2010: Elena Urlaeva
“Human rights mean than you live in a just society, a free society where you can meet in public squares, express your opinion, and not be afraid of being arrested. Having human rights means not being subjected to torture or to forced psychiatry, it means living in a democracy.”
Elena Urlaeva is one of the front figures of The Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. For many years, she has with great courage and risk for her own safety fought for individuals’ rights. She was awarded the Per Anger Prize in 2010.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan became independent. The constitution that was adopted in 1992 gives the president great power, and in practice the country is governed by president Islam Karimov and the reformed communist party. The media is fully controlled by the regime and arbitrary arrests occur regularly.
- In Uzbekistan today, those who defend human rights are persecuted constantly, especially journalists. We also see systematic persecution of religious followers and several cases of torture.
Can you hold public meetings?
- We try to meet regularly, but it is not possible in the street. Public meetings of more than three people are forbidden, the police will come at once, and we are always vigilant. But we meet in each others’ homes, often in my flat, and hold meetings where we share experiences.
The last time Elena Urlaeva was arrested was in December, 2013.
- Yes, it was on Constitution Day. It started on December 5th, our action lasted four days and I was arrested four times. We did this to show that those who defend our constitution – they are arrested by the authorities. Even a brochure with the constitution of Uzbekistan was seized and prohibited. We wanted to show this to the international community.
Because of her struggle, Elena Urlaeva has been forcibly committed to a psychiatric institution several times. The first time it happened was in 2001.
- I was committed on orders from the Uzbek authorities. My mother and I had taken part in a demonstration in downtown Tashkent when they arrested me. Members of the security services forced me into a car and took me to a psychiatric hospital. The second time, in 2002, I was also at a demonstration, they arrested us all. We were only demanding our civil rights and freedom for our human rights activists, but for that we were committed to a mental health facility. That’s what the authorities do now to punish us. They gave us psychotropic drugs, strong pharmaceuticals, that affected our psyches and our health. All in all, I was under forced care for one year and two months. Yes, it’s also one of those experiences. You have to understand that it is the authorities’ way of punishing those who fight for human rights.
Aren’t you afraid?
- We are not afraid of anything, because we have already lived through everything. Nothing scares us anymore. Every week the police come, they arrest us and let us go after a while. It has already become a way of life. All human rights defenders know that anything can happen, anything. How many times haven’t hooligans come to my home, destroyed and broken things, but we go on defending our rights regardless. We know that we are in the right, we are defending human rights, it is our duty to defend our people and that’s where we find the strength to carry on this way.
How do you re-charge your batteries?
- I get energy from being with my children and I get energy from good music. I especially like the songs of Vysotsky. And do you know that when I was in Sweden to accept the Per Anger Prize, I don’t know how the organisers knew about it, but the female singer who entertained us started singing Vysotsky songs. It was so moving for me! I can’t understand how they could know about my taste. I am convinced that one day, in an instant, justice and good will prevail here on Earth.
How did your life change after you received the Per Anger Prize in Stockholm?
- I felt that I was treated with more respect from those in power after I had won the prize. There were fewer arrests, because it was after all the Swedish government who had given me the prize. It feels as is the prize has protected me and raised the value of my work.
The Living History Forum wishes to note that these interviews are based on the personal testimonies of the prize winners. It is not an objective, factual account by the authorities.
Elena Urlaeva works for the organisation The Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. They arrange demonstrations in support of persecuted journalists and political opponents to the regime. They also strive to draw international attention to the situation in Uzbekistan.
Elena Urlaeva received the Per Anger Prize in 2010 and was nominated by Amnesty International.
The citation of the jury for the Per Anger Prize
“The Per Anger Prize for 2010 is awarded Elena Urlaeva from Uzbekistan for her peaceful and unselfish struggle for human rights in her home country. At the risk of her own life in hostile surroundings, she has given voice to the freedoms of expression and association in Uzbekistan. Selflessly and through peaceful means and with great personal sacrifice, she has risked her own life and well-being in the struggle for human rights.”
The Living History Forum works with schools to engage students in issues of human rights.
For exercises, more info about Uzbekistan