The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United Nations (UN)
April 2013 In late April and early May 2013 the human rights records of Uzbekistan, Russia, Azerbaijan and Cameroon will come under review for the second time under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism of the United Nations (UN). Last October, PEN International submitted reports on the freedom of expression situation of each of these countries. In May, we will be highlighting the content of these reports at the UPR sessions in Geneva and conducting advocacy with governments to advance the situation of freedom of expression in each of these countries.
In the lead up to the Universal Periodic Review, we will examine the freedom of expression situation in each of these countries. In the first of these installments, we will look at our submission on Uzbekistan.
Freedom of Expression in Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan is bound by several international commitments to human rights. It has acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture and the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Uzbekistan is also bound, like all state parties of the United Nations, by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that guarantees freedom of expression. Uzbekistan’s Constitution protects freedom of expression under Article 29.
By signing these agreements, Uzbekistan has pledged to protect freedom of expression, something that PEN believes it has signally failed to do. Importantly, the country’s treatment of writers and journalists has obscured critical human rights issues in the country, including torture, the freedom of assembly, religious freedom, child labor, and the rule of law.
By signing these agreements, Uzbekistan has pledged to protect freedom of expression, something that PEN believes it has signally failed to do. Importantly, the country’s treatment of writers and journalists has obscured critical human rights issues in the country, including torture, the freedom of assembly, religious freedom, child labour, and the rule of law.
Persecution of writers and journalists
During the first UPR in 2008, Uzbekistan rejected recommendations made by other states to end the persecution of human rights defenders. Since then, Uzbekistan has continued to threaten, prosecute, and imprison writers and journalists. PEN International is currently advocating on behalf of four imprisoned writers and journalists in Uzbekistan and is investigating the cases of several others who are detained, and the disappearance of one other.
The treatment of Mamadali Makhmudov, is emblematic of free expression and human rights violations by the government of Uzbekistan. Makhmudov is the author of the work Immortal Cliffs and is a member of the Uzbek Writers Union and Uzbek Cultural Foundation. He was arrested in 1999 following a series of bombings in the capital of Tashkent and charged with threatening the president and organizing a criminal group. His arrest represented part of a wider crackdown on writers of the opposition Erk newspaper and people associated with exiled opposition leader Muhammed Salih.
During his trial, Makhmudov testified that he was tortured under interrogation, and suffered beatings, electric shock and the threat of rape of female family members. He received throat and facial surgery while in prison in 2000, likely for abuse and neglect in prison, and has suffered three heart attacks.
Stifling media freedom and free expression
In response to the recommendation during the previous UPR in 2008 for Uzbekistan to broaden media freedom, especially to foreign media outlets, the Uzbek government affirmed that international and domestic media enjoy the freedom to represent diverse views. The government also denied that journalists are subjected to persecution or intimidation and asserted that they can freely express opinions and beliefs. Yet the government controls major media channels, including television, and threatens or prosecutes journalists who cover topics such as corruption, torture, or human rights. Uzbekistan’s March 2012 amnesty towards prisoners did not include writers or journalists.
Despite a diversity of religions in Uzbekistan, the government continues to threaten free expression under the pretext of fighting extremism. At least three PEN cases were accused of fomenting religious extremism, and journalists in particular have been labeled as Islamists as a means to silence criticism. PEN is investigating the cases of Bahrom Ibragimov, a member of Nur, a religious group, and Hayrulla Hamidov, poet and deputy editor of the newspaper Chempion. Accused of advocating extremism, PEN is concerned that the charges could be a pretense to silence criticism of the government.
Libel and criminal defamation
Libel and defamation suits are also used to silence writers and journalists in the country. Articles 139 (insult) and 140 (denigration) of the Uzbekistan criminal code impose sentences up to 3 years. Publicly insulting President Karimov is punishable by up to five years in prison under Article 158, but has been punished with longer sentences.
PEN case Muhammad Bekzhon (also called Bekjanov), a journalist, was convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison in 1999 for allegedly publishing a newspaper article that libeled President Karimov. He was subsequently tortured in prison, suffered a broken leg, and contracted tuberculosis. He received an additional five-year sentence for allegedly violating prison rules only a few days before completing his initial sentence.
Journalists threatened for reporting on critical human rights issues
Journalists in Uzbekistan have been threatened, harassed, and jailed for reporting on critical human rights issues, including popular protests, forced child labor, and corruption in the legal system.
PEN case Dzhamshid (Jamshid) Karimov, a journalist, disappeared in 2006 after covering the Andijan massacre for the London-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and for his work as a freelance journalist. He was confined in a psychiatric hospital until October 2011, and disappeared again in January 2012.
Despite reassurances that the government would end the use of forced child labor during Uzbekistan’s review by the Universal Periodic Review in 2008, the practice continues. Three human rights activists who attempted to monitor the cotton harvest were detained in 2011, according to the NGO coalition the Cotton Campaign. In addition, Gulshan Karaeva, a journalist and human rights activist who has reported on the harvest and other issues, was threatened and attacked in May 2012, according to Human Rights Watch.
During the previous UPR in 2008, the Uzbek government was recommended to abolish torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, especially during pre-trial detention and in detention facilities. Uzbekistan responded that the government condemns torture and degrading treatment and punishment and abides by this condemnation through parliamentary and appeals processes within the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the General Prosecutor’s Office.
Torture has been widely used in Uzbekistan to silence writers and journalists. A 2011 U.S. State Department report found torture to be common in prisons, pre-trial facilities, local police departments, and national security service agencies.
Internet censorship and surveillance
The Human Rights Council affirmed free expression principles on the Internet in Article 1 of its June 2012 meeting in its document “The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet” (A/HRC/20/L.13). Uzbekistan’s control, censorship, and surveillance of the Internet do not uphold the principles of this declaration.
A 2010 OpenNet Initiative report found that 80 percent of web traffic in Uzbekistan is required to pass through a centralized filtering system operated by the government National Network of Information Transmission (UzPAK). The National Security Service (SNB) also surveils web traffic for information on human rights violations, government corruption, and organized crime, ordering ISPs to block such content under threat of revoking their license. A significant percentage of internet usage occurs through mobile phones, according to a July 2012 Freedom House report, but internet data on mobile phones still passes through a central Internet Service Provider, and is subject to filtering.
PEN International, together with its 144 PEN centers around the world, makes the following recommendations:
• Release all imprisoned writers and journalists, if necessary under the amnesty provisions under Article 68 of the Criminal Code on the 20th anniversary of the Constitution;
• Eliminate criminal defamation laws that punish speech about President Karimov as well as provisions pertaining to “insult” and “denigration”;
• Allow all journalists, both domestic and foreign, to report on critical human rights issues, such as the freedom of assembly, child labor, and corruption in the legal system;
• Allow foreign journalists to register and work in the country;
• End official censorship of expression in print, in broadcast media, and the Internet so that they uphold Article 29 of the Uzbekistan Constitution and Article 19 of the ICCPR;
• Grant visas, registration, and accreditation so that international non-governmental organizations can operate in Uzbekistan.
Please read the full text of PEN’s submission to the UN UPR on Uzbekistan, including a list of recommendations here: UPR Uzbekistan
We ask you to take action by writing to your country’s representative in Geneva to ask that during the review of Uzbekistan, their delegation makes the recommendations listed above. You may wish to copy the report to support your request. Follow this link to find the contact details of the representative of your country to the United Nations in Geneva, click here.
For further information on PEN International's policy and advocacy work at the United Nations please contact Sarah Clarke, International Policy and Advocacy Officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org.