A tragedy foretold: Norway condemns Uzbek activist to jail and torture

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]“I will be arrested the minute I land in Uzbekistan and then thrown in prison,” an Uzbek human rights activist tells me, “and what happens with me afterwards is a good question.”

For his family’s safety, I cannot tell you the name of the young man. Let’s call him Rustam, a common name in Uzbekistan.

“I only have five minutes, then they cut off the phone,” the 26-year old explains.

Since 12 June he has been held at the immigration services detention centre in Oslo, Norway, after having received the third and final rejection of his appeal for political asylum. He will be deported on 12 July.

Looking at his case it is obvious that the Norwegian authorities are ignoring evidence showing that returning Rustam to Uzbekistan is as good as sentencing him to torture, even death. They have also disregarded UN evidence that says returned Uzbek dissidents who sought refugee status abroad have been disappeared and subjected to torture.

It is easy to detect the fear in Rustam’s voice. In 2004, he and some friends started an NGO called Movement for Freedom and initiated a campaign against child slave labour. Every year, two million Uzbek school children — the youngest just 7 years old — are forced to spend six to eight weeks picking cotton, eight to 10 hours a day.

Uzbekistan has been heavily criticised for this abuse of children. But the income from cotton exports runs into hundreds of millions of dollars, and much of it falls into the pockets of the Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, who has been in power for 23 years since Soviet times.

When Rustam and his friends started their campaign against child slavery, he was detained and tortured. Upon his release, Rustam fled to Russia. While he was in hiding, he heard that one of the Movement’s co-founders had been killed in an Uzbek prison. He decided to move on to Norway.

 I understood how dangerous it would be for me if I returned or was extradited…I too could very easily be killed.

Russia, a close ally of the Karimov regime, routinely extradites Uzbeks.  Afterwards many of them ‘disappear’.

The authorities in Norway have two problems with Rustam’s plea for asylum:

1/  Rustam does not have a passport.  Rustam says he threw it away when he smuggled himself out of Uzbekistan to ensure he could not be identified by the police if he was apprehended. But it means outside Uzbekistan Rustam now cannot prove that he is who he claims to be.

2/ While Rustam was in Norway hoping to be granted asylum, he started working as a volunteer for the Uzbek human rights defender Mutabar Tadjibaeva. This is now the heart of Rustam’s appeal: the Norwegian authorities do not believe that he worked as her webmaster.

Because of her international standing, Tadjibaeva is hated by the Karimov regime; working with her would land Rustam in very serious trouble in Uzbekistan.

Tadjibaeva has been living in exile in France since in 2008 escaping after three years of prison, rape and torture in Uzbekistan. The country has more than 10,000 political and religious prisoners and experts put it amongst the harshest dictatorships in the world, on par with North Korea.

Tadjibaeva runs the website Jayaron, one of very few independent sources of information about Uzbekistan, a country in which media are strictly controlled by the regime. She has established a widespread network of informants inside the country who send her details about corrupt court cases, unfair imprisonments and cases of torture. Her site is a thorn in the side of a regime that has almost managed to completely isolate its population from the outside world.

The Karimov regime call Tadjibaeva an “extremist” and accuse her of planning to overthrow the government, which is rather difficult to imagine when you meet her in person — a small, soft-spoken 49-year-old woman, her health scarred by years of torture and prison.

In 2008 the US State Department gave Tadjibaeva the prestigious Woman of Courage award. After Tadjibaeva received it, a Wikileaks telegram revealed that the American ambassador in Tashkent received a “tongue lashing” from the Uzbek dictator, who threatened to block US transit to Afghanistan in retaliation.

The ambassador advised his government to tone down the criticism of the Uzbek regime, advice they took. And relations are nearer to the close relationship the countries enjoyed before Karimov’s army killed 800 demonstrators, many of them women and children, in May 2005.

Mutabar Tadjibaeva stresses to me that Rustam has worked with her since August 2010.  She cannot understand why the Norwegian immigration authorities rejected Rustam’s asylum plea, stressing that they do not believe that he and Mutabar work together.

We have worked closely together, you can even find his name on our website. Because of this, his life would be in great danger if he were returned to Uzbekistan.

“The Uzbek regime does not like people telling the truth,” she adds. “I have no less than 343 emails here in which we discuss Rustam’s work with our website and my blog,” she tells me, “that obviously prove that we worked closely together.”

“If the Norwegians really wanted to know the truth, all they have to do is check his computer, mobile phone and emails.” She showed me the email and text communication between the two.

“I have even transferred money to him in Norway, so he could buy a computer and work on our website,” Mutabar explains. She shows me receipts.

If he is sent back to Uzbekistan, a long time in prison and severe torture awaits him. There is a real risk that the regime will kill him, as a warning to others to stay away from human rights work.

At the moment it looks like that Rustam will be deported to Uzbekistan within the next week.

But in June something happened which Mutabar hopes will help Rustam. The UN Committee against Torture censured Kazakhstan — Uzbekistan’s neighbour — for deporting 29 Uzbek asylum seekers in 2010. Several of the 29 were later given lengthy prison sentences, kept in isolation and therefore, say analysts, most likely tortured.

UN conventions forbid states deporting people to their home countries if there is a risk that they will be tortured.

Exact numbers are impossible to come by — this is Uzbekistan — but according to local human rights organisations dozens of people are tortured to death each year in Uzbek prisons, and the favourite victims of the security police are those who have been in the West asking for asylum or even speaking poorly about the regime. This description clearly applies to Rustam.

Mutabar Tadjibaeva hopes that the UN decision will make Norway re-consider his case. “But,” she adds, “so-called democratic countries in Europe have often shown themselves full-willing  to close their eyes to the atrocities of the Uzbek regime. I have lost all faith in them.”

Michael Andersen is a Danish journalist who has covered Central Asia for more than 10 years. His newest feature-length documentary on Uzbekistan is called Massacre in Uzbekistan.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Turkey and Thailand: Two elections, different outcomes

One poll remains deadlocked while another has seen the population vote for a change of direction

It’s been a long two decades of dwindling freedoms in Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But his control is teetering on a ledge. The election couldn’t have come at a worse time for Erdogan, with his questionable response to the earthquakes and soaring inflation winning him a fresh batch of critics. Last Sunday Turkey headed to the polls. And the winner was… nobody. With neither former Index Tyrant of the Year Erdogan nor opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu reaching the 50% threshold needed to win the presidency, it’s back to the voting booths again.
In the week before the election, PEN Norway’s Turkey adviser shared a stack of interviews with Index, which made for sombre bedtime reading. Eleven representatives from the country’s major political parties discussed the state of free expression — or lack thereof — which Jemimah Steinfeld wrote about.
In one interview, Zeynep Esmeray Özadikti, who is a candidate for MP from Turkey’s Worker Party, wrote about the silencing of the LGBTQ+ community, hoping that if she as a trans woman is elected, it will be an important step: “In Turkey, the LGBTI+ community cannot use their freedom of expression in any way and are criminalised. Rainbow-themed products are banned, rainbow flags are seized in protests, Pride parades and indoor meetings are banned. Associations and organisations working for LGBTI+ rights are targeted and threatened.”
We could fill a whole magazine with stories about Turkey’s rocky relationship with free expression, starting with the repression of LGBTQ+ rights and Kurdish communities, and moving onto the scores of journalists who have been locked up. In our latest issue, our Turkey contributing editor Kaya Genç took a deep dive into one example of a newsroom going against the propaganda-led mainstream, Medyascope. If you want up-to-the-minute news on what’s going on in Turkey, their website is a good place to start (thank goodness for Google translate for those of us who haven’t yet set our Duolingo to Turkish).
In the run-up to the election, Turkish youth have been scouring YouTube for information that doesn’t come with a side-helping of propaganda, and the Turkish government has pulled out all the stops in silencing journalists reporting on the earthquakes, rather than focusing on… well… disaster relief. They haven’t shied away from blocking social media platforms either.
What happens next is important. If Erdogan wins, what will such a close call do to the state of Turkey’s freedoms? The first-round vote landed at 49.51% for Erdogan and 44.88% for Kılıçdaroğlu, and let’s remember who’s got the media on their side. The second round of voting is set for 28 May, and while Index would absolutely never ever back a specific candidate, we are hoping to see democracy prevail over autocracy.
Further east, and another country is undergoing a seismic change at the hands of an election held last Sunday. Where Turkey is in political limbo, Thailand is out the other side. Or is it? The country has had a military-backed government since the 2014 coup, but Sunday’s vote sent Thailand spinning off in a new direction, with the progressive Move Forward Party’s Pita Limjaroenrat likely to take the driving seat of a coalition. The party is breaking Thailand’s big taboo with plans to reform the monarchy, which is all the more poignant considering the democracy protests that started in 2020, when demonstrators asked for exactly that to happen. Under the current lese-majeste law, criticising the monarchy usually comes with a stint behind bars of up to 15 years. Thais asked for democracy. They asked for progression. They asked for the right to insult the king without spending over a decade in jail. And if all goes smoothly from here, that’s exactly what they’ll get.
But it is a big “if”. Not only will the House of Representatives (members of which were given their places through Sunday’s election) vote on who will be prime minister, so too will members of the Senate, who were selected by the military. And that’s where the story of Thailand’s democracy could come unstuck.

Turkey’s elections: “No rule of law anymore”

The country’s human rights landscape has disintegrated since Erdogan took over in 2003

Turkish citizens are heading to the polls this Sunday to vote in the most fiercely contested election in years. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who came to power in 2003, is fighting for his political survival amid economic turmoil and wrath over the handling of the February earthquakes. He is being challenged by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, a retired bureaucrat who is backed by a six-party National Alliance. 

One month before the elections PEN Norway’s Turkey adviser travelled to Istanbul to interview 11 representatives of the major political parties (including Erdogan’s) and question them on issues surrounding free expression in Turkey.

The interviews, which they shared with Index, are a sobering look at how Turkey’s human rights landscape has disintegrated in that time (with the exception of Bülent Turan, from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, who goes as far as denying that any journalist is in prison because of their work). The testimonies are tied together by common threads – what attacks have happened and how they have happened (very much over time, not linked to just one single moment or one single piece of legislation). The rule of law comes up time and again. “There is no rule of law in Turkey anymore and the independence of the judiciary has been destroyed,” Dr. Canan Kaftancıoğlu, the Istanbul regional chair of the Republican People’s Party, says bluntly.

They are, unsurprisingly, most damning of Erdogan himself. The lawyer Bahadır Erdem, vice chair of the Iyi Party, one of the most important components of the National Alliance, says Turkey is being ruled by “a one-man regime” and this “system has pushed our country into dire straits”.

But the interviews also strike a note of optimism, a sense that all is not lost. Strong grassroots organisations still exist, as lawyer Züleyha Gülüm, MP for the People’s Democratic Party, points out. And these grassroots organisations, combined with an alliance that has come together around a commitment to improve rights, mean that Turkey’s fate could all change this weekend. Bülent Kaya, legal affairs chairman of the Saadet Party, said that if the National Alliance is successful “everyone will breathe a sigh of relief”. Erdem said: “Once we amend the constitution, an independent judiciary will follow. The press will be independent. We will fully implement the freedom of opinion of individuals. People will be completely free both in social media and as an author in the works they create and write, as an artist in the films they shoot, in the works of art they act in, in the works of art they create. This is the sine qua non of democracy. It’s as natural as breathing.”

Below we share one of the interviews in full, a powerful testimony from Zeynep Esmeray Özadikti, a trans woman who is candidate for MP from Turkey’s Worker Party. She outlines the immense struggles faced by those who are LGBTQI and by women. 

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Major new global free expression index sees UK ranking stumble across academic, digital and media freedom

A major new global ranking index tracking the state of free expression published today (Wednesday, 25 January) by Index on Censorship sees the UK ranked as only “partially open” in every key area measured.

In the overall rankings, the UK fell below countries including Australia, Israel, Costa Rica, Chile, Jamaica and Japan. European neighbours such as Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Denmark also all rank higher than the UK.

The Index Index, developed by Index on Censorship and experts in machine learning and journalism at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), uses innovative machine learning techniques to map the free expression landscape across the globe, giving a country-by-country view of the state of free expression across academic, digital and media/press freedoms.

Key findings include:

  • The countries with the highest ranking (“open”) on the overall Index are clustered around western Europe and Australasia – Australia, Austria, Belgium, Costa Rica, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland.

  • The UK and USA join countries such as Botswana, Czechia, Greece, Moldova, Panama, Romania, South Africa and Tunisia ranked as “partially open”.

  • The poorest performing countries across all metrics, ranked as “closed”, are Bahrain, Belarus, Burma/Myanmar, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Eswatini, Laos, Nicaragua, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

  • Countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates performed poorly in the Index Index but are embedded in key international mechanisms including G20 and the UN Security Council.

Ruth Anderson, Index on Censorship CEO, said:

“The launch of the new Index Index is a landmark moment in how we track freedom of expression in key areas across the world. Index on Censorship and the team at Liverpool John Moores University have developed a rankings system that provides a unique insight into the freedom of expression landscape in every country for which data is available.

“The findings of the pilot project are illuminating, surprising and concerning in equal measure. The United Kingdom ranking may well raise some eyebrows, though is not entirely unexpected. Index on Censorship’s recent work on issues as diverse as Chinese Communist Party influence in the art world through to the chilling effect of the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill all point to backward steps for a country that has long viewed itself as a bastion of freedom of expression.

“On a global scale, the Index Index shines a light once again on those countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates with considerable influence on international bodies and mechanisms – but with barely any protections for freedom of expression across the digital, academic and media spheres.”

Nik Williams, Index on Censorship policy and campaigns officer, said:

“With global threats to free expression growing, developing an accurate country-by-country view of threats to academic, digital and media freedom is the first necessary step towards identifying what needs to change. With gaps in current data sets, it is hoped that future ‘Index Index’ rankings will have further country-level data that can be verified and shared with partners and policy-makers.

“As the ‘Index Index’ grows and develops beyond this pilot year, it will not only map threats to free expression but also where we need to focus our efforts to ensure that academics, artists, writers, journalists, campaigners and civil society do not suffer in silence.”

Steve Harrison, LJMU senior lecturer in journalism, said: 

“Journalists need credible and authoritative sources of information to counter the glut of dis-information and downright untruths which we’re being bombarded with these days. The Index Index is one such source, and LJMU is proud to have played our part in developing it.

“We hope it becomes a useful tool for journalists investigating censorship, as well as a learning resource for students. Journalism has been defined as providing information someone, somewhere wants suppressed – the Index Index goes some way to living up to that definition.”