Freedom in the World 2003


Uzbekistan's continued cooperation with the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign in 2002 led to American commitments of increased financial assistance in exchange for promises from President Islam Karimov of political reforms. Although Uzbekistan appeared to have made certain human rights-related concessions--including the abolition of official censorship, the registration of a prominent human rights organization, and the unprecedented conviction of seven law enforcement officials for the deaths of two detainees--there was little evidence at year's end of substantive changes to the Uzbek government's repressive policies. In a move that critics charged would further strengthen Karimov's already sweeping powers, voters officially approved constitutional amendments extending the president's term in office from five to seven years.

Located along the ancient trade route of the famous Silk Road, Uzbekistan was incorporated into Russia by the late 1800s. The Uzbekistan Soviet Socialist Republic was established in 1924, and its eastern region was detached and made a separate Tajik Soviet republic five years later.

On December 29, 1991, the country's independence was endorsed in a popular referendum by more than 98 percent of the electorate. In a parallel vote, Islam Karimov, former Communist Party leader and chairman of the People's Democratic Party (PDP), the successor to the Communist Party, was elected president with a reported 88 percent of the vote over the only independent candidate to challenge him, Erk (Freedom) Party leader Mohammed Solih, who charged election fraud. The largest opposition group, Birlik (Unity), was barred from contesting the election and later refused legal registration as a political party, while the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) and other religion-based groups were banned entirely. Only pro-government parties were allowed to compete in elections to the first post-Soviet legislature in December 1994 and January 1995. A February 1995 national referendum to extend Karimov's first five-year term in office until the year 2000 was allegedly approved by 99 percent of the country's voters.

Throughout the 1990s, the government increased its repression of opposition movements, including moderate political and religious groups, often under the pretext of fighting violent Islamist organizations. The growing crackdowns, coupled with widespread poverty, in turn fueled Islamist extremist activities and contributed to the radicalization of some former advocates of peaceful change. The Uzbek government blamed a series of deadly car bombings in Tashkent in February 1999 on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which seeks the violent overthrow of Uzbekistan's secular government and its replacement with an Islamic state. The authorities used the attacks, which they described as an assassination attempt on Karimov's life, to justify further arrests and trials of both the religious and secular opposition. As a result, many Uzbeks, including both peaceful Muslims and members of the IMU, fled to neighboring countries. In August, IMU militants attempted to enter Uzbekistan by crossing from Tajikistan into neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where they held several villages hostage until early October.

Of the five parties that competed in December's parliamentary election, which was strongly criticized by international election observers, all supported the president and differed little in their political platforms. The January 2000 presidential poll resulted in an expected victory for Karimov, who defeated his only opponent, Marxist history professor Abdulhasiz Dzhalalov, with 92 percent of the vote. Karimov's former party, the PDP, from which he resigned in 1996, had nominated Dzhalalov, its first secretary, with Karimov's consent. Karimov ran as a candidate of the recently established Fidokorlar Party. Uzbekistan's government refused to register genuinely independent opposition parties or permit their members to stand as candidates.

In August 2000, the IMU engaged in armed clashes with government troops in southeastern Uzbekistan. While Tashkent alleged that the guerillas had entered Uzbek territory from bases in neighboring Tajikistan, that country denied the charge. Uzbekistan also accused Afghanistan's then ruling Taliban of harboring many members of the IMU, which the U.S. government had placed on its list of international terrorist organizations in September for its ties to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Uzbekistan became a key strategic ally of the United States in its military operations in Afghanistan. By the end of the year, an estimated 1,500 U.S. troops were reported to be stationed at the Khanabad air base in the south of the country, and President Karimov announced that no deadline had been set for their withdrawal. Tashkent's decision to permit the deployment of U.S. troops on its territory was widely seen as an effort to obtain various concessions from the West, including economic assistance, security guarantees, and reduced criticism of its poor human rights record.

In a sign of the two countries' strengthening ties, the United States and Uzbekistan signed the Declaration on Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework on March 12, 2002, in which both countries agreed to cooperate on economic, legal, humanitarian, and nuclear proliferation matters. While Uzbekistan affirmed a commitment to implementing democratic reforms--including establishing a multiparty system, ensuring independence of the media, and improving the judicial system--the United States pledged to provide financial aid to encourage the development of civil society. The United States agreed to triple bilateral aid to $160 million and to guarantee $55 million in credit through the U.S. Export-Import Bank. In July, the U.S. Congress allocated $45 million in aid, contingent upon Uzbekistan's efforts to institute political and legal reforms. Under the law, the U.S. State Department must certify that Tashkent is making progress in meeting the commitments agreed on under the Declaration. According to a Human Rights Watch statement issued in August, Uzbekistan by midyear had failed to make significant improvements in any of the areas outlined in the Declaration.

In a January nationwide referendum that critics charged indicated Karimov's intention to consolidate further his already considerable political power, voters allegedly approved amending the country's constitution to extend the presidential term from five to seven years. Karimov's current term in office would therefore end in 2007, rather than in 2005. In a parallel vote, voters officially supported replacing the country's 250-member single-chamber legislature with a bicameral parliament. According to the Central Election Commission, 91 percent had voted for the term extension and 93 percent for the creation of the bicameral legislature, with voter turnout at 92 percent. Independent observers raised serious doubts about the validity of the referendum, citing the presence of police in polling stations, the confusing design of ballot papers, and the fact that some people had been able to vote on behalf of several other individuals.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Uzbekistan cannot change their government democratically. President Islam Karimov and the executive branch dominate the legislature and judiciary, and the government severely represses all political opposition. The primary purpose of the national legislature is to confirm decisions made by the executive branch. The 1994-1995 and 1999 parliamentary elections and the 2000 presidential poll, in which only pro-government candidates could participate, were neither free nor fair.

The state imposes strict limits on freedom of speech and the press, particularly with regard to reports on the government and President Karimov. The country's private broadcast and print media outlets generally avoid political issues, are largely regional in scope, and suffer from administrative and financial constraints. Printing presses are owned by the state, which can grant or deny licenses to media outlets. Self-censorship is widespread, while the few journalists who dare to produce probing or critical reports of the authorities face harassment, physical violence, or closure of their media outlets. In April, the government ordered the surveillance and collection of personal information on opposition party activists and Uzbek journalists employed by Radio Liberty and the BBC.

In a positive development, state-radio reporter Shadi Mardiev was released from prison in January 2002 under a presidential amnesty. Mardiev had been sentenced in 1998 to 11 years in prison for slandering a local government official on a program satirizing the official's alleged corrupt activities. In October, the government no longer required that all Internet service providers (ISPs) route their connections through the government-run ISP, UzPak. Although official censorship was formally abolished in May, the responsibility for censoring material was transferred to newspaper editors, who were warned by the State Press Committee that they would be held personally accountable for what they publish.

The government permits the existence of mainstream religions, including approved Muslim and Jewish communities, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church and some other Christian denominations. However, the activities of other congregations are restricted through legislation that requires all religious groups to register with the state through burdensome registration criteria. In addition, the 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations prohibits proselytizing, the teaching of religious subjects without official permission, and the wearing of religious garments in public by anyone other than clerics. Revisions to the criminal code in May 1998 and May 1999 increased penalties for violating the law and other statutes on religious activities. In November 2002, a Jehovah's Witness, Marat Mudarisov, was given a three-year suspended sentence for disseminating publications inciting national and racial hatred and for undermining the constitution. Mudarisov maintains that the publications were planted on him by security service members, and that he was beaten and threatened with torture.

The government continued to be suspicious and intolerant of followers of Muslim organizations not sanctioned by the state. During the last several years, many of them have been arrested or imprisoned on charges of anti-constitutional activities, often under the pretext of the government's fight against militant Islamists. Authorities have targeted members of the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Islamic Party of Liberation), an international movement calling for the creation of an Islamic caliphate throughout the Muslim world. Suspected members have been forced to give confessions under torture and their family members have been subjected to interrogation, arrest, and extortion. In August, the bodies of two prisoners who had been convicted of involvement with Hizb-ut-Tahrir were returned to their families for burial. According to Human Rights Watch, they had died under suspicious circumstances and their bodies showed apparent signs of torture. Both men had been held at Jaslyk prison, which is notorious for its harsh conditions and ill-treatment of religious prisoners.

Permits for public demonstrations, which must be approved by the government, are not routinely granted, and fear of police persecution makes such rallies uncommon occurrences. In 2002, police detained a number of women who protested against the imprisonment of their male relatives for belonging to illegal Islamic groups.

No genuine political opposition groups function legally or participate in the government. A 1997 law prohibits parties based on ethnic or religious lines and those advocating subversion of the constitutional order. Members of unregistered opposition groups, including Birlik and Erk, are subject to discrimination or have gone into voluntary exile abroad. The Council of the Federation of Trade Unions is dependent on the state, and no genuinely alternative union structures exist.

After years of its having been denied legal status, the authorities in March finally registered the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan (NOPCHU), one of the country's principal human rights groups. The decision, which was the first time that the government had formally registered a local human rights organization, came just days before a visit by Karimov to the United States. Two months earlier, police had returned archived records of human rights abuses, along with the passport of NOPCHU director Mikhail Ardzinov, after having held them for more than two years.

Although the registration of NOPCHU was hailed by many observers as a tentatively positive step, other human rights groups, including the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU), continued to be denied registration and to face ongoing harassment by the authorities. Following a protest against human rights abuses that was held outside the Ministry of Justice on August 27, two participants, including HRSU member Elena Urlaeva, were arrested, forcibly detained in a psychiatric hospital, and reportedly given psychiatric drugs. In September, another HRSU member, Yuldash Rasulov, was sentenced in a politically motivated trial to seven years in prison on charges of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and distributing "extremist" literature.

The judiciary is subservient to the president, who appoints all judges and can remove them from office at any time. Police routinely physically abuse suspects to extract confessions, while arbitrary arrest and detention are common. Law enforcement authorities reportedly often plant narcotics, weapons, or banned religious literature on suspected members of Islamic groups or political opponents to justify their arrests. In the country's first conviction of law enforcement officials on charges of lethal brutality, four policemen were found guilty in January in the beating death of one detainee and the torture of another and were sentenced to 20 years in prison. The verdict followed a visit to Tashkent the previous day of a senior U.S. State Department official, who had expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of democratic reform in Uzbekistan. In a separate case in June, three National Security Service officers received prison sentences of between 5 and 15 years in the death of a suspect alleged to belong to a banned religious group.

Prisons suffer from severe overcrowding and shortages of food and medicine. Following a two-week fact-finding mission, the UN special rapporteur on torture, Theo van Boven, concluded that torture is "systematic" in Uzbekistan's prisons and detention centers. In December, Karimov announced an amnesty for various categories of prisoners in honor of the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the country's constitution. However, the presidential pardon did not apply to those convicted of involvement in extremist organizations or anti-constitutional activities, crimes under which many of the country's estimated 7,000 political prisoners have been sentenced.

Widespread corruption, bureaucratic regulations, and the government's tight control over the economy limit most citizens' equality of opportunity. Duties of up to 90 percent on imported goods that were imposed in mid-2002 led to greater financial hardships for the country's many merchants and shuttle traders and sparked protests in a number of towns and villages. Uzbekistan continues to use Soviet-style residence permits and maintains widespread restrictions on foreign travel. Most people must pay often costly bribes in order to obtain exit visas.

Women's educational and professional prospects are restricted by traditional cultural and religious norms and by ongoing economic difficulties throughout the country. Victims of domestic violence are discouraged from pressing charges against their perpetrators, who rarely face criminal prosecution. According to a Human Rights Watch report, the government is extending its campaign against non-mainstream Muslims to include women. In May, four women charged with membership in the banned group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, were given suspended sentences of between two and three years.

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)