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Uzbekistan: Widespread Torture Uncovered

United Nations finds evidence of systematic use of violence and intimidation in Uzbek jails.
By Olga Borisova

A new UN report is expected to reveal the routine use of torture on prisoners, discrediting government attempts to paint a rosy picture of human rights in the country.


UN official, Teo van Boven, completed a two-week investigation into alleged torture in the republic's prisons on December 6, and his report is to be published by the UN Human Rights Commission in March.


Van Boven, however, was not allowed to visit several prisons well known for their harsh treatment of prisoners - in spite of an announced schedule and assurances from the government that he could roam at will.


Tashkent refused to allow such an investigation to take place for more than three years, but changed its mind following a visit from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in October.


Uzbek human rights activists believe van Boven's visit was one of a series of choreographed events set up by the government to deflect attention from the true state of affairs in the former Soviet republic.


They cite two recent show trials in Tashkent - where police officials were accused of causing the deaths of a couple of suspects during interrogation - as evidence that the authorities are simply trying to appease the international community.


Van Boven initially planned visits to institutions in Tashkent, the Fergana valley, the cities of Urgench, Navoi and Karshi, and a prison near the Karakalpak village of Jaslyk, which is infamous as a detention centre for political and religious prisoners.


After meetings with detainees, torture victims and their relatives, human rights activists, prison staff and workers in penal colonies, van Boven said he was now convinced that torture remained widespread in Uzbekistan - and that its use was systemic.


"Confessions are gained by use of torture and other forms of callous treatment, and are then used as evidence of guilt at trials which deliver harsh sentences - including the death penalty," he said.


He came to these conclusions in spite of a number of obstacles being placed in his way - such as the ban on his visit to the National Security investigative jail in Tashkent, which van Boven described as the work of a high-ranking official.


Officials blamed "bad weather" for cutting short the UN official's visit to Jaslyk and the cancellation of his trip to the Navoi and Karshi prisons, where human rights organisations believe prisoners experience the harshest and most sadistic tortures.


Matilda Bogner, of Human Rights Watch in Uzbekistan, alleged that the authorities most probably took active measures to conceal the real state of torture in the country's prisons.


The organisation told IWPR, it had learned that in several colonies - mainly where prisoners of conscience are held - inmates were forbidden to talk to the UN visitor about their conditions.


Human Rights Watch also claimed that some prisoners had been moved to other institutions before van Boven's arrival.


In spite of these apparent obstructions, the UN official believes that he has obtained objective and detailed information on the use of torture in Uzbekistan. Included among the practices he uncovered was the use of electric-shock treatment, extended water immersion, kicking, rape, the tearing of fingernails, injection of drugs and the physical and mental persecution of prisoners' relatives.


Although Tashkent signed a UN convention against torture in 1995, local and international human rights organisations regularly receive evidence of its routine use by police.


The convention obliges the Uzbek government to monitor cases of torture, but local human rights activists claim this process is hindered by the unwillingness of victims to speak out - mainly because they fear revenge at the hands of the police.


And as victims rarely gain access to family members, lawyers or doctors after their arrest, there are no telltale photographs or reports to support their complaints.


Uzbek human rights activists hope the publication of the UN report will force the authorities to start following the recommendations it contains.


"I've waited for three years for this (UN) visit," said Tamara Chikunova, from the organisation Mothers against the Death Penalty and Torture. "I hope it will change our absurd law-enforcement and justice system, where confessions by the accused are accepted as evidence in court."


Olga Borisova is an independent journalist in Uzbekistan


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