When I started working on an article on Uzbekistan, published as Uzbek Prison Abuses Cause Psychological Damage, I realised I would face many difficulties in trying to report in this closed country.
II decided to pursue the story despite warnings from a fellow-journalist from Uzbekistan, who was forced to leave the country after writing about the human rights situation there.
He told me that torture was a subject about which the authorities were hugely sensitive, and that if I called people in Uzbekistan and contacted government agencies, I would be in trouble if I travelled there later on. I could be blacklisted and stopped from entering the country, and there had also been cases where rights activists and journalists had been arrested after drugs were planted on them.
But I wanted to try. Although I am from Kyrgyzstan, I work with an IWPR project focusing on Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where foreign media organisations and NGOs are not allowed to operate, and I am familiar with the obstacles to covering these countries. It is difficult to access information, almost impossible to get an official response, and local contacts are at risk.
What I found particularly challenging about this story was the distress of talking to the prisoners’ relatives and listening to the details of abuse they recounted.
The article highlighted the torture and other forms of physical abuse that remain commonplace in Uzbekistan’s penal system, which leads to high rates of psychological disturbance. Victims of abuse receive no medical assistance, and information about them is completely blacked out, rights activists say.
My interest in the subject was sparked by reports by various websites set up by Uzbek activists. Talking to Nadezhda Ataeva, head of the Paris-based Human Rights in Central Asia group, spurred me on to write about the subject and to raise awareness about widespread human rights abuses in the Uzbek prison system.
The next step in my research was reading letters from prisoners’ relatives, passed to me by Ataeva, describing the abuse and torture experienced by inmates.
Driven by concern for relatives, these people turn to human rights defenders in a desperate attempt to do something for them. With virtually no chance of finding support elsewhere, they hope that human rights groups will somehow help raise awareness about the plight of prisoners and that then maybe something can be done about it.
I began feeling depressed by the horrific information I was gathering, but I was determined do to my job as a journalist property by putting together an unbiased, objective and balanced report. I pulled myself together, and braced myself to talk to convicts’ relatives.
Phone calls to people in Uzbekistan, whether prisoners’ relatives, lawyers or psychotherapists, evinced the same reaction. Initially, I did not get much further than introducing myself and telling them where I was calling from before they put the phone down. They were naturally too fearful to talk, and were concerned about the possible consequences both for themselves and their relatives inside the prison system.
In such situations, many suspect that the secret police are tapping their phones, or that they are being set up by a provocateur.
Undeterred, I would call again the next day and try to convince them that I meant no harm.
One man seemed to prefer to talk about the past as if it was too painful to talk about the brutal assaults his relative was now being subjected to. Another informant, however, gave details of harsh treatment so grim that I could only include a portion of the account in the report.
I also contacted a psychotherapist in Uzbekistan, who refused to discuss the subject and instead started questioning me about who I was, where I was based, and what the article was for.
Attempts to contact the National Human Rights Centre, a quasi-governmental institution, were similarly fruitless. A secretary asked me to leave my details and send a written request. Uzbek colleagues told me that this is a standard response to queries from journalists. Officials will not say outright that they are refusing to reply, but they won’t send a response, either.
The use of torture in pre-trial detention facilities and in the penitentiary system in Uzbekistan has been widely documented over many years.
After hearing submissions from the Uzbek government and from rights groups in March, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a set of damning findings on the country’s human rights record. In particular, it urged the government to take stronger measures to end torture and other forms of ill-treatment; to monitor and investigate cases, prosecute and punish all perpetrators; and to provide compensation to the victims of torture and ill-treatment.
Although I have never been to Uzbekistan, I always imagined it as a beautiful country known for its hospitable people and great food. But now, the very mention of the country will inevitably remind me of the voices of people who told me about the suffering their loved ones endured in prison.
Yulia Goryaynova is an IWPR editor based in Bishkek, covering Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.