Gulnora Juma is a small woman. She speaks very quietly which only enhances the power of the message that she relays via an interpreter. Though I don't speak Uzbek, the emotion Mrs. Juma conveys when she describes how the fingers of her husband's right hand were purposely broken in order to physically prevent him from writing his powerful political poems needs no translation.
Her husband, prominent poet and political activist Yusuf Juma (also written Jumaev), has been held in Jaslyk Prison in Uzbekistan, known as the worst in the country, for almost three years. Though completely healthy at 50 when he was first arrested, torture, attacks by other prisoners, and general neglect have taken a toll. His eyesight has been reduced to no more than a few feet, and all of his teeth have been knocked out, making eating nearly impossible.
Mrs. Juma has been living in the United States with 4 of her children for the past three years. Their family was forced to flee Uzbekistan under the cover of night, amidst gunfire, as Uzbek security forces surrounded their farm outside the capitol city of Tashkent. She and her children were able to escape to Kazakhstan and eventually receive asylum in the U.S., but her husband was apprehended.
As Kyrgyzstan erupted into violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks this week, an estimated 150,000 Uzbeks have fled across the border to Uzbekistan, seeking refuge in their ethnic homeland. Surely, it's best that they are out of imminent danger, yet thousands of Uzbeks now find themselves reliant on protection from one of the world's harshest and most repressive regimes.
Uzbekistan was once again named one of the world's worst human rights abusers in Freedom House's Worst of the Worst 2010 report, which identifies the world's most repressive societies. Authority in Uzbekistan is highly centralized under President Islam Karimov, who wields tight control over the judiciary, the media, the police and essentially all other aspects of public life.
Yusuf Juma and his family are convinced that the only way he will leave prison alive is if the United States continually raises his case with the Uzbek authorities. However, the U.S. has had a complex and often tense relationship with Uzbekistan ever since the Andijon massacre in 2005, which earned the Uzbek government widespread international condemnation, and the subsequent closing of the U.S. military base there.
Central Asia has propelled itself onto the agenda of U.S. policymakers over the past few months with a revolution in Kyrgyzstan, destabilizing a region that has numerous strategic ties to America. This week, a high-level delegation of US officials is traveling to Turkmenistan (another member of the Worst of the Worst) and Uzbekistan to conduct a series of bilateral meetings. While the situation concerning refugees from Kyrgyzstan will certainly be on the agenda, hopefully the U.S. delegation will not forget the Uzbeks who've been suffering under the repression of the Karimov regime for years.
The United States must take advantage of this chance to re-frame the relationship with Uzbekistan based on the fundamental message that human rights is going to be a continual and unrelenting issue for our government.
Sarah Trister is an advocacy officer at Freedom House.