(Washington, DC -- February 24, 2006) Representatives of Freedom House and RFE/RL, Inc. came together late last week to discuss the major challenges they and other NGOs face in continuing their operations in Uzbekistan. Branka Sesto and Thomas Melia of Freedom House, and Jeffrey Trimble of RFE/RL agreed that their organizations will not abandon their mission to promote democratic reform in Uzbekistan and other countries in Central Asia.
Branka Sesto, Uzbekistan Project Director for Freedom House, said the Uzbek government shut down all of Freedom House's operations in the country within recent weeks, after a sustained campaign that included bringing a criminal case against the organization for providing Internet access to Uzbek human rights activists. Although Freedom House fought the government's charges in Uzbek courts, it lost its appeals. Sesto noted that civil society programs Freedom House supported in Uzbekistan included a "civil coalition against torture," since there is "systematic torture in Uzbekistan" and the government engages widespread human rights violations. She pledged that Freedom House will continue to try to assist the human rights movement of Uzbekistan, since "human rights is not a question of sovereignty, but an achievement of civilization" from which the people of Uzbekistan also deserve to benefit.
Thomas Melia, Deputy Executive Director for Freedom House, said "there is a coordinated campaign" across a number of countries, even continents, to question the "very premises of democracy promotion," so that what has happened in Uzbekistan should not be viewed as an isolated assault on human and civic rights. Melia said that authoritarian governments are known to correspond with each other and discuss each other's laws. For example, Melia said, the recent bill on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) passed by the Russian government is part of this campaign to criminalize NGO activities and de-legitimize them in Russian society. In addition, Melia said, the Uzbek government is seeking "to isolate [Uzbek] human rights groups from the international support network," which includes Freedom House. Melia said that he believes the Uzbek government had "pretended" to support the development of a civic society in the past, but has now stopped.
Jeffrey Trimble, Acting President of RFE/RL, said a feeling of "back to the future" exists today in Uzbekistan and the surrounding region. The Uzbek government, in a letter dated December 12, Trimble said, officially notified RFE/RL that it was not renewing the accreditation of RFE/RL's Tashkent bureau. He noted that, although RFE/RL's Uzbek correspondents had been harassed, even beaten, over the last few years, the political climate had "changed dramatically after Andijon." RFE/RL's correspondent Nosir Zakirov had received a six month sentence and is still in prison for allegedly insulting an Uzbek government official over the phone, he added. Trimble said RFE/RL will continue to broadcast, despite the loss of access to the country: "We remain determined to work for the people of Uzbekistan." He agreed with his Freedom House colleagues that it is becoming more difficult for journalists to work in the wider region, citing conditions at RFE/RL's Moscow bureau, where correspondents working for the Uzbek Service have faced intimidation and physical threats from Russian officials.