What would make me happy…

by Nathan Hamm on 10/26/2004 · 1 comment

The human rights community is all atwitter over the latest trial of those charged with involvement in the March and April bombings in Tashkent and Bukhara.

International and local human rights groups expressed serious concerns as an Uzbek court last week sentenced 23 more defendants to long prison terms in connection with a series of blasts and shoot-outs this spring that killed more than 40 people. A wave of arrests and trials of suspects after the March-April attacks were viewed by human rights watchdogs as a clampdown on Muslims who worship outside state sanctioned Islam in this former Soviet republic of 26 million.

300 arrests? I think that probably did overshoot the mark, but about half were quickly released. And, if 300 is a “clampdown,” I wonder what they think of 1999, when 10,000 were arrested.

One impressive fact did emerge, though, from Pascoe’s testimony. After the 1999 bombings in Tashkent, Karimov rounded up some 10,000 suspects. After the bombings this past March, he only rounded up some 300, according to Pascoe. That would seem to indicate something very positive has happened as a result of US engagement.

Of course, Uzbekistan wasn’t very cool in the human rights industry back then and the biz doesn’t recognize progress much anyway, so the lack of perspective (which I cannot solely blame on a lazy press) does not suprise me one bit.

The specific complaint right now is the alleged use of torture to extract confessions from defendants who claim not to have been involved in March-April bombings. This is, without any doubt, a legitimate and important concern that definitely needs to be addressed. It is also something that I do not doubt happens and that the innocent are caught up in it. Even if it does happen to the guilty I am not at all cool with the substitution of abuse and torture for good investigative and prosecutorial skills.

My complaint is the rhetoric being used. There are precious few human rights organizations working in Uzbekistan who are at all sensitive to the fact that the country does legitimately have something to worry about and that some of those “rounded up” are in fact guilty of crimes and seek to overthrow the government.

Reading stories like the Reuters one linked above leaves the impression that innocent people are in the dock when the truth is that there might be innocent people on trial. The attention and language of human rights organizations certainly makes it easy for defendants to proclaim innocence when on trial and have it rebroadcast, without a hint of skepticism, by the human rights committee. I don’t want to say it reminds me exactly of the “Free Mumia” crowd because I think the odds of those on trial in Uzbekistan being innocent are significantly greater, but the people behind the campaigns exhibit the same thought-patterns. And, it must be said that whether or not defendants in Uzbekistan are using the human rights groups in this way is very difficult to gauge (they got gamed in the Shelkovenko case and HRW owned up in a peculiar way).

Also telling is that the Reuters story refers to 6,000 political and religious prisoners. It is peculiar to see that as the previously accepted number was 7,000, though some went as high as 10,000. If journalists are using 6,000, I’m assuming that the “accepted wisdom” has been revised downward, though there is little explicit acknowledgement of the reduction from those working on the issue.

Looking back at the dramatic reduction in the number of those arrested after the 1999 and 2004 attacks, it is telling that again, the only people who explicitly acknowledge the drop are those in government and academia. From the human rights community, mum’s the word.

If human rights campaigners want to have a legitimate effect on human rights issues, where is the harm in acknowledging and celebrating progress (even if the State Department creates it)? Dropping the suburban-revolutionary, adversarial attitude certainly would make the organizations more palatable to the governments they seek to improve. In turn, this can only help improve their effectiveness.

[Bonus question: What Western human rights group that is very active in Central Asia tends to make me much happier than frustrated?]


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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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{ 1 comment }

Asror November 9, 2004 at 11:46 pm

“Uzbekistan: Journalist Says He Wants To Defend Human Rights From Exile In U.S.” by Bruce Pannier

According to the RFE/RL:
“Uzbek journalist Ruslan Sharipov was jailed on questionable charges in his homeland in 2003. International press-freedom groups condemned Sharipov’s conviction, saying his sudden legal problems were connected to critical articles he had written about the authoritarian government of President Islam Karimov. Under pressure from international watchdog groups and individual governments, Sharipov was recently allowed to leave Uzbekistan after being held for more than a year. RFE/RL spoke to Sharipov today in the United States, where he has been granted asylum” more…

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