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Tashkent-Washington: VOA Uzbek interview with Steve Swerdlow, Human Rights Watch

HRW: What progress in Uzbekistan?
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HRW: What progress in Uzbekistan?

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Hello, I'm Navbahor Imamova in Washington. You're watching the Voice of America. Uzbekistan and the world... Uzbek citizens and their human rights... Obviously, there is a lot to discuss. We want to do that with someone who has been researching Uzbekistan for a long time, someone who has had quite a complex relationship with this country, specifically with its government. Most recently, he has been welcomed back and is now in the capital city of Tashkent. Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch joins us via Skype. Hi, Steve.

Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Yakhshimisiz? Hi.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Who would have thought a couple of years ago that you would be allowed back into the country, let alone talk to the government as well as everyone else. Are you opening an office in Tashkent? Where do things stand?

Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Thinking back to the last time we had an interview, things have absolutely done 180 degrees in terms of the access for our organization. We are seeing good signs in the sense that we've been able to come back. We've been able to have meetings with the government and we've been able to start our work. We're taking the question of whether we open up an office step by step, but we are starting the process of reengaging with the authorities, but also continuing the work that we've been doing for 25 years, but now on the ground again.

I think it is just a wonderful feeling to be back here. It's really meaningful. There's no substitute for being able to be on the ground, meeting with so many of the partners that I've spent many, many Skype conversations with and now can see in person.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Before we move on to other important topics, we want to hear your take on what happened in New York on October 31st. You are an American. You speak Uzbek. You know many Uzbek Americans. Your work has been focused a lot on radicalism and extremism and how the governments in Central Asia have been fighting these problems.

Steve Swerdlow, HRW: First I want to express my sympathies and my condolences to the victims of this terrible tragedy and their families. This is a horrific incident for everyone. My thoughts are also in particular even the work that I do with the Uzbek American community which I think is probably at this moment in particular is reeling from these incidents, feeling a lot of fear and apprehension, especially given what we're hearing from President Trump.

I think as you said, issues of radicalization are really complicated. It's still too early to tell what led this individual to commit this terrible, heinous crime. Obviously, we should not overemphasize his Uzbek nationality in this process, but it is important to understand the context of the country that is now being batted around in the media. I've heard radio shows. I've seen western news shows making really wild generalizations and oversimplifications about Uzbekistan as a “hotbed of Islamic extremism.” That's really not helpful. I think it adds to a great deal of fear and bad policy.

One of the first things that I think about is given this tragedy, is that we really need to unpack what radicalized this individual. To some extent, there's been many conversations about the number of Uzbeks in terrorism-related incidents in the last year in Turkey, in Sweden, in St. Petersburg. These really are serious. They deserve a lot of scrutiny. I think if there's one thing that perhaps binds some of these attacks together, it's at least the appearance that these individuals were radicalized outside of Uzbekistan, that they were very marginalized, isolated, dislocated, dealing with a lot of complicated issues in migration and perhaps lacked real context.

I think what perhaps binds these different incidents together is that these individuals were radicalized outside of Uzbekistan. They were isolated, marginalized, dislocated. Of course, that's in no way to excuse the absolute heinous crimes that they commit, but it's important to understand that context.

I've been adding somewhat to the discussion about Uzbekistan in this context. I think Uzbekistan’s policies on human rights, terrible corruption, poverty, socio-economic conditions in Uzbekistan in a large part drove millions of young Uzbek men abroad to seek employment, and to seek other opportunities. A small percentage of those people may have turned to ISIS and other radical movements. It's important we understand that context, and that the human rights situation in Uzbekistan is relevant. It's important to engage on that.

Finally, I would say on this specific case, I would be very unhappy to see the things that President Trump is talking about come to pass. I think the [green card] lottery program is very important. In fact, I know families that are getting ready to become beneficiaries of this very program and leave for the United States very soon from Central Asia, including from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. I've seen so many successful cases of Uzbek Americans making themselves the American dream. It would be a real tragedy to see that happen, to see the program done away with.

I also think that adding Uzbekistan to a list of banned countries would be a terrible thing for our government to do, the US government to do.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Steve, you're almost starting to answer my next question which is - what could be the real policy implications of this case both in Tashkent and in Washington?

Steve Swerdlow, HRW: One thing in fact you noted in one of your Tweets is that for the first time we saw the Uzbek embassy in the United States put out a statement with the condolences of President Mirziyoyev condemning this action very quickly. We've never seen that sort of head on confrontation from the Uzbek government of an incident like this. It's extremely constructive I think to see Tashkent engaging quickly, condemning the action, offering assistance.

Of course, there's some more routine things that we can expect that might put us on edge which is for example if the Uzbek government were to crack down and conduct wide ranging sweeps of people in Tashkent and the rest of the country using terrorism justifications to abuse human rights, that would be the bad response.

We haven't necessarily seen that yet. On the US side of things, there are many implications for this as well. President Trump has been talking about doing away with the lottery program. That's again a terrible thing to do. He's also been talking about Guantanamo throwing around things that violate our constitution. Also from a pragmatic perspective, it is in our interests for the US federal court system to take a close look at this case, examine all the evidence. That way we can better understand what led him to radicalism.

I think it's highly irresponsible for discussions about Guantanamo to take place. There are constitutional guarantees in place for US residents. There's also evidence that many Guantanamo trials have stalled, and have taken years. Many have been unsuccessful and ineffective. I simply don't see the logic behind those statements. I really hope that this case will lead us to a deeper understanding. At least we've seen it from the New York state authorities and from the mayor of New York. I really hope that the Uzbek American community does not feel like it's being targeted and that it feels safe and is being treated with the same rights that all Americans deserve to be treated with.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Steve, you have been in Tashkent now for at least a couple of days. What are the conversations like about this case in Tashkent? Briefly, what are people saying to you?

Steve Swerdlow, HRW: People are very shocked. People are ashamed. People really are just scratching their heads and saying how could this happen? Why is it one of us?

I think from the variety of people that I've spoken with about the case, they may be jumping to some generalizations and there's not much information available yet, but a lot of them seem to think that what tie these cases together again is this ignorance, lack of education, lack of opportunity, just a real lack of context that some of these young people have growing up here. I think they lament that fact.

Somewhere in the conversation, I think there is a painful recognition that there are some serious gaps in the education system, in the social and communal networks, societal networks that should be helping to form individuals in a stronger way.

Of course, though, these sorts of things happen across many societies and countries. To be honest, I think it's a very painful topic for the people that I've met with.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We're talking to Steve Swerdlow, who's joined us from Tashkent. So Steve, the word "progress" is being used quite often when experts, journalists, the members of the international community discuss the situation in Uzbekistan and its new president. You recently issued a big report on your first trip to Uzbekistan and the policy changes that you're seeing. How does the term "progress" apply to human rights?

Steve Swerdlow, HRW: We've been using the word cautious optimism, or cautious optimism for change. As someone who's been watching this country develop and watching its human rights situation, I try to look at the facts and evidence. To break down the many elements of the human rights picture here which for a long time as you know so well has been one of the world's most atrocious human rights records. I think it's undeniable and very remarkable that in the last 13 months, there have been positive steps taken by the government, really significant ones.

The key question in all of this that I think we keep repeating is that we obviously encourage all these steps that are positive. The real question is will they become institutional? Will they become structural changes? Will they be really funneled into the DNA of the political system? We make many recommendations in that report. We try to look segment by segment.

We started with perhaps the three or four areas where we've seen real concrete progress. First of all, political prisoners. There have been by our count, at least 16 political prisoners released in the last 13 months since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev assumed the presidency. Of course when weighed against thousands of political prisoners still behind bars, that may seem insignificant. But when compared to the one or two or sometimes zero prisoners that were released each year of Karimov's rule in the past 12 years and then before, 16 is not nothing. It's something. It's significant. Of course, these cases were all very high profile. Some of the individuals like Muhammad Bekjanov carried with them a real sensitive context in the sense that they were individuals associated with the opposition.

Of course, we're welcoming those things. When I was here in early September, I got to meet with the wife of Azam Farmonov who was released a few weeks later. I met with the wife of the imprisoned journalist Solijon Abdurakhmanov. To meet them and to then see their relatives freed was just amazing. I think of course we have to take a moment to recognize that positive change.

Another area where we've seen good steps in the right direction has been way the president has been reducing the space between the citizenry and the government. As you know, he's been making many speeches about the need for public officials to be on social media, to be accountable. We had heard some of that rhetoric from Karimov in the past, but Mirziyoyev has really been putting his money where his mouth is in the sense that he has invested various institutional resources into creating a network of presidential reception centers in cities, in oblasts, and even in districts across the country.

From our research, these presidential reception centers have been successful by and large. A lot of citizens have reported to us that they go to these reception centers and they're able to make grievances about the gas being turned off, or the corruption of the doctor in the local hospital. Or about disputes over property, or having trouble processing their passport.

Many of them in contrast to their earlier experiences have actually gotten results. I think it’s hard to overestimate how significant that is in a country where previously there's was a sense that the government completely forgot about you. You were invisible. In fact, Islam Karimov was known for dismissing the plight of millions of migrants who were forced to leave the country for economic opportunity. So again, that is significant. I think the president should continue doing things like this. His administration really should continue to encourage all pieces of the government bureaucracy to uphold their end of the bargain.

Another area where we've seen good things happening in, but it's really a mixed picture of course, is in the area of media and freedom of expression. We have seen live TV talk show programs that appeared in the spring. They were abruptly discontinued after a few weeks after some intervention from the prime minister. But the fact that they appeared, the fact that government officials were coming on TV and answering sensitive questions, that is unprecedented. That is really important for this country. We think that should be happening more. We've seen some of the states sponsored or state owned media acting slightly more courageously.

Outlets like have been moving slightly beyond their comfort zones. I think it's going to be a period now where journalists and the media are testing the boundaries. The president needs to do more to encourage that from happening.

I have to qualify this in the sense that there have been things that have gone the other way. We've seen journalists be arrested just in late September. I've been getting news while I've been here and reports from sources of really some of the same old practices that we saw happening under Karimov continuing to happen now. We saw the journalist Bobomurod Abdullaev detained and held incommunicado detention without charges for several days. Then it turned out that he was charged with up to 20 years on very vague extremism charges.

We've been hearing that the lawyers for him are not able to get access. We also saw the writer, the author Nurullo Otahonov, a very interesting case, a well-known author, listen to President Mirziyoyev's call, headed his call to return to the country from abroad. He had gotten some news while he was in Turkey in exile that he was no longer on a black list and that he should feel free to come back to Uzbekistan. He took that literally. When he returned on September 27th, he was arrested in the airport and charged with extremism and detained. His case is interesting because he was released two days later under house arrest, something we don't see happen very often in Uzbekistan when extremism is mentioned.

Of course, since I've been here in the country, we've seen things go both ways. We've seen information that his book "Bu kunlar" (These Days) was for the second time qualified as an “extremist” piece of literature. What it really is is a book that is slightly critical of Karimov. It's those things where the government is struggling to find its path, if I can put it in the most generous way.

It's our job in the human rights community to push it in the right direction and to call out the abuses that are happening as well as the areas where things are going well.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Speaking of the human rights community, let's focus on the domestic human rights community. Who are your partners or let’s say, potential partners in Uzbekistan? We know you've been talking to many people including policy makers, law makers, private sectors, civil societies and also individual activists. How willing do they seem to work with you, to cooperate with you and your projects or perhaps involve you in their endeavors?

Steve Swerdlow, HRW: You just listed a number of the partners that we would work with. Uzbekistan is so fascinating in a sense that it's such a young country with such a young population. So much of this country, so much of the actions, so much of the lived experience is happening out in the rural regions. More of the 50% of the population. We take on different projects at Human Rights Watch. We've worked on the rights of farmers. We've worked on issues that affect the mahallas, the neighborhood committees.Really our partners are anyone and everyone.

As we said to the parliamentarians whom we met in the parliament, it's fascinating to see the parliament start to step up a bit and actually exert itself in the constitutional process. Human Rights Watch and, I think, other organizations are interested in working with the other branches of government, of seeing checks and balances, of seeing a separation of powers. There are parliamentary committees that work on human rights. There's the Ombudsman for human rights.

Those bodies were criticized in the Karimov period as you know for really being just paper tigers or really rubber-stamp institutions. I sense some willingness among some members of parliament and some parts of the government bureaucracy that actually want to change that, really want to work together. We've had some good meetings with the Director of the National Center for Human Rights, for example.

We also had some frank and difficult meetings with the interior ministry and with the state religion committee where we had start disagreements about what a political prisoner is. Of course, the government's position being that there are no political prisoners and ours being diametrically opposed. We do see them as partners in the sense that we have a joint responsibility to improve the situation in the country. We have different roles. Other partners in civil society are journalists. Of course, I've been meeting with journalists on this visit that are some of, as you know, some of the most well informed individuals in any society. Bloggers, social media wonks. Activists from the regions that are really jacks of all trades, people that go into court and defend people as public defenders but then do other things; Cotton monitors, people that go out into the fields, it could really be anyone. It's a long list.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, Steve, we know that many human rights defenders were either jailed or lived under so much pressure that they left the country. Who is there in the country now, currently, doing real human rights work? Is there a new generation of defenders? Are they relevant?

Steve Swerdlow, HRW: I think there is an emerging generation, but they haven't necessarily come out of the shadows yet. As I said, the conception of civil society that sometimes I think human rights organizations dogmatically adhere to can be overly narrow. There are times when people are not necessarily activists, but they're active in their communities, have really made a difference in Uzbekistan. People that have studied abroad and came back and tried to launch various initiatives. I have met a lot of impressive people. I met translators, people that you wouldn't necessarily expect to be activists, but they are willing to utilize the different mechanisms that are now available to report on human rights abuses, human rights work, and human rights monitoring is changing.

I don't know if that generation really feels comfortable yet to show itself, but it is emerging. Of course, I have to recognize that those that did stay in the country are incredibly courageous and they're still dealing with tremendous abuse. We've seen the activist Malohat Eshonqulova in recent days on a hunger strike. She has been really mistreated by the authorities. She monitors cotton. She monitors other issues like torture. She's been unable to obtain a basic propiska, a registration permit, because of her human rights work. I think those are the sorts of things that I think government has to move on. There has to be an unambiguous message coming from the highest levels, from President Mirziyoyev, not just that they will tolerate human rights activism or that they won't jail human rights activists, but that we should see the president actually inviting these activists to meet with him, to work with him. There should be parliamentary committees that hold hearings for those activists that have been unregistered and in the shadows for so long.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Building mutual trust takes time and lots of effort from all the parties involved. Obviously that creates tensions. How do you see yourself managing that?

Steve Swerdlow, HRW: I think the government understands our position very well. At least one of the things that I really liked about the experience that we had when we met with the government in September was the sense that no one was trying to tell me or tell Human Rights Watch that we should change our mandate or that we should stop being independent. There was no suggestion that us being a critical organization was going to make it impossible to be here. We did appreciate that. We want to push the issues that we see as most urgent.

I think really the focus here is what the government needs to do. We're really encouraging President Mirziyoyev to send a message that things are really changing in a practical way on human rights issues. Not just that we'll see more releases [of prisoners]. Obviously, we need to see thousands of political prisoners released. We want to see access for the International Committee of the Red Cross. We want to see access for UN experts to come into the country. In fact, there was a UN expert on religion that was just in the country last month. Those are really helpful things.

I think on a higher messaging level, President Mirziyoyev can do some symbolic things to show that those activists that were working in the shadows, that were basically criminalized for the last 12 years are invited back into the political process. They can testify at the Oliy Majlis. They can be invited to high profile events and conversations and dialogues with the government about how to improve conditions.

There should be a message that criticism is a good thing, especially when you're trying to make a transition from a situation that I think a wide consensus of both government and non-government officials in this country believe was a bad situation.

There's a lot of hope that I have. It will be difficult. I think it's very important that the media be here, that Voice of America be here on the ground.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We want to be there.

Steve Swerdlow, HRW: That RFE/RL and the BBC be here. We all need to sort of pry the space open as much as we can. The more engaged international organizations you have in Uzbekistan, I think that's going to offer support for the civil society.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you Steve. It's wonderful to talk to you. Obviously, there's a lot more to discuss, but this is the time we have. Enjoy Tashkent. Enjoy Uzbekistan. See you when you get back.

Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Thank you. Katta rahmat!

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Those watching, we want to hear your views and insights too. Share with us on social media. Look for "Amerika Ovozi". Steve Swerdlow joined us from Tashkent. I am Navbahor Imamovaa from Washington. Goodbye.

Uzbekistan: What progress in human rights?
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    Navbahor Imamova

    Navbahor Imamova - "Amerika Ovozi" teleradiosining yetakchi multimedia jurnalisti. "Amerika Manzaralari" turkumidagi teledasturlar muallifi. Ko'rsatuvlar taqdim etish bilan birga prodyuser, muxbir va muharrir. O'zbekistonda akkreditatsiyadan o'tgan yagona amerikalik jurnalist. "Amerika Ovozi"da 2002-yildan beri ishlaydi. Jurnalistik faoliyatini 1996-yilda O'zbekiston radiosining "Xalqaro hayot" redaksiyasida boshlagan. Jahon Tillar Universiteti Xalqaro jurnalistika fakultetida dars bergan. Ommaviy axborot vositalari bo'yicha bakalavrlikni Hindistonning Maysur Universitetidan (University of Mysore), magistrlikni esa AQShning Bol Davlat Universitetidan (Ball State University) olgan. Shuningdek, Garvard Universitetidan (Harvard University) davlat boshqaruvi va liderlik bo'yicha magistrlik diplomiga ega. Jurnalistik va ilmiy materiallari qator xalqaro manbalarda chop etilgan. Amerikaning nufuzli universitetlari va tahlil markazlarida so'zlab, ma'ruzalar o'qib keladi. "Amerika Ovozi" oltin medali sohibi. Tashkilotda gender va jurnalistika bo'yicha kengash raisi. Toshkent viloyati Bo'stonliq tumani Qo'shqo'rg'on qishlog'ida ziyoli oilasida ulg'aygan.

    Navbahor Imamova is a prominent Uzbek journalist at the Voice of America. As anchor, reporter, multimedia editor and producer, she has covered Central Asia and the U.S. for more than 20 years on TV, radio and online. Since 2018, she has also been reporting from inside Uzbekistan as the first-ever U.S.-based accredited correspondent in the country. During 2016-2017, she was a prestigious Edward S. Mason Fellow in public policy and management, while earning her Mid-Career Master in Public Administration at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Navbahor played a pivotal role in the launch of Uzbek television programming at VOA in 2003, and has since presented more than 1000 editions of the flagship weekly show, “Amerika Manzaralari” (Exploring America), which covers American foreign policy focusing on Washington’s relations with Central Asia, as well as life and politics in the U.S. She speaks frequently on regional issues in Central Asia, as well as Uzbek politics and society, for policy, academic, and popular audiences. Her analytical pieces have been published in leading academic and news outlets including Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and the Atlantic. Navbahor also is the founding President of the VOA Women’s Caucus. She began her career at Uzbekistan’s state broadcasting company in Tashkent. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mysore, India and a Master of Arts in journalism from Ball State University, Indiana.