Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday that the arrest of Muidinjon Kurbanov, of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU), is another example of the country's crackdown on civil society.

Police arrested Kurbanov, who is also chairman of a province branch of the opposition political party Birlik (Unity), on 16 February
 in the central Uzbek city of Jizzakh.

He was arrested on weapons and narcotics charges after police conducted an illegal search of his property, said HRW.

In a chicken coop 50m away from Kurbanov's house,
police reportedly found a 28mm hunting gun, four 19mm bullets and 19.82gm of kukpora, a narcotic plant used in traditional medicine.

Planted evidence?

Kurbanov's wife recounted that an unknown man had entered the courtyard at 11pm on 6 February and ran away when she went to investigate.

"Muidinjon Kurbanov is the latest victim in Uzbekistan's
relentless campaign to silence the voices of human rights
defenders and the political opposition"

Rachel Denber,
Human Rights Watch

The next morning she found the lock on the chicken coop had been opened, raising suspicions that the evidence was planted.

HRW said after his arrest Kurbanov was held incommunicado for three days, during which he was interrogated, threatened and forced to sign a confession dictated by the police.

He was only allowed to see his lawyer, Rukhaddin Komilov, on 20 February, after Komilov filed a complaint with the procuracy.

Kurbanov remains in custody at the Jizzakh City Department of
Internal Affairs, where he is at risk of ill-treatment, said HRW.

Narcotics charges

He was previously arrested in 1998 on narcotics charges, threatened with charges of religious extremism, and tortured in custody, leaving him permanently injured.

"Muidinjon Kurbanov is the latest victim in Uzbekistan's
relentless campaign to silence the voices of human rights
defenders and the political opposition," said Rachel Denber,
acting executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and
Central Asia Division.

"Given that the last time he was arrested the authorities injured him horribly, we are concerned he is at grave risk of torture.

"He should be released immediately pending an investigation of the charges against him."

HRW said there is no evidence that Birlik is in any way involved in illegal activities, although the government disfavours their political and social criticism.

Uzbekistan is ruled by former
Soviet-era communists

Pro-democracy movement

Birlik was the first independent pro-democracy political movement in Uzbekistan following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Denber said: "Anyone looking to evaluate the openness of civil society in Uzbekistan need only look at its treatment of human rights defenders and political activists to see that it has made no progress."

In the past 12 months the Uzbek government has released four imprisoned human rights defenders, but in addition to Kurbanov,
Ruslan Sharipov, and independent human rights defender, remains in prison.

Sharipov is serving a four-year prison sentence on charges of consensual homosexual conduct and sex with a minor following a trial far below minimal standards of justice and after credible allegations of torture, said HRW.