Catholic Workers protest May 14 in Chicago, Photo by Steve Rhodes.
The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE or the Helsinki Commission) held a briefing yesterday on political prisoners in Central Asia.
Dr. Sanjar Umarov, head of the Sunshine Coalition, spoke about his awful experiences as a political prisoner.
A dapper middle-aged businessman who started a reform movement in Uzbekistan, Umarov spent four years under brutal treatment in Uzbekistan's prisons, until finally he was released and permitted to be reunited with his family, who live in Tennessee.
For an hour in a hot Washington, DC room at the Rayburn House Office Building, Umarov patiently answered the questions of Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee), a commissioner of CSCE with an impressive record advocating for human rights, about the details of his torture in prison. Umarov was repeatedly incarcerated in a cramped cell known among the prisoners as "the monkey cell," a small space of 3 x 1 meters with bars, a cold cement floor, no amenities, and an open window even when the temperature was 10 degrees. Umarov was first thrown in this punishment cell for objecting during a political education session to the fact that President Islam Karimov extended his rule in violation of the constitutional limits on the term of presidents.
I will post a link to the video and transcript when it is ready at csce.gov, it is devastating, and a must-see to understand the kind of dictatorship we are dealing with when we do business with Karimov.
Richard Solash of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has a good summary of the briefing here. As it was a briefing, as distinct from a hearing, the floor was open to the public to ask questions. I asked whether there was any intention to make a protest about the political prisoners of Central Asia and the terrible conditions they were being held by directing it to the NATO summit. President Karimov himself and the Central Asian foreign ministers or other ministers will be attending. I asked if the closer relationship that the US now had to maintain with the Central Asian powers since losing the route through Pakistan had any impact on the human rights situation, and whether the exigency of having to maintain the GLOC (as the military calls the Ground Lines of Communication) or Northern Distribution Network (NDN) through Uzbekistan meant the US felt constrained in raising human rights issues.
My long-time colleague Catherine Cosman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom replied:
"Many believe that because of the NDN, politically speaking, the United States is in a weaker position to raise human rights concerns with these governments. Personally, I believe that, in fact, it's the opposite, because these governments are extremely corrupt and the U.S. government pays a lot for these transit routes and so the officials in these governments stand to gain personally," she said.
"So I would say that, in fact, if [the United States] raises human rights cases and makes use of NDN connection in that way, we could see human rights gains."
The payment is $500 million for all of them, Dierdre Tynan of eurasianet.org reports, but we don't know the particulars of each country's payment and the duration of the deal. The deal with Pakistan today is described in the Tribune of Pakistan as $365 million for the year, or something like $1500 or $4000 a load.
The Department of Defense may see this "opportunity to raise human rights" as a bug and not a feature, but that wouldn't stop the Department of Human Rights, Labor and Democracy from making a statement -- so far the US government limits its vocal statements about political prisoners in Uzbekistan, although in connection with Press Freedom Day on May 3, they included one Uzbek prisoner, Dilmurod Sayid, a journalist jailed for uncovering local corruption who is now ill with tuberculosis, on the website established for the occasion.
Umarov said there were many deaths in detention, often of tuberculosis and AIDS, and many suicides, but it was difficult to tell if some of them were in fact victims of torture. He described the long days waiting in the cell, hearing the old van used for picking up bodies to take to the morgue creakily approaching, grinding to a halt, the rasping of the door opening, the footsteps, and then the van departing. It was very eerie and sad, and we aren't doing enough about this.
I wondered if any of the groups demonstrating in Chicago this weekend and throughout the summit could take up the issue of political prisoners. I wrote to one of the community organizers and a few of the OWS on Twitter, but didn't get answers. OWS is preoccupied with the usual radical agenda -- focusing only on the deaths of civilians killed in NATO's attacks on Libya (under 100), yet with nothing to say about the tens of thousands of civilians killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, which kills 85 percent of the people in this war. In fact, in their call for the demonstration in Chicago, Code Pink deliberately books these deaths to NATO (in the same way they do with the 100,000 civilians deaths in the Iraq War), which is really duplicitous and morally wrong. They seem to be unable to find a way to condemn both NATO's killing of civilians, and the killing of civilians by the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other deadly militant and terrorist groups. This has always been the problem with the anti-war movement, and it never changes in the 40 years I've been following it, with the exception of a few organizations with a broader vision.
And somehow the issue of the political prisoners just never comes up on their radar, because they are focusing only on pulling out troops and converting the funds to assist with combating global warming, and not focusing on the larger human rights and humanitarian issues of the region. They've turned out Afghan emigres in Chicago to protest the war, and turned out immigrants to protest the immigration law (one protester has already been arrested for assaulting the police). But as I used to see with the peace movements of the 1980s and 1990s, they cannot seem to find a way to protest against any kind of militarism but NATO's, and therefore inevitably help reinforce NATO's mission, in a kind of backward way.
One group that is colouring outside the lines of this heavily pre-cooked protest agenda is the Awareness Project International, an Arizona-based group originally created to organize summer camps for youth abroad to raise awareness of human rights, HIV/AIDS and global warming. Lately they seem to have more Uzbeks involved (and even heading it) and have taken on more than just education, but will be protesting forced child labor in the Uzbek cotton industry.
I was glad to see at least some group is going to Chicago to protest something about Uzbekistan, our main partner in the NDN to supply NATO troups in Afghanistan.
The group is going to focus on forced child labour, which was the focus of a picket line related to Fashion Week last year -- perhaps they could add on political prisoners and call for their release and an end to torture.
I've written about Dmitriy Nurullayev and this group before and the complex issues of how their harassment was covered-- he was one of the two students who organized a summer youth camp in Uzbekistan on these topics of AIDS and human rights, and then was interrogated by the security police. Evidently he decided not to return to Uzbekistan.
It may be hard to stand out with this singular message around Uzbekistan during the NATO protests -- there will be the din of radicalism everywhere and likely direct action and even violence and multiple arrests precisely because the protesters will go beyond the bounds of lawful assembly into civil disobedience -- and as OWS often does, play the victim instead of taking their arrests like a man, which is the deal when you commit civil disobedience, you know?
But for the long term, groups like Awareness Project, which evidently got the endorsement of the International Labor Rights Forum for this protest, can try to work with the OWS and anti-NATO protesters and get them to broaden their focus and campaigning from the myopic obsession with only America, and only the US as the imagined great evil of the world, and look at the very powers that NATO cites to justify its existence, which is the nuclear power of Russia which still maintains its political prisoners today, and its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization like Uzbekistan.
They could also take up the issues of political prisoners, as Dr. Umarov once was.
UPDATE: Dmitriy Nurullayev has just contacted me to say that they have added the issue of political prisoners and torture to their banners for Chicago. I hope they will be able to get their voices heard about the din.