By Dmitry Tihonov, originally posted here.
Throughout 2015 the government of Uzbekistan falsified information and fabricated a narrative about me in order to eliminate another human rights defender from our country. Starting from March 2015, Uzbek state propaganda persistently depicted me as an agent of the West and my human rights work “as a highly paid profession aiming at discrediting Uzbekistan and deteriorating the situation in the country to the level of Maidan in Ukraine.”
In my case, the police, prosecutor general and National Security Service (“SNB”) acted in concert to silence me as an independent citizen and human rights activist. They work to ensure no one is left to testify about the shameful phenomena of our time, such as the forced-labour system that squeezes labour and income out of the Uzbek people for the benefit of the authorities.
Over the past year, I had the misfortune of learning first hand the range of tactics previously deployed by the KGB in the Soviet Union and now by the SNB against dissidents. The SNB worked doggedly to destroy my honest reputation, by defaming me, fabricating information, manipulating public opinion, traditional spying and surveillance of my mail and email, trumping up charges, coercing people to testify against me, and destroying my home and property. Security officials accused me of racism and spying for Western countries.
The SNB escalated its campaign against me to the point of accusing me of “terrorist activities with the aim of undermining the constitutional order in Uzbekistan” pressuring my lawyer to stop representing me.
The security services efforts against me are part of a broader, systematic and methodical effort to exterminate Uzbek civil society and establish control over citizens who want to live in accordance with the law and not based on officials’ arbitrary orders.
The experience has confirmed that they Uzbek government considers human rights solely as a tool of Western countries to exert influence. In its view, the discussion of mass violations of citizens’ rights in Uzbekistan is merely political, an attempt to undermine the state. The Uzbek administration considers all reports of noncompliance with human rights standards and the law as defamation, aimed solely at undermining its order. Any protest or civil disobedience by the public is understood as an attempt to create chaos and public disorder. The Maidan protests in Ukraine increased this anxiety.
Various clichés attempt to soften the perception of its aggressive policy against the freedom of speech and human rights. Officials assert forces of evil “abhor our independence,” to justify their efforts to silence honest people.
In my case, the Uzbek government is trying to portray me as member of a terrorist organization. Until recently, this was their preferred method against religious practitioners, now extended to human rights defenders.
As an investigator told me during one of my detentions, “The law is one thing, but what is real is another.” This criminal investigator briefly and concisely explained the legal realities in our country.
I was detained for my human rights and journalistic work three times in 2015. Each incident included two parts: the official detention and related protocols, and the unofficial interrogation about my human rights work and motivation for doing it.
The police officers generally expressed their understanding. Only one officer beat me, on the face and head with a stack of documents on September 20.
The development of the 'enemy of the state' narrative
The Uzbek government first asserted its rationale for harassing me and goal of driving me out of the country in the spring of 2015, when officials began to accuse me of defaming the government and undermining the state system.
The state media website “Mahalla” accused me of being part of a “fifth column” working for the United Kingdom, United States and France, on June 2, 2015. The Mahalla article alleged the UK was using me and other human rights defenders to work against the Uzbek government, and labelled me an enemy of the state.
By August, police had begun interrogating my family and friends. Officials asked about my profession, employer, the people I meet, the topics I discuss, where and who I visit abroad, how I earn my living, my personal interests, and where my parents and other family live. They even asked which kind of liquors I prefer.
On September 19, the mahalla committee leaders of Angren attempted to entrap me. While I was documenting the departure of people to the cotton fields from the Angren city centre, the chairmen of the city’s mahalla committees and others approached me and accused me of disparaging Uzbekistan.
About a dozen people, mostly elderly women, surrounded me. They screamed, demanded documents from me, and tried to take my phone. They yelled patriotic slogans and asserted that the people were voluntarily going the cotton harvest to help their homeland. I realized that they were not interested in dialogue, so I left.
The next day the Angren police arrested me and said they were responding to complaints. The police told me the three mahalla committee chairmen had complained to the hokim (mayor) and the police, and testified that I impeded the activities of the cotton harvest and insulted them obscenely.
Both accusations were false. I did not impede the departure to the cotton fields and did not insult or use obscenities towards anyone.
The mahalla committees chairmen motivation was apparently to prevent publication of the fact that many of the people being mobilized that day in Angren were paid by other citizens to pick the harvest quotas assigned to them. This reflected on the chairmen, who were responsible for recruiting their committee members to pick cotton. The chairmen understood that I would likely report the situation and therefore notified the Hakim and the police in order to protect and burnish their own reputations.
The Angren police criminal investigation department arrested me on September 20, citing the chairmen’s complaint. At the police station, the officers asked me to write down an explanation why I am against the cotton production. I wrote that I advocate the rule of law and that I am opposed to forced labour, not the cotton production itself.
After a while, a more senior police officer entered the room and began to beat me on the head and face with a thick stack of documents, showering me with obscene words, threatening with physical harm and shouting patriotic slogans about cotton being the heritage of our country and source of our wealth.
The police then summoned an ambulance, and the paramedics recorded the absence of any traces of beatings on my body, providing the police documentary evidence that no harm was done to me while in their custody.
The police assured me that they did not open a case against me. I left them my phone number, and they released me. I learned later that the police had filed administrative proceedings pursuant to Article 183 (“Disorderly conduct” in the Uzbek Administrative Code) against me. According to the law, the police were required to notify me about the charge and arrange for me to discuss them with a judge on the day of my detention.
Thereafter, the SNB began regular surveillance of me. The first clear sign of surveillance occurred while I was traveling by communal taxi from Tashkent to Angren. Around 10 pm, we arrived at the police checkpoint Almalyk-Akhangaran. Police officers stopped our vehicle, said that someone in a similar vehicle and recently hit a man and disappeared, and ordered everyone to get out of the car. The officers told us an investigator would arrive shortly to inspect the car. In the police station, a man in civilian clothes with a gun at his side questioned everyone: who they were, where they came from, where they were going and whom they knew among the passengers. But I was the only one from whom the police confiscated my smartphone, regular mobile phone, and flash drives. About fifteen minutes after taking away my belongings, the officers returned in a group of twenty. They returned the phones and memory drives and released me.
Yet they provided no explanation, and confiscating my phones and flash drives would not have helped their investigation, if in fact there was another car that hit someone. The investigator that they told us would inspect the taxi did not show up.
I began to realize that the security service was gathering information about my contacts, including people from whom I receive information about cotton production, and the information I had about child and forced labour in the sector.
On September 30, monitors from the International Labour Organization (ILO) went to Angren to talk to people who had expressed a desire to talk about their experiences of coercion during the cotton harvest. The same day, I noticed for the first time that I was being followed, by three men in a white Zhiguli car. In addition, police followed the people who met with the ILO monitors, and later talked to them at their workplace. This raises a fundamental question about the Uzbek government’s cooperation with the ILO and ability of the ILO to effectively and safely monitor in the current context.
If the ILO does not change its methods of work, I highly recommend that Uzbek citizens not communicate with ILO monitors in order to protect their personal safety. Their current method is not protecting individuals from the government and is supporting the government’s commercial interests. In my view, these monitoring groups have lost the trust of the people, and many people believe it is a sham.
Concerned about my own safety, I did not return to my home in Angren and instead lived elsewhere for some time.
I wrote a statement about the treatment I received in police custody on September 20, asking the police to hold the officers accountable for beating me. I hired a lawyer to present my statement to the police, out of concern for my safety. In response, the Angren police department sent a written statement claiming that “no physical coercion was used against me on September 20” and that I was not detained but merely taken to the police station. The police also informed my lawyer of the disorderly conduct charges they opened against me.
The trumped up charges had the intended effect. In accordance to the Uzbek Administrative Code, the period of imposition of administrative sanctions shall amount to two months. If within that period there have not been a trial and respective punishment, the case will be closed. I was concerned that if arrested, I would be subjected to torture. So the charges forced me to suspend monitoring of forced labour during the middle of the cotton harvest.
Subsequently, I learned that the arrest, surveillance and charges were links in a long chain of efforts to silence me.
On October 17 the state media published an article on the Internet citing reports and documents stolen from my e-mail and cloud-based data storage accounts. I realized that my accounts had been cracked and all correspondence therein, including information from my human rights work and personal correspondences, had been stolen and was now being manipulated against me.
I also realized who was involved: electronic surveillance is not the realm of the police but the national security services.
More articles followed. Each simply accused me of being a fraud and yet provided no argument or evidence against me. The purpose was straightforward, to turn public opinion against me.
The state media also published video clips stolen from my accounts, none of which I had published. One of the video clips presented two women, one of whom states that there is a law against forced labour. However, the state media only published her statement, not the rest of the video, during which the same woman tells her story of being forced to pick cotton despite the law.
The video appeared not only with the articles but also on YouTube. Afterwards, the SNB summoned the two women and told them I had published the video. The security officials demanded the women provide written explanations about their connection with me and why they were talking about such topics. The officials also asked the women to file a complaint against me for publishing the video without their permission and told them that the police would protect their rights in their own interest.
Both of the women refused to write statements and said they did not want to file any claims against me. One added that she did not see any harm in the fact that the movie was published.
But the security services pressed, and under their psychological pressure, she gave them a statement. The woman later told me, “I had no choice.”
With the woman’s statement, police initiated new administrative proceedings against me, and the security services continued to fabricate evidence.
During the first half of October, security officials used files stolen from my e-accounts and coercion to manipulate more people into giving statements against me. With two people, they used the same technique of falsely alleging that I had published videos of them without their permission. When one of the individuals in the film responded that she had no issue with it, security officials threatened her with charges of tax evasion and currency fraud. Using a copy of my passport and vaguely painting a picture of international corruption, the officials confused and deceived the elderly woman. After obtaining a statement from her, the officials went on to use the same scheme with another elderly person. I later spoke to the two individuals. They apologized for giving statements against me and that they had felt completely vulnerable with the security services.