“Stalinist-era tactics” in Uzbekistan

Authorities in Uzbekistan are threatening to force dissident Elena Urlaeva to submit to immediate treatment with powerful psychotropic drugs—even though an initial psychiatric commission had declared her sane. The case against Urlaeva is the latest in the Uzbek government’s deepening repression of human rights defenders and independent political activists in the aftermath of the May 13 massacre at Andijan.

“This is an insidious attempt to equate criticism of the government with insanity,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Uzbek government has shown its willingness to use Stalinist-era tactics in its campaign against human rights defenders.”

Police in the Sergeli district of Tashkent detained Uraleva on Aug. 27 for posting a caricature of the national symbol of Uzbekistan. The arrest report states that the reason for her arrest was an “attempt to distribute a caricature of the Uzbek symbol and possession of leaflets containing anticonstitutional text.”

According to the government, she had four copies of the caricature in her possession, as well as 75 copies of a pamphlet from the Ozod Dekhon (“Free Peasants”) party, an unregistered independent party of which she is a member. The government said she was also carrying 65 pages of printed text “critical of the policies of the president and government of Uzbekistan.” Police charged her with desecrating state symbols under article 215 of the Uzbek Criminal Code.

Shortly after she was detained, the investigator in the case ordered Urlaeva transferred to the Tashkent City Psychiatric Hospital for observation to determine her mental state. On Sept. 20, the psychiatric commission declared her sane, stating that she did not require any psychiatric treatment.

“The Uzbek government should release Elena Urlaeva immediately and suspend the court order until it allows an independent examination by an internationally recognized psychiatric expert,” said Cartner.

Because the offense under which Urlaeva was charged does not allow her to be detained during the investigation phase, Urlaeva should have been released after the commission’s findings. Instead of being released, however, the investigator ordered Urlaeva to undergo additional psychiatric evaluation. On Sept. 23, Urlaeva was transferred to the Republican Psychiatric Hospital. On Sept. 30, a special psychiatric commission for contested and difficult cases declared Urlaeva insane and in need of treatment. On Oct. 18, the Sergeli criminal court issued an order for Urlaeva’s commitment and treatment.

Representatives of Human Rights Watch met with Urlaeva after she was transferred back to the Tashkent City Psychiatric Hospital, where she is scheduled to begin receiving forcible “treatment.” Urlaeva told them that she had asked the commissioners to postpone the decision because she had just finished a five-day hunger strike and did not feel well. According to Urlaeva, the commissioners not only rejected her request, but made no effort to question her or carry out a proper evaluation of her condition.

“The head doctor, Professor Turgun Ismailov, just started yelling at me and didn’t ask me a single question,” Urlaeva said. The commission declared her insane.

Urlaeva told Human Rights Watch that she feared the treatment. “In court you at least have a chance to speak, to argue your case, to try to prove something,” she said. “But forcible treatment is a final sentence.”

“The Uzbek government has resorted to brutal Soviet-era methods to try to stop Urlaeva’s political and human rights activities,” said Cartner. “Calling this ‘treatment’ is perverse.”

The court’s findings claim that Urlaeva is schizophrenic with delusions of persecution. In fact, Urlaeva has a long history of persecution by the government of Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch found. A long-time activist who regularly participates in public demonstrations, Urlaeva has been subjected to constant police surveillance, frequent house arrest, arbitrary detention and interrogation, as well as psychiatric detention and forcible treatment.

On April 6, 2001, Urlaeva was detained on her way to a demonstration against government abuses at the Tashkent municipal building and committed to the Tashkent City Psychiatric Hospital. She was kept at the hospital for three months. On Aug. 18, 2002, police detained Urlaeva at a demonstration near the Ministry of Justice in Tashkent and again committed her for forcible treatment, confining her in the hospital until the end of December 2002.

During the course of her commitments, Urlaeva received forcible injections of psychiatric drugs including Thorazine, Trifluoperazine, and Cyclodol. Urlaeva reported that the hospital staff tied her to the bed to administer the injections. She reported that she had chronic headaches, and problems with her heart and kidney as a result of these injections.

In March 2003, Urlaeva underwent a voluntary psychiatric evaluation by a commission of psychiatrists from the Independent Psychiatric Association of the Russian Human Rights Research Center. The commission found that Urlaeva was sane, and did not require treatment or commitment.

Human Rights Watch urges the international community to take up Urlaeva’s case and call for her immediate release. The organization also called on the Uzbek government to grant urgent access to Uzbekistan for the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Human Rights Defenders. (HRW, Oct. 20)

Meanwhile, some in the US administration apparently still view Uzbekistan as a partner for regional security cooperation. The international conference “Security Problems in Central Asia” opened Oct. 21 in Tashkent, bringing together representatives from the US, Russia, and the Central Asian states to discuss coordinated responses to terrorism, political exrtemism, and drug and human trafficking. (Kazinform, Oct. 22)

See our last post on Uzbekistan and the politics of Central Asia.