Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbekistan: Combating Torture

Rights activists fail to find consensus over tackling security service abuses.
By IWPR staff

The suspicious death of a suspect in police custody has once again focused attention on torture in Uzbekistan, but local human rights activists are divided over how to combat the problem. Andrey Shelkovenko died on May 19 while being held in the Bostanlyk district near Tashkent on suspicion of murder. His family claims he was tortured, while officials insist he committed suicide.

A group of independent activists, working under the title of Rapid Reaction Group, or RRG, began discussions with a number of government departments in March this year with the help of Freedom House, an American NGO. Since then they have held a series of meetings with the ministry of internal affairs, MVD.

The Uzbek authorities were forced to enter into discussions after a report published in March last year by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Theo van Boven, found that there was “widespread and systematic” use of torture in Uzbekistan.

Surat Ikramov, head of RRG, believes that more contact between human rights activists and law enforcement agencies may help to end torture in Uzbekistan.

“We don’t have an alternative police force or government, so the only solution that I can see to this problem is to sit down at the negotiating table,” he said.

Tolib Yakubov, general secretary of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, HRSU, disagrees. “While human rights activists are sitting round a table at the internal affairs ministry, people are being tortured in the basement of the same building. My colleagues have become involved in a dangerous game,” he said.

He insists that only a direct condemnation of torture by Islam Karimov, the country’s president, and an explicit order to the Uzbek police will bring these abuses to an end.

The UN report made a similar recommendation, but this has yet to be implemented, while the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, EBRD, has cut back assistance to Uzbekistan following the government’s failure to denounce torture, a requirement put forward in May last year.

Yakubov believes that for many thousands of rank and file police officers the reluctance of the Uzbek leader to publicly condemn torture equates to tacit approval and dismisses the meetings between MVD chiefs and human rights activists as a publicity stunt designed to appease the international community.

“Can we really talk about a dialogue when sophisticated torture remains the norm in the basements of Uzbekistan's police stations?" he said.

In August 2003, the Uzbek government published a national action plan to implement the recommendations made in the UN report and invited human rights activists, including HRSU, to become involved.

“Torture is not like agriculture or construction, it does not need a special plan to deal with it. It simply needs to be stopped by implementing Theo van Boven’s recommendations,” said Yakubov.

Mothers against Capital Punishment and Torture, another well-known Uzbek NGO led by Tamara Chikunova, supports Yakubov’s stance.

“Torture is a crime in Uzbekistan - it is absurd to negotiate this with the authorities,” said Chikunova, who dismisses the national action plan as a joke. One initiative set out in the plan is to begin humane treatment of convicts on death row by August 2005. “Does that mean that before August 2005 you can treat them inhumanely?” she asked.

Alison Gill, a Human Rights Watch representative in Uzbekistan, sees a number of serious flaws in the negotiating process, in particular the imbalance of power between activists from unregistered local NGOs and government departments.

“To have an equal dialogue these organisations should be registered. It is still too early to talk about the effectiveness of the dialogue - it needs time,” he said.

Human Rights Watch believes that torture remains a huge problem for Uzbekistan, even though a number of international experts supported the authorities assertion that Shelkovenko had hung himself.

“Finding that Shelkovenko’s death did not result from torture does not mean that there is no torture in Uzbekistan. Torture continues to be used and we continually receive new evidence of this,” said Gill.

International experts were invited to Uzbekistan by Freedom House to examine Shelkovenko’s body to determine the cause of death. They based their conclusions on an external examination without an autopsy nine days after his death, by which time, human rights activists say, the amount of formalin in the body may have masked evidence of torture.

According to his family, Shelkovenko was arrested on April 24 on suspicion of murder. Five days after his arrest, he complained to his sister that he was being starved, beaten and tortured into making a confession.

Lyudmila Bochkaryova, his mother, wrote to the Bostanlyk district prosecutor on April 30 and May 12, describing in detail how her son was being tortured in custody but her letters were ignored. On May 19 the family was told by the police that Andrei had committed suicide by hanging himself from a bed frame in a cell where three other prisoners were being held.

The following day, his relatives and human rights activists examined his body in the morgue. They found numerous bruises on his body, head and genitals but no marks around the neck indicating that he had been hanged.

Utkir Karimov, another parent who has a son in police custody, has little difficulty believing the Shelkovenko story. His son, 29-year-old businessman Bokhodyr Karimov was arrested on March 29, the same day as several bomb attacks the authorities attributed to an unknown Islamic organisation took place in Tashkent.

The entire Karimov family, including an elderly mother, two brothers with wives and five young children, were arrested in their home by special forces on suspicion of involvement in the bombings.

The women and children were held for more than 24 hours by the police, during which time they were not allowed to sleep, eat or go to the toilet. Bokhodyr was eventually charged with assisting the extremists.

“My son is being tortured. I found out that they poured boiling water on him and held a flame against his genitals. Now he is in the basement of MVD building and has been placed in the medical unit. Because of the beatings his legs have swollen so much that he can’t wear trousers. I can’t live knowing what they are doing to my son now,” said Karimov, wiping away tears, adding that now all he ever thinks about is how to stop them torturing his son more.