(New York) – Uzbek authorities should immediately release the human rights defender and farmers’ rights activist Ganikhon Mamatkhanov, who is facing trial on politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch said today.
Mamatkhanov has regularly provided commentary on the human rights situation in Ferghana, in eastern Uzbekistan, to Radio Ozodlik, the Uzbek branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Local human rights defenders believe that Mamatkhanov’s arrest is in retaliation for his human rights work and public criticism of the government.
“Activists who fight for farmers’ rights are a growing target of government persecution,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “The arrest of Mamatkhanov was clearly a set-up, and he should be freed immediately.”
Mamatkhanov faces charges of fraud and bribery. He was detained on October 9, 2009, under circumstances that appeared to have been staged to frame him.
Mamatkhanov joined the human rights movement in Uzbekistan around 1996 as a member of the Independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. About four years ago, he joined the Committee for the Protection of Individual Rights. He works for social and economic rights, including the rights of farmers, a number of whom were the victims of unlawful land confiscation earlier this year.
On October 9, an unidentified man called Mamatkhanov, asking him to meet near the Ferghana City market. Abdusalom Ergashev, another human rights advocate who spoke to Mamatkhanov by phone that day, said that when the two men met shortly after the call, the man demanded that Mamatkhanov open his bag.
When Mamatkhanov asked why, the man reportedly started to hit him and shoved something into his bag. Mamatkhanov tried to stop him and, realizing that it was a set-up, tried to throw the item away. However, he was immediately detained by the police who confiscated the item, subsequently found to be 500,000 Uzbek som (about US $330). The man who planted the money on Mamatkhanov was later identified in the indictment as Ruzimat Usmanov, a farmer. Mamatkhanov reported that he had never seen Usmanov before.
On October 12, the Ferghana City Court authorized Mamatkhanov’s arrest on preliminary charges of fraud (article 168-2) and bribery (article 211-1,) and ruled that he should remain in custody for the duration of the investigation. The indictment, however, cites articles 168-3 and 211-3, each of which carries a longer prison sentence — up to 10 years in prison.
According to information provided to Human Rights Watch, several days before Mamatkhanov was detained, Usmanov alleged that Mamatkhanov had demanded 6 million som (about US $3,990) from him to help him regain ownership of his farm. Another farmer, Tahir Sulemanov, alleged that Mamatkhanov had demanded 4.5 million som (about US $2,990) from him.
Several days after Mamatkhanov was detained, his family said that about 10 local police and officers from the Ferghana Regional Prosecutor’s Office searched Mamatkhanov’s house, saying they were looking for a computer. They showed a search warrant but did not give their names. Mamatkhanov, however, reportedly does not own a computer.
When Mamatkhanov was brought to the prosecutor’s office for further questioning on October 24, he told his younger son Jamoliddin that he had suffered two heart attacks while in detention. Mamatkhanov asked his son to relay this information to Ergashev. Ergashev submitted a formal request to the investigator asking that Mamatkhanov receive special care, which he was told would be provided. However, Mamatkhanov’s family remains concerned for his health.
Mamatkhanov has been targeted before because of his human rights work. He has frequently criticized the police and the local authorities as part of his work. According to information received by Human Rights Watch, roughly two months ago the head of the Ferghana City Police, Azamhodja Umurzakov, openly threatened Mamatkhanov in front of the governor (Hokkim) and prosecutor of Ferghana City, saying that he had worked in several “difficult” districts of the Ferghana region and knows insurgents whose help he could easily solicit to cause Mamatkhanov to disappear.
When Mamatkhanov learned of Umurzakov’s threat, he reportedly sent a written complaint to the Regional Prosecutor’s Office. In response, he reportedly received a letter saying his allegations could not be confirmed and that the investigation was closed. However, a reliable source told Human Rights Watch that at least one witness came forward during the investigation to confirm that Umurzakov had made such a statement.
The Mamatkhanov case is one of a growing number of cases of Uzbek activists arrested for working for farmers’ rights. On July 30, Dilmurod Saidov, an independent journalist from Samarkand, was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison. Human Rights Watch and local defenders believe this was in retaliation for his efforts to expose local officials’ abuse of power and corruption and his willingness to HYPERLINK “http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/08/03/uzbekistan-free-journalist-sentenced-12-years” fight for the rights of farmers in the Samarkand region. Dilmurod Saidov is serving his sentence in a prison colony in Navoi.
On July 28, two days before Saidov was sentenced, another activist, Oyazimhon Hidirova, chairman of the Arnasai Branch of the International Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, was HYPERLINK “http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/08/18/uzbekistan-rights-activist-arrested” arrested in apparent retaliation for her efforts to expose corruption by agricultural officials in Arnasai, a district in the Jizzakh region. Before Hidirova was convicted, however, she became eligible for release under an amnesty, and the charges were dropped.
Mamatkhanov was arrested less than two weeks before the European Union lifted the arms embargo, the last of the original EU sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan in November 2005 in the wake of the massacre by Uzbek security forces of mostly peaceful protesters in Andijan, which left hundreds dead. The EU reached this decision on October 27 at the monthly General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC), held in Luxembourg, justifying the move as a means to “encourage[e] the Uzbek authorities to take further substantive steps to improve the rule of law and human rights situation on the ground.”
“The human rights situation is clearly not going to improve as long as the Uzbek authorities continue to put human rights defenders and activists behind bars,” Cartner said. “The EU’s decision to lift the already symbolic arms embargo while at least 14 human rights defenders remain in prison was unconscionable and it now needs to make up for this by redoubling efforts to push for their freedom.”
They are: Solijon Abdurakhmanov, Azam Formonov, Nosim Isakov, Gaibullo Jalilov, Alisher Karamatov, Jamshid Karimov, Norboi Kholjigitov, Abdurasul Khudainasarov, Ganihon Mamatkhanov, Farkhad Mukhtarov, Habibulla Okpulatov, Yuldash Rasulov, Dilmurod Saidov, and Akzam Turgunov.