Reporters Without Borders is concerned that President Islam Karimov is to be received in Brussels on 24 January for the first time since the European Union lifted the targeted sanctions it imposed on Uzbekistan’s leaders after the May 2005 massacre in the eastern city of Andijan. The officials he is due to meet include European Commission president José Manuel Barroso.
It is hard to understand why this extremely brutal dictatorship is back in favour despite making very little progress on human rights. Furthermore, it is a remarkable slap in the face for human rights that the subject of fundamental freedoms does not even figure on the visit’s agenda. The lack of a final press conference highlights the degree of European concern to spare Karimov any embarrassing questions.
Europe’s decision to receive President Karimov at the highest level follows its earlier decision to lift the sanctions adopted in 2005, although the original demand for the creation of a commission of enquiry into the Andijan massacre was never satisfied. As well as Barroso, Karimov is due to meet with European energy commissioner Günther Oettinger and senior NATO officials.
At least 11 journalists are currently jailed in Uzbekistan while others have had to flee the country to escape the repression and to put their loved-ones out of danger of reprisals. Others are still being targeted by the authorities and are harassed, spied on, followed, summoned for questioning, threatened or unfairly dismissed. The media are gagged, in part by the law and in part by the triumph of cynicism and violence.
Survival instinct has driven the traditional opposition into exile while the authorities are cracking down so harshly on the new, emerging and often Islamist opposition that it is liable to be radicalized. Human rights activists suffer a similar fate. The ruling circles have no tolerance for their concerns. Should the international community ignore the criticism of the widespread forced child labour in the cotton fields, although it is now something of a popular cause?
Is Europe’s accommodating attitude linked to the tour of the Caucasus and Central Asia that Barroso and Oettinger recently made? Or to Uzbekistan’s growing role in the provision of supplies and troop reinforcements to the international coalition and NATO forces in Afghanistan?
We are disappointed by all this accommodation and Realpolitik, and by the supposed silent diplomacy that bears no fruit. We are disappointed to see the European Union, in which human rights activists the world over tend to place their hope, failing in its role as guardian of democratic values. We are disappointed that journalists in Brussels will not be able to ask Karimov the questions that the EU has neither the courage nor the desire to ask.
Since the lifting of sanctions in November 2009, international NGOs have repeatedly warned European representatives of the dangers of a policy of opening towards Uzbekistan that is not accompanied by firmness on the issues of democratization and human rights. We are now seeing our worst fears being realized.
Reporters Without Borders continues to demand the release of journalists who have been unjustly arrested and jailed. Regardless of the often absurd charges brought against them, these journalists are being held solely for trying to do their duty to provide the public with news and information.
These are the journalists who are currently detained in Uzbekistan and whose release Reporters Without Borders is calling for:
* Held since 21 January 2010 - Khayrullo Khamidov - Nawruz (radio)
* Held since 22 February 2009 - Dilmurod Sayid - Ezgulik
* Held since 16 February 2009 - Bakhrom Ibragimov - Irmok
* Held since 16 February 2009 - Davron Kabilov - Irmok
* Held since 16 February 2009 - Ravshanbek Vafoev - Irmok
* Held since 16 February 2009 - Abdulaziz Dadakhonov - Irmok
* Held since 16 February 2009 - Botyrbek Eshkuziev - Irmok
* Held since 7 June 2008 - Solidzhon Abdurakhmanov – freelancer
* Held since 12 September 2006 - Jamshid Karimov – freelancer, contributes to the Fergana.ru and Centrasia.ru websites
* Held since 15 March 1999 - Jusuf Ruzimuradov - Erk
* Held since 15 March 1999 - Mohammed Bekjanov - Erk