people were being persecuted, he maintained there was no proof that that was happening. "According to the law, the authorities can detain suspected people first for three hours, then up to 10 days if needed and after that they put official charges against the detained person. So, the authorities are carrying out these activities," Ardzinov observed, adding: "it is not right to generate tensions right now without any facts."

And while the government has generally declined to comment on the statements of rights groups, particularly with regard to human rights, earlier this week a government official told IRIN in a separate interview that Tashkent was committed to democratic reforms which would eliminate torture and other abuses.

"We are working on these issues [human rights]. Maybe it is not that fast, but the process is going on and it is pretty positive," Ilkhom Zakirov, a spokesman for the Uzbek foreign ministry said on Tuesday.


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