‘Fewer and fewer committed, independent civil society activists are remaining’ - interview with Sukhrobjon Ismailov, civil society activist, Uzbekistan

Sukhrobjon Ismailov, founder and director of the Expert Working Group, Uzbekistan, speaks to CIVICUS about the challenges of being a human rights defender in his country. The Expert Working Group is a network of independent Uzbek experts and researchers studying issues related to law and public interest, human rights and fundamental freedoms, rule of law, democratisation and liberalisation.

Uzbekistan is considered one of the most difficult countries in which to be a civil society activist. What are the main challenges faced by you and your colleagues?

The challenges a CSO faces, whether local activists of international CSOs, partly depends on the Uzbek authorities' attitude of treating them well or badly depending on how politically loyal they are to the Uzbek regime. If they are loyal, issues regarding state registration and legal status, public support, persecutions and pressure - including imprisonment, physical attacks and abuse, threats, psychological pressure, coercion to cooperate with the authorities and secret services, blocking of websites and other types of media channels, denial of exit visas and freedom of movement, and restriction of freedom of assembly – can be solved. Those civil society activists and groups critical of the Uzbek government's policies face all these challenges on an everyday basis.

A good example of everyday pressure and threat occurs, for example, when the Expert Working Group publishes a report critical of the Uzbek authorities: immediately after publication I will be summoned to the local security services for an informal interrogation and threatened with consequences. The degree of threats will depend on how sensitive the issues raised in the publication are. For example, right after Mubarak's fall in Egypt, in March 2011 the Expert Working Group published a policy paper on the implications of events in Egypt for Uzbekistan, and after that publication the security services made serious threats to us, including threats of imprisonment. Having assessed the situation we decided to take a two-month break in our activities and wrap up our publications for that period.

When such challenges happen, depending on the knowledge, experience and public image of the activist, both in the eyes of the international community and the Uzbek regime, he or she might decide to go a little further in his or her criticism of human rights violations, or decide to stop activism permanently or temporarily. In that sense every civil society activist working in Uzbekistan knows his or her red line which he or she won't cross.

After each interrogation by the local security services, I talk about it with my colleagues, share my impressions, try to evaluate the situation jointly and make a decision on further steps. When needed, we take small breaks in our activities to let critical moments pass. Sometimes we inform our international partners, such as international human rights groups, and western embassies based in the capital, Tashkent, of ongoing threats to us, but sometimes we prefer not to inform about this, if doing so can worsen our situation, as most times it does.

Through my years of experience as a human rights activist in Uzbekistan I have come to understand that when you are working as an activist, the following factors can be the most irritating for the authorities and make them take measures against you: trying to focus on ‘taboo’ issues – such as President Karimov and his family, human rights and terrorism, religious extremism, torture, forced child labour and national revenues; coalescing with other activists and CSOs; involving young people in your activities; arranging and participating in protests, pickets and demonstrations; and developing and distributing serious analytical reports.

Talking about the subjective challenges that Uzbek civil society activists face, I would like to stress the following.

The human rights community in general is incredibly fragmented and somewhat backstabbing.  This means that human rights groups and CSOs rarely work together, and if they do, it is usually under the leadership of an international organisation (for example, a group of human rights defenders worked together to prepare a briefing for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development Annual Summit in Tashkent in 2003 under Freedom House).  Additionally, most CSOs and groups are not operational as organisations, but rather rely on individuals, with strong personalities, who are in reality the organisation, with perhaps a handful of other members.  Since most human rights groups and CSOs are funded through international money, competition is stiff.  In addition, some activists have become quite well known figures both inside and outside Uzbekistan, making members in this community somewhat vindictive against each other.

A large portion of human rights defenders are also members of one of Uzbekistan’s banned opposition political parties, Birlik or Erk.  As such, they are usually older defenders who became involved in human rights work in the early 1990s in order to protest against the banning of these political parties.  Thus, human rights work, for most, is personal.  Since these two parties were banned in the early 1990s, neither has managed to obtain registration, but both still function and have a small but dedicated membership.  Activists who are members of these parties tend to fluctuate in their roles between being a human rights defender and being a political party member, sometimes trying to be both at the same time.

Strategies of Uzbek human rights activists on protection and security are low or non-existent for most human rights groups and individual activists. But again, we need to differentiate between the areas which require protection and security measures and those which do not. If we are talking about security management for office space, office computers, files and documents, the security and protection strategy of Uzbek human rights defenders is very low. There are several reasons for this: lack of official status and office space, with most human rights defenders working from home; lack of team work; lack of sustainable funding for everyday activities; and poor membership and human resources. If we are talking about security and protection of data on personal computers however, this situation has considerably improved over the last 10 years thanks to continuous training on IT security management provided by organisations such as Open Society Institute, Freedom House and Norwegian Helsinki Committee. Most experienced human rights defenders know well and utilise skills on the protection of their sources, interviewees, and alleged victims whose cases they are representing. In that sense, independent journalists, and in some cases representatives of international media who cover human rights related subjects in Uzbekistan, are more reckless. Very often in their quest for information and sensation they fish out sensitive information from local activists during interviews and make them disclose their sources or clients.

There is a strong need for improving protection strategies and security management at the group level and individual level. The level of IT security skills is not enough, and should be upgraded with a focus on more practical software and programs which are applicable under the Uzbek conditions, such as slow internet, and operating as individual activists in most cases rather than being a representative of a registered CSO. More training and upgrading is needed on communication skills with clients, victims, journalists and government officials.

We understand that one of Uzbekistan's few remaining independent film-makers, Abdulaziz Mahmudov, is presently being harassed by the authorities. Could you tell us about the circumstances of this case?

As an independent film-maker Abdulaziz Mahmudov owns a private film studio, Abdulaziz M, in Tashkent. He has produced many documentaries during the former Soviet Union period and national independence years in Uzbekistan. He has also filmed different events, such as gatherings, protests and demonstrations, arranged by the Uzbek democratic opposition in the early years of national independence from 1990 to 1992. He has been sentenced conditionally to three years in prison for alleged participation in the activities of the Uzbek democratic opposition in 1993. Mr Mahmudov has recently produced a documentary on the June 2010 inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan. His documentary features interviews with international experts on inter-ethnic relations on the reasons and nature of the inter-ethnic situation in former Soviet , mostly Central Asian, countries, including the June 2010 events. In April 2012 a special commission under the UzbekFilm agency denied public exhibition of this film in Uzbekistan (the Commission includes officials from the National Security Service, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Ministry of Culture and Sports). Following that decision, the Uzbek National Agency on Copyright also denied registration of copyright for the documentary. After that the Uzbek police started summoning Mr Mahmudov. On 9 May 2012 I accompanied Mr Mahmudov on a visit to Mirabad district police. The police officers informed us that Mr Mahmudov's name has been put on a special list of activists who must be under a constant police observation.

We demanded more information on this special list. The police officers have clarified that all types of activists, including human rights defenders, opposition members and journalists end up on this special list, and they are under constant watch by the law enforcement agencies. We asked for clarification on which government body decides to include people on this list so we can complain about the decision, but the police officers have refused to respond to this question.

They went on to ask Mr Mahmudov questions for around two hours. Questions concerned his private life and family members, his private film studio, his connections and relations with Uzbek human rights defenders and opposition, and his work as a film-maker and his films, including his latest documentary. They also asked why the Expert Working Group and I published a press release on his situation. We were allowed to leave the police building, but they have asked Mr Mahmudov to stay in touch for similar meetings and conversations in the future. We think it is a part of an ongoing government campaign on controlling civil society activists and holding them in constant fear of their fates.

Even though the UzbekFilm Commission has denied public exhibition and distribution, members of the Commission individually approached Mr Mahmudov after watching the film thanking him for a great documentary and encouraging him to keep up the good work.

How are Uzbek civil society groups working to protect and expand the space for civil society and advance human rights in the country?

Times are changing. Fewer and fewer committed, independent civil society activists are remaining in Uzbekistan. Western interlocutors of the Uzbek government are paying less attention to independent Uzbek civil society activists, and focusing more on government-run programs of cooperation. This has also resulted in a dramatic decrease of international assistance for Uzbek independent civil society. Partly, this situation is occurring because of increasing cooperation by western interlocutors with the Uzbek authorities over the Northern Distribution Network transit corridor for the operations of international forces in neighbouring Afghanistan. And partly it shows an increasing belief among western donors that independent Uzbek civil society can't become strong enough to challenge the Uzbek government and catalyse genuine reforms. Uzbek civil society should reconsider their own roles, strategies and activities in these changing times. Unfortunately, this is not a case right now for most Uzbek civil society activists. They are stuck in deep mutual mistrust, and unhealthy competition for the attention and favour of international donors and the Uzbek government.

How can international civil society support you in your cause?

There are a few but committed independent civil society activists remaining in the country. International civil society could be helpful in empowering them, getting their voice and messages to the outside world, helping in finding and receiving international assistance, providing emergency assistance in crisis situations, and finding allies among the international community and the Uzbek government agencies.

23 May 2012