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Government shuts down local Human Rights Watch office

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - London, March 15, 2011 - The Uzbek government has forced Human Rights Watch to close its Uzbekistan office, Human Rights Watch said today. For years the government has obstructed the organization's work by denying visas and work accreditation to staff, and has now moved to liquidate its office registration, forcing Human Rights Watch to end its presence in Tashkent after 15 years.

"With the expulsion of Human Rights Watch, the Uzbek government sends a clear message that it isn't willing to tolerate critical scrutiny of its human rights record," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "But let me be clear, too: we aren't going to be silenced by this. We are as committed as ever to report on abuses in Uzbekistan."

On March 10, 2011, Human Rights Watch received information from the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan that the Justice Ministry had moved to liquidate the organization's office in Tashkent, with a first hearing apparently set for March 15. Human Rights Watch has been registered in Uzbekistan since 1996. Uzbek authorities have provided no information about the alleged grounds for the liquidation proceeding.

The Uzbek government had previously denied work accreditation to Human Rights Watch's Uzbekistan researcher, Steve Swerdlow, a decision conveyed in a letter handed to him by the Justice Ministry on Christmas Eve 2010. The letter states that the Ministry denied accreditation to Swerdlow because of Human Rights Watch's "established practice" of "ignoring Uzbekistan's national legislation" and because Swerdlow "lacks experience cooperating with Uzbekistan" and "working in the region as a whole." The letter does not specify what laws Human Rights Watch allegedly violated.

"Uzbek government claims that we ignore Uzbek legislation and 'lack experience in the region' have been used repeatedly to deny accreditation to our staff," Roth said. "These claims are implausible and a transparently deceitful pretext to prevent us from maintaining a presence in the country."

Since 2004, the Uzbek government has interfered with the work of Human Rights Watch by denying or severely delaying visas and/or accreditation to every Human Rights Watch representative in Tashkent, and even threatened criminal charges against one staff member. The government has made it impossible for the organization to maintain a regular presence in the country since July 2008, when authorities denied accreditation to its former representative and then barred him from the country on the grounds that he "did not understand Uzbek culture or traditions." Swerdlow was allowed access to the country for only two months in 2010 before being denied work accreditation.

In the last two and a half years, Uzbek authorities have further obstructed Human Rights Watch's attempts to work in Uzbekistan. In July 2009, they deported a Human Rights Watch research consultant upon her arrival in Tashkent. In December 2009, a Human Rights Watch researcher was the subject of a violent attack in the town of Karshi, which appeared to have been orchestrated by the authorities. Following the attack, police detained her and then expelled her from the city. Police in Karshi and Margilan also detained human rights defenders to prevent them from meeting with her.

Human Rights Watch's expulsion comes during a deepening human rights crisis in Uzbekistan. Well over a dozen human rights and political activists and independent journalists are in prison, torture and ill-treatment in the criminal justice system are systematic, and serious violations go unpunished. Over the last seven years, the Uzbek government has expelled nearly every international nongovernmental organization from the country. It also has consistently denied access to independent human rights monitors, such as United Nations special rapporteurs, no fewer than eight of whom have longstanding requests for invitation pending.

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To read the full press release, click here

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