Uzbekistan: Activist Speaks Out

A human rights activist gives a glimpse of the darker side of life inside Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan: Activist Speaks Out

A human rights activist gives a glimpse of the darker side of life inside Uzbekistan.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

I first met Ismail Adylov at the Human Rights Watch office in New York. Behind his glasses you could see huge, sad, watery eyes. At the age of 51, he looks at least 70, very soft spoken, very dignified. He looks as if he fears nothing in the world.


Later he explained, "I have gone through the worst there can be. Anything else is a trifle." He went on to tell me a chilling tale of torture and humiliation inside a prison in his own country, Uzbekistan.


Adylov, a prominent human rights activist won the Human Rights Watch award this year. His career as an activist began in the late 1980s, when he was a member of the Bilrlik (Unity) Movement, struggling against the Soviet regime. He was one of the first people to advocate the independence of Uzbekistan, official status for the Uzbek language and social reform.


After Uzbekistan became independent, Adylov carried on campaigning against the iron rule of President Islam Karimov who quickly showed he would tolerate no opposition or dissent. Harsh treatment awaited anyone who disputed his authority. The lucky ones were exiled, others were imprisoned or killed.


The population - 60 per cent of them farmers - lives in poverty. Anyone who could emigrate to more prosperous lands did so, stripping the country of its doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists, writers, poets and musicians.


Adylov stayed on. He had a small business, a family to support and a mission to fight against injustice. In 1994, he became a member of the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan, which is still not officially registered in the country. He would comfort the families of imprisoned dissidents. He attended trials whenever he could get permission.


According to the Uzbekistan constitution, all trials should be open to press and public. In practice they are not.


"People are imprisoned for nothing more than demanding social justice," said Adylov. "Most are scapegoats, who were jailed simply because they had beards or were wearing hijabs (headscarfs for women)." This reflects Karimov's refusal to tolerate fundamentalist Muslims.


Human Rights Watch estimates that 7,000 political prisoners jailed without a fair trial are being tortured in Karimov's prisons and sometimes arbitrarily executed.


Adylov himself soon fell victim to the regime. First, he would receive threatening phone calls. Several times he was taken into detention but released after a couple of days. "In the summer of 1999 two policemen came to my house and said the district chief wanted to see me," Adylov recalled. "At first I refused to go without an arrest warrant. Then more policemen turned up so I went with them to avoid a scene."


The officers planted a few protest leaflets and three or four bullets on Adylov and placed him in detention. There he was beaten, tortured and held in solitary confinement. Two months later he had an hour-and-half long trial with no defence counsel.


Adylov told me a story of a similar trial which he had previously monitored himself. Two young men were arrested on the same charges, possession of religious leaflets and bullets. One of the men was blind from birth. "I stood up and told the judge it was obvious the leaflets had been planted," Adylov told me. "I asked him how a blind man could read the leaflets or use those bullets?


"The judge was angry and warned he would put me in the same prison as the two young men, which he did. I had never imagined that human beings could be as barbaric and brutal as they were in that jail. Sometimes, I would go mad hearing young guys screaming in pain while guards beat them with rubber clubs.


"They also used psychological torture. Every morning before we got any food they would make us sing the national anthem. Then, we had to greet each of the officer guards. One day I spoke out for a guy who was sick and could not stand on his feet while singing the anthem. That day I was beaten again.


"Later they would make us march in the yard where the guards forced us to do whatever caught their fancy - dancing, press-ups, sit-ups, crawling, and so on. Solitary confinement was the worst. They put me in a room the size of a TV set with no windows and no lights. It was hard to keep track of time. My eyesight began to deteriorate.


"The most brutal guard was a young man in his 20s who terrified everybody and boasted that not only his hands but even his arms were soaked in the blood of people he had killed in that prison.


"My family's sufferings were mainly emotional and financial. The judge who tried me ordered the confiscation of all my property. They also took confiscated my son's driver's licence. When he drove to visit me in prison, they imposed a huge fine on him for driving without a permit."


Acacia Shield, director of the Tashkent office of Human Rights Watch, said local human rights activists risk their lives every day and sometimes pay the ultimate price. In Uzbek courts there is no presumption of innocence. Those on trial are presumed guilty and almost all of them convicted.


"At a trial I once monitored, the accused man told the judge he had been tortured during pre-trial detention. The judge ignored him and declined to order an investigation. Unfortunately, such violations of procedure are widespread in Uzbekistan" said Shield.


"It is up to President Karimov to improve the human rights record. It would be enough for him to tell parliament that prison guards who torture inmates will be held accountable. If Karimov will not do that then the international community must insist that Uzbekistan upholds the standards of civilized states."


The war on terrorism has altered the relationship between Uzbekistan and the US. Tashkent is now an important strategic ally. But human rights campaigners argue that American must make financial assistance to Uzbekistan conditional on an improvement in its human rights record.


Ismail Adylov is undergoing a medical treatment in the United States. After that he plans to return to Uzbekistan and resume his activities.


Adolat Ramzieva is the pseudonym of an Uzbek journalist.


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