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The Uzbek government has released three human rights activists ahead of a meeting with the European Union (EU), but at least a dozen more remain in jail, reports Human Rights Watch.

The three activists that have been released or amnestied between 2 and 4 February are Umida Niyazova, Saidjahon Zainabitdinov and Ikhtior Khamraev. The bilateral EU-Uzbekistan meeting was held on 5 February.

Their release "shows that sustained international pressure on Tashkent is effective," says Human Rights Watch.

Niyazova, an Uzbek journalist, was sentenced to seven years in prison last spring on charges of illegally crossing the border, carrying contraband and producing and disseminating materials considered a threat to national security. The "extremist literature" in her possession included interviews with witnesses of the Andijan massacre of 13 May 2005, where Uzbek officials killed hundreds of people who were peacefully demonstrating in the city of Andijan.

Niyazova's sentence was later reduced to a three-year suspended sentence in an appeals court. IFEX members have campaigned for her release and full acquittal.

Zainabitdinov, who witnessed the Andijan massacre and gave interviews to the press, was accused of publishing bulletins that "intended to sow panic among the population". He was sentenced to seven years behind bars in a closed trial in 2005 on charges of slander, undermining the constitutional order, and membership in an illegal religious organisation.

Khamraev was sentenced to three years in jail for alleged hooliganism in September 2006. Human Rights Watch believes Khamraev's imprisonment was retribution for the human rights work of his father, well-known activist Bakhtior Khamraev.

Human Rights Watch is calling on the EU to continue to use its leverage with the Uzbek government and press for the release of all remaining human rights defenders in custody, as well as ensuring that those who have been released are safe and can pursue their work. In the past six months alone, several defenders have had to flee the country, indicating that the crackdown against the human rights community continues.

The release of the defenders was among the criteria that the EU set for reviewing the sanctions it imposed on Tashkent in October 2005, in response to the Andijan massacre and the Uzbek government's ensuing crackdown on civil society. Over the past two years, the EU has incrementally weakened the sanctions despite the Uzbek government's persistent defiance to heed the criteria.

Visit these links:
- Human Rights Watch:
- IFEX joint action on Niyazova:
(12 February 2008)

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