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Uzbekistan: New Sharipov Blow

American amnesty appeal for Sharipov turned down, as dissident confirms at first hand claims that he was tortured.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Ruslan Sharipov at meeting with visiting journalists in the prison camp director's ofice.
Photo by Galima Bukharbaeva

The Tashkent authorities this week rejected an appeal by the United States for the amnesty of Ruslan Sharipov, the Uzbek journalist and human rights activist imprisoned this year on what many observers believe were trumped up charges.

It came just days after Sharipov, in an exclusive interview with IWPR held in the presence of a senior prison official, confirmed at first hand claims that he had been tortured into confessing the crime.

Sharipov was given a five-and-a-half year prison sentence in August - later reduced to four - after being convicted of illegal homosexual acts. Many observers dismissed the trial as politically motivated, saying it was punishment for his criticism of the country's human rights record.

At a joint press conference with Uzbek officials on November 10 in Tashkent, Lorne Craner, aide to the US Secretary of State on issues of democracy, human rights and labour, appealed for Sharipov' s release, "We are certain that he should be amnestied."

It was the first time that the US - which has been criticised by local activists for not doing enough to support Sharipov - has raised the dissident's plight so publicly.

Craner said Washington did not trust the Sharipov verdict because it had reservations about the credibility of the Uzbek justice system.

But foreign minister Sadyk Safaev, speaking at the same press conference, quickly rejected the appeal, " It is clear that he had sexual relations with teenagers. The status of independent journalist does not give him the right to commit such crimes."

It's long been claimed that interior ministry men had beaten a confession out of Sharipov - and in an interview he gave to IWPR at the beginning of November at his prison in the village of Tavaksai, 50 kilometres from Tashkent, he confirmed the claims. He's previously only done so in letters smuggled out of the prison and through his lawyers.

"A gas mask was put on my head and the oxygen was cut off, in a basement of the Tashkent City Internal Affairs Department [CIAD]. They injected something into my veins, and told me that next time they would inject me with the AIDS virus," Sharipov told this reporter in the presence of the prison chief, Mirmahmud Mirazimov.

"They forced me to write a suicide note. They pointed to weights and ropes and said that they were instruments of torture. They brought someone to me and told me to have sex with him, he started undressing, but then the head of the anti-terrorist department of the CIAD came into the room and stopped him. It was a specially arranged performance, but it was not the only one."

Sharipov said that the head of the interior ministry's anti-terrorist department, Lutfullo Abdullaev, had told him, "You won't be able to do anything, it would be better to admit your guilt and stop writing about Uzbekistan."

The Uzbek authorities have consistently denied allegations that torture is used systematically to extract confessions.

In the interview, the first since his arrest, the dissident, who appeared very pale and drawn, said that conditions in the jail were reasonable and that he had not been maltreated since his arrival.

He said that he had been very worried about being transferred to the jail as he had no idea how the other inmates would react. Fortunately, he went on, they had been following his case, as they could listen to Radio Liberty and the BBC, and were generally sympathetic - but some still had their suspicions about him.

"In the first week, I had to talk about my case, and explain to everyone that the charges against me were fabricated. After that, people's attitudes improved," he said.

Unlike other prisoners, Sharipov said he is not expected to work because of his poor health and is able to spend much of his time in the jail's library.

"I have always liked poetry, so I spend most of my time reading. I am treated well here - only the food is not very good," he said.

While he had few complaints about his present conditions, he expressed fears that his torturers might get to him at any time. He said this left him feeling "deeply depressed and completely hopeless".

At the Tashkent press conference, Safaev said that given the international attention to the case, the authorities would keep an eye on Sharipov's conditions - which, some observers believe, might be an indication that the regime will ensure that he is not abused.

Speaking about a possible pardon, coinciding with the annual amnesty on Constitution Day in December, Sharipov seemed extremely pessimistic, "The court and investigation did everything to put me in jail despite the complete lack of evidence - I don't believe in justice anymore."

He believes that his only hope is for the international community to put more pressure on Uzbekistan to improve its human rights record, and urged the US specifically to "re-examine its policy of supporting the country".

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR's Uzbekistan country director.