Mutabar Tajibaeva has been named one of the forty most significant human rights activists in the world by ACAT-France (Action des chretiens pour l’abolition de la torture et des executions capitals) © acatfrance.fr
Islam Karimov’s dictatorship is not the only nemesis of Uzbek human rights activists – adversarial geopolitical interests, lack of funding, aging, and slander by faux-colleagues are some of the other forces threatening a movement ever-teetering on the verge of extinction.
By Galima Bukharbaeva
52-year-old Mutabar Tajibaeva, the head of human rights watchdog the Club of Fiery Hearts, did not become an activist on a whim or due to personal circumstances. She is a rare human being who was born an activist.
An activist to her very core, she has neither been deterred from her life’s calling by a gang rape at the Internal Affairs department in Tashkent nor by arrest, torture, or prison. Her activism, paradoxically, has come under threat far from these Uzbek nightmares in France.
Tajibaeva’s human rights organization, inspiringly called the the Club of Fiery Hearts, is on the verge of being shut down. Their advocacy website jarayon.com is no longer being updated and almost a dozen activist employees are bracing to lose their jobs.
It is about advocacy for torture victims
Potential donors have rejected the Club of Fiery Hearts’ funding requests. As trivial as that. As mundane as that – even the brightest, bravest, and most selfless deeds require funding especially when living in exile in a foreign country.
Tajibaeva is not alone. A rare human rights organization to be actually based in Tashkent, the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan “Ezgulik”, headed by Vasilya Inoyatova, is also in financial trouble.
Inoyatova says that her organization currently does not have any money to even pay for rent. A formidable number of Uzbek regime’s victims seek support from Ezgulik, but the organization is far from being able to afford services of those few lawyers who are willing to take on the most difficult cases, the ones dealing with human rights violations.
The two women – Tajibaeva and Inoyatova – recently started a joint project to help torture victims in Uzbekistan. In doing so the two organizations united for the first time the capabilities of an organization based in the Western world, the French Club of Fiery Hearts, with that of the Uzbekistan-based Ezgulik.
The funding rejections came first as an utter surprise and then as the project’s death verdict. And not just for the two organizations and their joint project, but also for the human rights movement in Uzbekistan itself.
“There are only very few of us left. We are one of the last ones. And we are on the verge of extinction,” says Vasilya Inoyatova.
One in a million and irreplaceable
The majority of the 34 political prisoners included in Human Rights Watch’s latest report “Until the Very End” are human rights activists.
The majority of activists who managed to escape arrest after the 2005 Andijan Massacre now live in exile, the handful who remain in Uzbekistan are constantly teetering on the very edge of the abyss. And they are a very rare breed; with the departure of even a single person leaving a significant void in the human rights landscape of Uzbekistan.
Another human rights organization based in Uzbekistan, the Human Rights Alliance headed by Elena Urlaeva has seen a decline in its activities due to Urlaeva’s health, which was jeopardized earlier in the year by authorities precisely because they wanted to slow down her activism.
Another prominent activist, Malokhat Jeshankulova, stepped away from her role as the head of the Birdamlik opposition movement in Uzbekistan, after a mysterious near-death health scare – possibly as a result of being poisoned by the authorities – and the untimely slanderous remarks by Uzbek faux-activists. As a result, there will be no White Campaign events in the fall nor any activist events to commemorate Constitution Day on December 8.
Large chunks of Uzbekistan are like black holes with no truthful information coming out from them, and with nowhere to go and no one to turn to when one’s rights are being violated. And that is because there is a not a single brave soul left in those regions to stand up for justice, fairness, and transparency.
If you speak out about torture, then you are “discrediting a sovereign state before the international community”
It is not by accident that the Uzbek regime itself has inadvertently vouched for the significance and effectiveness of Tajibaeva and Inoyatova, who are among the most prominent Uzbek human rights veterans.
In March 2014 the Uzbek government dedicated six pages to the Club of Fiery Hearts in its report to the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC). Turns out, the Uzbek government is outraged with Tajibaeva’s assessment of the case of Kayum Ortikov, former British embassy guard in Tashkent who was arrested in 2009 under false accusations by the regime of being a spy for the UK and brutally tortured in prison.
“What interests does this organization [the Club of Fiery Hearts] pursue? Protecting human rights or discrediting a sovereign state before the international community?” read the Uzbek government’s report to the UNHRC.
Be free … to die
Vasilya Inoyatova (center) presenting at the Human Rights Watch conference “Until the Very End” © Uznews.net
Speaking at this year’s OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, which took place in Warsaw on September 22-October 3, Vasilya Inoyatova brought a silent chill to the room several times while reporting on the abysmal human rights record of her country. Inoyatova, unlike many other activists working on Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia, is based in the country and receives much of her raw data about abuses first hand. Furthermore, she takes part in prison visits and direct assistance to the people whose rights have been violated.
The activist told the audience about the 2005 arrest of Abdurasul Hudojnazarov, an activist, who was so brutally beaten that even TashTyurma – a prison notorious for its torture practices – refused to process him. Not knowing what to do while the injured activist healed the Angren chief of police took him home for a week before taking him to prison again. Ten years later Hudojnazarov was released when it became clear to the prison authorities that the man was dying from cancer.
Abdurasul Hudojnazarov died on June 26, 2014, a mere 25 days after being freed from prison.
The head of Jezgulik managed to deliver a petition letter signed by twelve US senators to the Uzbek government demanding the immediate release of three political prisoners – journalists Salijon Abdurakhmanov and Dulmurod Saijd, as well as human rights activist Agzam Turgunov. She also managed to get access to them in the prison colonies.
64-year-old Salijon Abdurakhmanov, who was sentenced in 2008 to ten years in prison, broke down and started crying when he saw Inoyatova.
Inoyatova was the first to report about Abdurakhmanov’s treatment in prison and the kinds of humiliations and beatings he is being subjected to on a regular basis.
Yet, like a phoenix, Inoyatova concluded her presentation on a constructive note: Relentless pressure by the international community on the authorities in Tashkent makes a difference. For instance, without the letter signed by the US senators she would have not been able to obtain the meetings with the three prisoners.
Geopolitics at the price of an entire people
Sharing the podium at the recent OSCE event Mutabar Tajibaeva criticized the apparent reluctance of Western politicians to help counteract the brutality of Islam Karimov’s regime in fear of sustaining geopolitical losses in light of seemingly growing aggression by Russia and imminent departure of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan.
Paradoxically and inexplicably, European foundations seem to be more eager to support the regime’s brutal law enforcement arms – police, prosecutor general’s offices, and even the National Security Service – as well as Lola Karimova’s foundations while shying away from helping activists waging a losing battle for human rights in the country, said Tajibaeva during her presentation in September for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
The passivity of the major international human rights watchdogs is also bewildering. Human Rights Watch, for instance, did not deign to issue a statement or a protest upon the tragic death of Abdurasul Hudojnazarov.
Other human rights violations – hefty fines for activists led by photographer Umida Akhmedova for simply carrying a Ukrainian flag while expressing their support for the Maidan movement, Said Abdurakhmanov’s deteriorating health in prison, deportation and stripping of the Uzbek citizenship from the wife of a political opposition leader, and so many others – go unnoticed by international organizations and the public at large. All they get are a couple of articles written up in the handful of independent news sources about Uzbekistan.
The passage of time and lack of young activists
There are only very few of us left. We are one of the last ones. And we are on the verge of extinction.
Abdujalil Boymatov, the head of the oldest Uzbek human rights organization, the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (OPChU), who is also living in exile in Ireland, admits that he has less and less time to dedicate to human right issues as he has obligations to provide for his family in their new homeland.
He has stopped seeking financial assistance from international donors. Dependence on donor support is a matter of the survival of the fittest with a constant need to accommodate to donor requirements and renewals. In the meantime, the situation with human rights in Uzbekistan is growing from bad to worse, says Boymatov.
Boymatov also points to a certain degree of apathy that he is noticing in his Uzbek colleagues with some reaching the threshold of their perseverance and some others aging into retirement.
The former head of OPChU, Tolib Yakubov, is also living in exile. He is a retiree in France. His eyesight is so poor that he is unable to do much activism and his absence has left a huge void in the movement.
An independent journalist from Namangan, Nosir Zokir, is writing less and less. He too is running out of energy, says Boymatov.
Mutabar Tajibaeva at the protest action “Who is to blame? Who is next?”, which she and her human rights watch group the Club of Fiery Hearts organized during the OSCE conference in Warsaw on September 24 © M. Tajibaeva
A mere handful of young activists, such as Gulshan Karaeva from Qarshi and Uktam Pardaev from Jizzakh, face such adversity from the regime, which more often than not they are forced to deal with alone, that they end up giving up and moving on.
The current head of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan warns that the growing void among activists in Uzbekistan creates a dangerous vacuum that can be and is being filled by radical extremists of all kinds.
Should the Club of Fiery Hearts and Ezgulik cease to exist due to financial troubles, not many would notice and some might even rejoice. Those, however, who have the misfortune to end up in the hands of the oppressive and brutal regime might find that their opportunities for escape are fewer and the walls of brutality and lawlessness surrounding them all the thicker.
Galima Bukharbaeva, Editor-in-Chief, Uznews.net