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Further Claims of Uzbek Police Abuse

Doubts raised about official explanations for deaths of two detainees.
By Alexander Maleshkin

Two men have died in detention in Uzbekistan in the last two weeks, leading to renewed allegations that torture is routine in the country's police stations and prisons.


The shooting and wounding of three other people – two of them women – raises further questions about the behaviour of law-enforcement officers.


Rahimjon Kuldashev’s family, who live in the Kutarma area of Jizzakh region, never suspected that when he left home after being summoned to a police station on January 2, it would be the last time they saw him.


Kuldoshev went to the city policy headquarters in Jizzakh at about 10 in the morning to give testimony in a case involving a woman who had accused him of extorting money.


Six hours later, police delivered Kuldoshev’s corpse to his home, saying he had suffered a serious heart attack and had died at the police station.


“I almost lost consciousness – the police said my son had heart disease and died of a sudden heart attack,” said his father Bosim Kuldoshev.


Official forensic expert Abdurashid Jolov confirmed heart attack as the cause of death, saying it was “out of the question” that Kuldashev had been tortured. Police produced Kuldashev’s medical records, which indicated that he suffered a heart attack in 2003.


The Kuldashev family said the health records were news to them, and insisted the 32-year-old Rahimjon had never suffered from coronary trouble.


A police officer from the station, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kuldashev died from blows he received while being questioned. According to this source, an investigator and four policemen were present during the interrogation, and Kuldoshev was punched repeatedly in the solar plexus region.


There are reports that the interior ministry in Tashkent has dispatched a commission to investigate the death in custody. The investigator alleged to have taken part in the interrogation appears to have been taken out of circulation. Local human rights activists and journalists have been unable to get hold of him at his workplace, and the duty officers say variously that he is on holiday or on a business trip.


Kuldoshev’s death came just a day before the body of Samandar Umarov was delivered to his home in Tashkent from a prison camp in the western province of Navoi, where he was four years into a 17-year sentence for belonging to the outlawed Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Officials said he died of a stroke, but family members and human rights activists who looked at and photographed the 35-year-old's body said it showed signs of physical injury consistent with torture.


These two deaths are only the latest in a long line of similar cases occurring both in police custody and in the penal system. The apparent disparity between the official explanation for the cause of death and other evidence such as the condition of the body is also a common theme.


Uzbek human rights groups say the physical mistreatment of detainees remains as grave a concern as ever, two years after a United Nations special rapporteur noted the “mass and systematic” use of torture in Uzbekistan.


The UN report, which made a number of recommendations, was adopted by the Uzbek government. But Tolib Yakubov, who heads the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, says that not one of them has been fulfilled by the government.


“The first requirement is to condemn torture at the highest level, but President Islam Karimov has not been able to do this," said Yakubov. "The president’s silence sounds like [tacit] approval of the actions of all police officers, from the highest ranks down to the lowest.”


There have been signs that the authorities are beginning to be responsive to torture allegations. In 2003, the law has been amended to punish police found guilty of abuses. And in an unprecedented move last year, concerns expressed about the death of a man in custody led the authorities to allow foreign experts to observe the investigation and autopsy.


In addition, reports by human rights groups about another suspicious death in custody was followed by the dismissal of the chief of police in Jizzakh region. But campaigners there say little has changed since then.


In the last few weeks, apart from the death of Kuldoshev, police action in Jizzakh has left at least three casualties.


Just before New Year, two women were taken to the central hospital in Jizzakh after being shot by a policeman.


Gulchekhra Kholmurodova, who lives in the Gallaaral district, was shot twice in the head and shoulder after policeman Khairullo Abdugapparov – who had apparently been drinking – had an argument with her husband. The policeman went on to shoot Gulchekhra's mother-in-law Ziatgul.


Both women survived but remain in hospital.


State prosecutors said a criminal case had been launched against Abdugapparov.


In mid-December, a policeman shot a young man in the town of Gagarin after an altercation. The officer then tried to flee across the nearby border to Kazakstan, but was arrested before he could get away.


In both these incidents, the authorities have taken action against the officers concerned. But that still leaves unanswered the question of why some policemen use violence and behave as though they have impunity.


A senior police official in the region, Colonel Olim Kasimov, believes his men of all ranks are under too much stress.


A police captain, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed that stress played a part, with low wages – officers get around 60 dollars a month – and delays in their payment aggravating other problems such as insufficient time off and the need for constant vigilance against "enemies of the homeland", a reference to Islamic groups. The result, he said, was that the "man with a pistol puts himself above the law".


This source also noted that as a consequence of such behaviour, "the public has a growing crisis of faith in the police force".


Yakubov agreed with this last point, though putting it in stronger terms, “People are scared not of criminals, but of the police. The feeling is that the police have gone crazy.”


Alexander Maleshkin is the pseudonym of an IWPR correspondent.


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