Uzbek Government Forces Closure of Local Soros Foundation

LONDON—Uzbekistan has shut down the Open Society Institute in Tashkent by revoking the foundation's registration, OSI Chairman George Soros said today.

The decision to shut down the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation-Uzbekistan (OSIAF-Uzbekistan) came after international organizations working in the country were told that they would have to re-register. The new registration procedures entail draconian restrictions that give the government effective veto power over all activities of international nongovernmental organizations. New banking restrictions creating a government committee that must review all grant transactions have already prevented international organizations from making payments to many local grantees.

“Uzbekistan is stifling civil society and has a horrendous human rights record,” said Soros. “In the use of torture it is worse than Belarus, the only other country to force OSI to close. I commend the decision of the EBRD [European Bank for Reconstruction and Development] to suspend public sector lending and I call on the United States to re-examine its relationship with the Uzbek government.”

The Ministry of Justice delivered the decision in an April 14 letter, despite considerable pressure from the U.S. State Department and other international actors. The ministry based its refusal on several unfounded claims, including that OSI materials supplied to universities “distort[ed] the essence and the content of socioeconomic, public and political reforms conducted in Uzbekistan” and “discredit[ed] its government’s policies.” The foundation plans to appeal this decision by all available means.

Since OSIAF-Uzbekistan was founded in 1996, the OSI network has spent over $22 million to aid reform in Uzbekistan, including some $3.7 million in 2003 on education, public health, arts and culture, and economic and small business support, making it the largest private donor in the country. The foundation has equipped most of Uzbekistan's universities and more than 100 secondary schools with computers and Internet access.

The foundation also supports legal reform, including textbooks and legal education programs from the secondary school to the post-graduate level. It has also worked directly with the Ministry of Justice, which received a grant of $123,000 to create a legal information database.

OSIAF-Uzbekistan administers close to $1 million annually in U.S. government-funded assistance in education, HIV/AIDS prevention, and efforts to reduce the demand for illegal drugs.

Uzbekistan's refusal to register OSI violates its commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it ratified in 1996. It also violates commitments under the U.S.-Uzbekistan Bilateral Assistance Agreement, and promises made to the United States under a March 2002 agreement in which Uzbekistan undertook to promote the growth of civil society and simplify procedures for nongovernmental organizations.

The new restrictions follow earlier moves this autumn to eliminate independent, nongovernmental reporting and analysis from the country. Amendments to the Uzbek criminal code passed in February 2004 make giving international organizations any information deemed potentially harmful to the state punishable as treason. The government has also waged a campaign in the media against international nongovernmental organizations and their employees depicting them as traitors.

The closure of OSIAF-Uzbekistan follows several months of threats and intimidation against OSI and its staff. Senior staff have been summoned repeatedly to the Ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs and warned that OSI would be closed. The government in late 2003 ordered all educational institutions to halt cooperation with OSI.

The U.S. government currently faces a decision on whether to certify that Uzbekistan is observing human rights norms, as Congress requires before providing financial aid to the Uzbek government. The Bush administration has budgeted over $48 million in assistance to Uzbekistan in 2004, including $10.5 million in military and security assistance.

“The latest moves drive home how resistant the Uzbek government is to reform,” said Soros. “Uzbekistan has jailed thousands of its own citizens on political grounds, tortured them and refused registration to most of its domestic human rights groups and all of its opposition political parties. Now that it refuses even the semblance of working toward a freer society, how can anyone claim that it is observing human rights?”