The authorities in Uzbekistan are threatening the relatives of political exiles who have criticized Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s upcoming visit to Brussels.
The Association for Human Rights in Central Asia has received messages from three separate sources who say members of the National Security Service (SNB) are stepping up pressure on relatives of people who have left the country for political reasons. In one instance, unidentified people visited a family at home and told them that their “relatives in Sweden” should stay quiet. In another, threats were made that a young man would be thrown out of university if his brother, a political exile, didn’t shut his mouth. In a third instance, threats were made to investigate a business.
All incidents were linked to Karimov’s upcoming official visit to Brussels.
It’s not the first time the SNB has used such tactics to influence dissidents living abroad. Staff at the embassy of Uzbekistan in Brussels filmed a protest organised by the Belgian Association for Democratic Changes and Defense of Minorities in Uzbekistan in 2004. After the protest, members of the SNB started visiting relatives of the protestors living in Uzbekistan. The agents showed relatives photographs of their family members holding placards at the protest and forced them to write letters to Belgium asking their relatives not to participate in any more such events.
In March 2005, non-governmental groups from Uzbekistan reported these events in their alternative report on civil and political rights to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. As a result, the editor-in-chief of the Free Uzbekistan website in Belgium, Valery Petrenko, halted his own activities for security reasons, as did other members of the website. Since then, the practice of using threats has continued. Especially targeted are the owners of opposition and human rights websites and anyone criticising the authorities in Uzbekistan.
The Association for Human Rights in Uzbekistan has noted that instances of threats against the relatives of political exiles have increased ahead of President Karimov’s visit to Brussels. On January 24, he is scheduled to meet with the leadership of the European Union and NATO as well as King Albert II of Belgium. Uzbekistan watchers found out about the visit through private channels, not through any official releases made by the Belgian government or the European Union. Only after criticism from rights defenders and journalists did the press department of the European Commission confirm the date of Karimov’s visit to Brussels, and the Commission has been notably unhelpful to journalists enquiring about the meeting, providing little if any details and planning no press conference after the meeting, which is highly unusual for a visiting head-of-state.