EU Urged to Renew Sanctions Against Uzbekistan Over Deteriorating Human Rights

Member states of the European Union have been urged to recognize the deteriorating human rights situation and continuing limitation of religious freedom in Uzbekistan as they meet to consider the renewal of sanctions against the country.

The decision to renew sanctions against Uzbekistan is expected to be taken up at the upcoming Oct. 15-16 meeting of the General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC), or EU foreign ministers.

The sanctions were initially imposed following the Andijan massacre in May 2005, when at least 500 demonstrators were murdered by Uzbek troops. The EU adopted sanctions in November of that year, which are renewed every six months.

According to U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), some EU member states, led by Germany, appear to be lobbying for the non-renewal of sanctions on Uzbekistan, despite the worsening human rights situation there.

"While EU countries are discussing further measures to reinforce and strengthen existing sanctions on the Burmese regime should violence be used against peaceful demonstrators, they appear to lack the resolve to insist that the same standards are followed in Uzbekistan," the human rights organization stated.

At the session, the EU is expected to vote on whether to broaden the sanctions on Burma, also known as Myanmar, where the ruling junta engaged in a major crackdown on Buddhist monks and the tens of thousands of protestors that they led in peaceful demonstrations.

CSW, which specializes in religious freedom, spoke at the recent Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Human Dimension meeting in Warsaw, where it drew attention to recent human rights violations in Uzbekistan.

Sources in Uzbekistan claim that security officials frequently raid religious services and those present are subjected to interrogation and harassment. According to reports, officials often videotape the proceedings and confiscate religious materials, and those detained are frequently tortured and maltreated.

Norwegian human rights organization Forum 18 reports that there are a number of prisoners of conscience currently being held in Uzbekistan. Among them is Uzbek Protestant Pastor Dimitry Shestakov, who was sentenced to four years imprisonment in a harsh work camp merely for practicing his faith and leading a congregation of the Full Gospel Church in Andijan.

Furthermore, people active in religious communities are tracked by authorities and are made to register with local security agencies. They can be summoned at any moment for interrogation.

So far, the Uzbek government has ignored all protests by foreign governments and international bodies.

"The Uzbek people are experiencing clear and consistent violations of their fundamental human rights," commented Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of CSW. "By failing to renew sanctions on Uzbekistan, the EU risks seriously undermining their credibility in the eyes of the international community and other regimes facing the threat of sanctions.

"We urge the EU, and its member states to be consistent in their dealings with these countries," Thomas added. "We also urge a closer EU and OSCE co-operation in the field of freedom of religion and belief, especially in light of the newly adopted EU strategy on Central Asia."

Last year, the U.S. State Department designated Uzbekistan for the first time a "Country of Particular Concern" – the worst religious freedom violator label.

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