Torture Still Condoned in Uzbek Jails

Analysts say United Nations must pressure Tashkent to hold perpetrators to account.

Torture Still Condoned in Uzbek Jails

Analysts say United Nations must pressure Tashkent to hold perpetrators to account.

Human rights activists in Uzbekistan are calling on the international community to exert greater pressure on the government to eradicate torture from the criminal justice system.

Following damaging reports from the United Nations Committee Against Torture and from local and international human rights groups, which concluded that torture is still a serious problem in Uzbekistan, activists say the only way to bring the government into line is to increase international pressure on it.

Physical abuse remains widespread both in pre-trial detention – often as a way of forcing confessions – and in the penal system. Despite being a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture, the Uzbek government has failed to act on the problem.

In 2003, the UN’s special rapporteur on torture published a report following a visit to the country and concluded that torture was “widespread and systematic”.

A damning review released by the United Nations Committee Against Torture, CAT, on November 23 suggests that little has changed. The document expressed concern at the “numerous, ongoing and consistent allegations concerning routine use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment committed by law enforcement and investigative personnel or with their instigation or consent, often to extract confessions or information to be used in criminal proceedings”.

The report came out of the CAT’s regular review of Uzbekistan’s record on torture, required of signatories of the UN Convention against Torture, which took place earlier this month.

At the hearings in Geneva on November 9-13, the Uzbek government submitted its own account of how it is implementing the convention. Introducing the national report, Deputy Justice Minister Yesemurat Kanyazov said that since its last submission in 2002, Uzbekistan had improved the situation by halving the number of people detained and imprisoned, and by amending the criminal code to explicitly outlaw “torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” in line with the international convention.

However, the CAT said it was “disappointed” that the few individuals investigated following allegations of abuse “received mainly disciplinary penalties”, and sentences passed under the new criminal code provision were “not commensurate with the gravity of the offence of torture”. Human-rights groups agree that despite the legal amendment, those accused of torture are not held accountable for their actions.

On November 7, the international watchdog Human Rights Watch, HRW, published a 90-page report in which it found that torture and ill-treatment were ignored and overlooked by investigators, prosecutors, and judges, and “generally hushed up by the media and the government”.

“Uzbekistan wants to make its multilateral partners believe that it has put an end to torture,” said Holly Cartner, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director, in a press release. “But official statements simply don’t square with reality.”

“This is no marginal problem,” said Cartner. “The CAT needs to recognize that ill-treatment in Uzbekistan is endemic to the criminal justice system and not just a problem caused by a handful of rogues.”

In its report, HRW documents cases where police beat detainees with truncheons and bottles filled with water, administered electric shocks, asphyxiated them with plastic bags and gas masks placed over their heads, and subjected them to sexual humiliation.

In the cases it documented, HRW said no one was held accountable.

During one trial monitored by the group, a defendant told the court why he had not complained until then. “I never had a confidential meeting with a lawyer. I know that the pressure would have increased if I had complained. I am a human being. I am not made of iron. Even animals scream when you beat them. I was scared. That is why I did not complain,” he said.

Local rights groups are also raising concerns about the prevalence of torture. On November 12, the Tashkent-based Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Activists, IGIHRA, reported that Tohir Nurmuhammedov, who had been convicted of membership of the banned Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, had died in prison in Andijan, in the east of the country.

A Radio Liberty report from November 24 said Nurmuhammedov and Fitrat Salohiddinov, convicted of the same offence, died after being tortured in custody. Local rights activists told RFE/RL that both bodies showed marks indicating torture when they were released to the families.

IGIHRA also reported allegations that 25 convicts were tortured in a prison camp in the northwestern city of Navoi, and of widespread instances of physical abuse in another camp at Zeravshan also in the west of the country.

The group prepared its own report for the CAT as an alternative to the government document. It was illustrated with about 200 photos of people who have died in custody within the last five years and who IGIHRA says were tortured.

“We have hard facts that the situation is getting worse. The international community will be informed about torture, and it will then start pressuring the government,” said Surat Ikramov, the head of IGIHRA. “It is very important to us for the UN committee should decide what pressure and sanctions need to be applied against this repressive government.”

Although Uzbek legislation on torture conforms to international standards, said Ikramov, those responsible are not being held accountable.

“We have incontrovertible evidence. All the cases are confirmed, and so far I have not come under pressure from the government [saying] that the information is inaccurate,” he said.

At the same time, Ikramov said the Uzbek government was responsive to his allegations and had even acted on them, up to a point.

“They read my reports, and based on the findings, a special prosecutor goes to the prisons and they remove the butchers from their positions. However, there has not been a single case when someone has been held to account for inflicting torture.”

Another Uzbek human rights activist, who declined to be named, told IWPR that eliminating torture in the criminal justice system would take political will on the part of the authorities. But so far, pressure from the international community had failed to produce the required change in mindset.

“It’s hard to believe that UN hearings and reports from human rights activists will affect the situation with torture, because despite all the criticism and reproaches over many years, the government keeps on condoning the use of such methods of punishment,” he said.

Another Tashkent-based observer said the authorities could safely disregard UN recommendations because no sanctions would be applicable if it did nothing.

However, Acacia Shields, a human rights expert who worked for a long time in Uzbekistan, said the international community had failed to use all the instruments at its disposal to improve the situation.

Last month, activists were left angry and disappointed at the European Union’s decision to relax sanctions against the country despite the evidence of continuing human rights abuses.

The EU sanctions were first imposed when President Karimov refused to allow an independent enquiry into the violence at Andijan in May 2005, when security forces fired on demonstrators, leaving hundreds dead.

Shields believes there is a lot more that the CAT could be doing to inform the world community of the true situation in Uzbekistan, rebuff the justifications the government puts forward, and call for an end to torture.

Vyacheslav Abramov, who runs the website of Voice of Freedom, a network of Central Asian human rights activists, believes that while international pressure has had little effect on preventing torture so far, the lobbying must be sustained.

“Alternative reports from Uzbek human rights activists and statements by international organisations create pressure, and the government can do nothing but tell lies or admit there is a problem and try to solve it,” said Abramov.

“The Uzbek government will not be able to ignore those demands infinitely, and it is quite possible that it will start taking measures to resolve the problem, even if initially these are fairly unsubstantial.”

(Names of some interviewees have been withheld in the interests of their security.)

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