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Karimov Pardon Under Fire

Uzbek amnesty leaves political prisoners firmly behind bars.
By Galima Bukharbaeva
Uzbek human rights activists have criticised the government's long-awaited amnesty for making it virtually impossible for political prisoners to be included in any of its provisions.



President Islam Karimov's amnesty decree was timed to mark the 10th anniversary of the former Soviet republic's independence on September 1.



According to the president's office, 25,000 of the country's 64,500 prisoners will be released, while the same number again can expect reductions in their sentences of a third or even one-half.



The authorities say the amnesty is proof of Uzbekstan's progress towards political liberalisation. According to Karimov, the move is not only linked to the country's independence celebrations, it forms an integral component of its on-going judicial reforms.



Human rights activists agree that the pardon covers a far larger number of detainees than its predecessors. But the Independent Organization for Human Rights in Uzbekistan, IOHRU, says it affects only about 1,000 political prisoners, whose numbers have continued to grow under the republic's authoritarian regime.



According to IOHRU, Uzbek jails harbour at least 7,600 such inmates, most of whom were convicted of belonging to the outlawed Islamic Wahhabi and Khizb-ut-Takhrir organisations.



It says these prisoners already endure the harshest treatment. They are held in special blocks where a particularly strict regime of detention is applied; they are not allowed to talk to other prisoners and are forced to perform the dirtiest and most humiliating work. Witnesses say detainees are often raped, a fact which consigns them to the lowest rung in the prison hierarchy.



Earlier this month, 400 Uzbek women - mothers and wives of these convicts - appealed to Karimov to include their relatives and spouses in the amnesty.



The women made two main demands. The first was for prison guards to treat so-called religious prisoners in the same way as the other detainees. The second was for the pardon to include political prisoners, on the grounds that all citizens are equal before the law.



Their demands appeared to be consistent with Article 10 of the amnesty decree, which said that it can be applied to members of terrorist and extremist organisations, criminal groups and even to individuals who have committed crimes against the constitution and state security, the most serious violations under Uzbek law.



The president appeared to support a generous interpretation of the decree's provisions. "I do not want only to see them as enemies and adversaries," he said of the prisoners. "Among them are those who found themselves there by accident and now have repented."



However, the problem is that the decree also states that only those who have taken the path of correction and demonstrated constructive repentance - which must be confirmed by the administration of the correction facility - can be considered for pardon.



The chairman of IOHRU, Mikhail Ardzinov, says this provision is open to abuse, as the conditions for establishing repentance frequently depend on the convicts or their families paying bribes to the prison authorities.



Saidjakhon Zainabudtinov, a human rights activist from Andijan, says political prisoners jailed on trumped up charges also face difficulty proving they have repented of crimes which they never committed in the first place.



"Many of the political and religious prisoners were convicted on fabricated accusations," he said. "They did not admit to being guilty during the investigation, trial and imprisonment, so how will they repent for what they have not done?"



Another catch is that the decree only affects inmates with prison terms of less than six years. This provision automatically rules out most political prisoners, who normally receive sentences of eight to 20 years.



The decree also excludes inmates who have violated the terms of their imprisonment. Human rights activists and ex-prisoners say the prison authorities regularly fake such violations.



Activists who campaigned for a broad-based amnesty that included political prisoners say they are disappointed. They see thes decree as a superficial response to international pressure on Uzbekistan to improve its human rights record.



Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR's country director in Uzbekistan.