Parallels for Azerbaijan: The Case of Uzbek Human Rights Defender, Abdusami Rahmonov

Abdusami Rahmonov is a human rights activist from Uzbekistan. For seven years now he has been working to defend the rights of refugees in Russia and is a volunteer for Amnesty International.

Abdusami Rahmonov is a human rights activist from Uzbekistan. For seven years now he has been working to defend the rights of refugees in Russia and is a volunteer for Amnesty International. Because of his activities he has had to spend time in Russian prison awaiting extradition. But the European Court of Human Rights didn’t allow the Russian government to extradite him to Uzbekistan. Now Abdusami lives in the Czech Republic and has received political asylum. He agreed to talk to us about the situation in Uzbekistan, where human rights are being impinged upon in the cruelest of ways.

– Abdusami, tell us about yourself, what did you do in your home country and why did you leave Uzbekistan?

– To put it very briefly, I organized debates on the topic of a law-bound state in Uzbekistan. Later there were rallies against forced labor (gathering cotton), and pressure from the government as a result. I did pro bono work helping to defend people’s rights, organized protests against torture. I made media appearances on this topic.

A law on the mass media was adopted at my suggestion. I also suggested that laws be adopted regarding the militsiya (police) and free elections. Based on my initiative, televised discussion clubs were created. But of course, all this couldn’t change the situation on the whole. After the protests against torture and illegal prison sentences, I was beaten, questioned, and threatened that they would deal with me ‘for real’, which might mean fifteen years in prison. During the questioning, a member of the National Security Service said, “As far as you know, maybe I have been told to carry out orders to ‘liquidate’ undesirables [such as yourself]!”

In his day, my uncle Anvar Yunusovich Husainov changed the entire penitentiary system in the Bukhara Oblast, which led the International Red Cross and Red Crescent to take an interest in his activities.

In 1990 an international conference and symposium (a rights protection forum) took place in Bukhara under the aegis of the Red Cross and Crescent, on the topic of “The Bukhara Experience of Social and Humanitarian Adaptation of Individuals who have Served or are Serving Sentences”.

My uncle said that he began to act decisively when he found out about the torture and unbearable conditions in the maximum-security prison. He was taken aback, since he knew more about the ‘internal order’ holding sway in this prison, despite the fact that his organization, the Fund for Aid to Prisoners and their Families, had been working since 1984. His organization was known far beyond the borders of Uzbekistan.

The reason for my sudden departure from Uzbekistan was the questioning of friends and the resulting arrest of my brother, a lawyer defending students’ rights. My brother, Khumoyun Abdusamatovich Rahmonov (b.1984), is a lawyer by education. He is a very kind-hearted person.

The last instance was a conflict with the head of the administration of one of the districts in Bukhara Oblast. The district-head of Hakim, who was grossly violating the rights of farmers, began to threaten my brother after he wrote to the president of Uzbekistan regarding the farmers’ problems. In defending the farmers’ rights, my brother became the target of pressure from law-enforcement agencies which fabricated cases against him. He and his lawyer, who demanded that Khumoyun be released directly from the courtroom, were sentenced to two years.

-You lived in Russia, they arrested you there and wanted to deport you to Uzbekistan. What do you think – did this happen because Uzbekistan is interested in bringing back its dissenting citizens?

– Of course, Uzbekistan is interested in the return of refugees, especially those like myself, who dared to make immediate appearances in many media outlets. Simple, collateral victims suffer as well.

People would prefer to jump from a window, if only to avoid returning to Uzbekistan. There were several instances. One refugee threw himself straight out the window of the courthouse, another from the window of the investigator’s office where he was being questioned and threatened with return to the motherland. I personally saw two who cut open their veins! One of them sat with me in the pre-trial detention center, the other was a refugee whose rights our organization was working to protect. We were asserting the rights of five people working in construction, one of them hanged himself after he was visited by Uzbek ‘human rights defenders’ in the Russian pre-trial detention center. The Uzbek law-enforcement agencies pursue migrants even beyond the boundaries of Uzbekistan, fabricating cases against them and demanding they be turned over.

– How is it that this didn’t happen with you? That is to say, why did the Russians not return you to Uzbekistan?

– By a simple miracle I remained in Russia, in the deportation center, where I wound up illegally; the European Court of Human Rights applied rule number 39 to my situation. My case was handled by phenomenal lawyers from the Civic Assistance Committee and the Memorial Civil Rights Society. This took place after my colleagues – rights defenders and activists – made appearances in the mass media with pointed protests. Together with colleagues, we opened an organization for protecting the rights of migrants and refugees from Central Asia. Our legal-consulting center is called “Aid” [Pomosch].

– In your interviews you say that there are instances when an activist on the run is deported back and death awaits them there. Were there concrete instances of this? What countries usually send people back?

– There were instances when Uzbek refugees snatched up in Russia died in prison. Many wind up in prison, where they are tortured and degraded. You also can’t say that it’s an easy life for those who remain in Russia. Tatiana Kerimova is the wife of an Uzbek refugee who was tortured at the age of fifteen. She just recently lost her third unborn child and wound up in the hospital. This took place after she and her husband were once more summoned to the Federal Migration Service. Tatiana’s blood pressure shot up. Only three or four months remained until the child’s birth. Tatiana, miraculously, survived. She was unconscious for several days. Tatiana’s kidneys gave out. Friends and relatives were ready to be donors in case of necessity. The endless court appearances and inability to receive refugee status or any other document for her husband, the arrest of Bakhadyr (Tatiana’s husband), and the threats that they might be turned over, had undermined Tatiana’s health.

The police visits to their home also became the cause of a sharp decline in the health of Tatiana’s mother. She became very sick and wound up in the hospital. Tatiana’s life was threatened by the same fear and pain that had carried off three lives from Bakhadyr and Tatiana’s family. They had to perform an operation to remove the already-deceased child from the mother’s womb! Tatiana is very weak and cannot rise from her bed. Her sight has gotten much worse. Relatives are now looking after her.

The brothers of Tatiana’s husband are doctors by profession. They actively protested against people of various professions being brought in for forced labor picking cotton. In the family of Bakhadyr Karimov all the brothers and sisters are specialists with higher education. Bakhadyr’s father was killed on the spot at work! A well-educated person cannot resist the mafia. This was in the 90s. His father was the director of a water reservoir. His brothers were believers, loosely following the dictates of their religion. Freedom of religion came about. Then everyone began to take an interest in religion: the so-called new believers. But one of his brothers was an atheist and stated this publicly. After February, 1999, when several blasts rocked Tashkent, there were mass arrests of Muslims all over Uzbekistan. Bakhadyr Karimov’s brothers were also caught up in this. Even the atheist brother was sentenced to six years. After long years in prison, one of the brothers was released, after he’d been scared to death. Bakhadyr’s brothers have been sitting in an Uzbek prison for 17 years!

– What’s the situation with human rights in Uzbekistan at present?

– My brother was given another three years in prison! He has had problems with his sight since childhood – he’s a member of the blind society! They even changed his disabled status from the second to third group so that he couldn’t get amnesty. Now we are trying to organize emergency aid activities to support him.

I am trying to turn the attention of our organization, Amnesty International, to the situation of refugees in Russia and political prisoners in Uzbekistan. I’m calling for active work in this direction. Last year over the course of half a year, in Samarkand Oblast alone, eleven employees of rights organizations have committed suicide. There was a broadcast about this on Radio Liberty. What can be done with this penal system in Uzbekistan, where cases charging extremism are fabricated against disloyal people? With a system that, rather than setting people free, constantly extends their sentences!?

The present government promises to correct the monstrous situation with human rights in Uzbekistan. Several days ago we heard about the release of Muhammad Bekzhan, a journalist who was in prison for seventeen years on a fabricated case. But thousands of people, guilty of nothing, remain in the prisons of Uzbekistan. Among them are opposition figures, rights activists, and normal people who for various reasons were convicted on fabricated cases and remain there to this day because of the system of extending sentences on the pretense that someone “broke prison rules”!

– Where are you living at the moment, and how are you planning your future life?

– I’m currently living in Prague, I teach political science at university. Occasionally I lead various workshops, or am a volunteer for Amnesty International. Additionally, I make appearances on Radio Liberty and other media outlets as a political analyst and expert in the area of migration and provision of asylum.

My plans are as follows: I am calling for the creation of an international coalition of rights defenders and will work with them to defend innocent people who are locked up in the prisons of Azerbaijan for decades. Some people have been, or still are imprisoned for more than two decades.

– What are your hopes regarding your country? What will happen next?

– I have great hopes. Even if the government wants to preserve the status quo and restrict the release of several political prisoners, the situation will change contrary to their will, and I am constantly reminding them of this: that the time of the dictator has passed. In a world driven by information, you cannot keep people in torturous conditions, fabricate cases, and imprison them for medieval terms. In Uzbekistan there has been an increase in instances of public self-immolation as a sign of protest. Such a thing had not happened since the ‘80s, when Uzbek women committed suicide en-masse in this terrible way. Now it’s not only women.

And the present situation is distinct in that the self-immolation is public.

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