On 22 October, journalist Alisher Saipov told friend and colleague Shahida Yakub he thought he was being followed by Uzbek security services. Two days later he was dead, shot as he left his office in Osh, a town situated close to the Uzbek border in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.
Saipov was the founder and editor of the newspaper Siyosat, or Politics. His was the only Uzbek language newspaper in the region that was openly critical of President Islam Karimov’s autocratic government.
This repressive regime severely restricts the media. A number of foreign news websites have been blocked. Independent journalists, political opponents and human rights activists are routinely harassed, often imprisoned, and even tortured.
“Naturally, Siyosat could not be openly sold in Uzbekistan,” explains Yakub, who also represents the Uzbek Initiative group in London. “But we’ve received reports that copies were being smuggled in, across the border.
“Alisher’s writings made him state enemy number one. In a recent programme, Uzbek regional TV accused him of attempting to destabilise Uzbekistan.
“The president is not willing to take any chances ahead of the December elections. He is as determined as ever to root out all opposition and challenge. Alisher knew he was in danger, but was determined to highlight the plight of the Uzbek people. It cost him his life,” says Yakub, who blames the Karimov government for the murder.
President Karimov came to power in what was described by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as a “seriously marred” election. A series of fraudulent elections and referendums have extended his 16-year rule.
He refused to step down when his term expired in January 2007 and will be seeking re-election this December, despite a constitutional clause that forbids the president from serving a third term in office.
“Although Alisher was not directly advocating regime change, he was trying to highlight the pressing need for change,” says Yakub.
“The human rights situation in Uzbekistan is dire and discontent is rife. This was laid out in the open for the world to see during the Andijan killings.”
That was when, in May 2005, government troops opened fire on a gathering in Andijan town square. The president claimed the troops had been responding to “dangerous Islamic militants”. He put the death toll at less than 200.
But human rights groups claim that the gathering consisted of mostly unarmed civilians protesting against the Karimov regime. They estimate up to 1000 people may have been killed.
Up until the massacre, Uzbekistan had been a key ally in the ‘war on terror’. US aid to Uzbekistan shot up post 9/11. America was provided with use of an air base near the southern town of Khanabad.
In 2004, British soldiers travelled to Uzbekistan to train with the Uzbek army. UN and NGO reports documenting human rights abuses in Uzbekistan were largely ignored.
In fact, Uzbekistan is believed to have been one of the destination countries for the US’ extraordinary renditions programme, whereby terrorist suspects are transferred for interrogation to regimes that sanction torture.
But following an international outcry over Andijan, the US called for an independent inquiry into the shootings. The Karimov government refused. It signalled its displeasure by ordering the US to vacate the Uzbek air base.
The EU – which had backed calls for an inquiry – imposed a number of sanctions on Uzbekistan. These included an embargo on arms sales, a freeze on bilateral talks, and a visa ban on 12 Uzbek officials suspected of involvement in the Andijan shootings.
The past year, however, has seen the sanctions progressively eased. The latest reversal came earlier this month, when travel restrictions on eight officials were suspended, “with a view to encouraging the Uzbek authorities to…improve the human rights situation”.
But the move also comes amid fears that the sanctions have simply served to push Uzbekistan closer to Russia and China, and are eroding EU influence in the energy-rich, strategically important region.
An EU spokesman said: “A number of somewhat conflicting objectives have had to be balanced here.
“The thinking is that Uzbekistan has recently made some progress. There have been two rounds of expert level talks on the Andijan events. A human rights dialogue between the EU and Uzbekistan has been established, and the death penalty has been abolished.
“The EU concluded that the best way forward would be to engage with the Uzbek government, rather than isolate it.”
But human rights groups think otherwise. They see “talks” as a poor substitute for an independent inquiry, and claim that Uzbekistan is still one of the most repressive regimes in the region.
Earlier this year, Amnesty International (AI) noted that at least 13 human rights activists were still in prison, despite repeated calls for their release.
It also revealed that Uzbek authorities had refused to impose a moratorium on executions, despite the abolition of the death penalty.
AI concluded that the establishment of the dialogue lacked credibility “if at the same time Uzbek authorities can continue to commit gross violations with impunity”.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the suspension as a travesty.
Rachel Denber, deputy director of HRW’s Europe and Central Asia division, said: “The EU is giving up critical leverage. It is sending out the wrong signal to repressive regimes who will think that the consequences of their brutality will be minimal.
“It is placing economic and geo-strategic concerns over human rights. The EU claims that it will work with Uzbekistan to improve its human rights record, but apart from dialogue, has yet to come up with any concrete strategy.
“If prior elections are anything to go by, then the human rights situation will only deteriorate in coming months.”
Shahida Yakub agrees. “Things can only get worse from here on,” she said. “The murder of a dedicated journalist would suggest that the crackdown on dissent has already begun.”