A Tashkent court handed out the sentences on January 30 to the four officers - police Majors Nuriddin Babaev and Shavkat Rakhmanberdiev, Captain Mukhiddin Nabilov and Lieutenant Yashin Gafurov. All were assigned to Tashkent's Sabir Rakhimov District Department of Internal Affairs. At an October 23 preliminary hearing, the four officers entered not guilty pleas to charges of murder and torture.
During closing arguments January 21, the state's prosecuting attorney, Damir Kurbanov, called for two of the police officers to be found guilty of murder. However, the presiding judge convicted all four policemen on a lesser charge under article 104 of the Uzbek Criminal Code for "inflicting bodily harm that cased death." Some human rights observers said that the conviction on the lesser charge could enable the four police officers to qualify for release under the August 2001 amnesty declared by Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
The charges related to an October 16 incident, in which Ravshan Haitov, 32, died, and his 27-year-old brother, Rasul, was brutally beaten within hours of being taken into custody at the Sobir Rakhimov district police station. The two had been detained on suspicion of being affiliated with the outlawed Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a religious Islamic organization that advocates the non-violent ouster of Karimov's government and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia. Hizb-ut-Tahrir has been a chief target of Karimov's relentless crackdown on non-state-sanctioned Islamic religious activity in Uzbekistan [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives].
On October 17, Ravshan Haitov's body was returned to his family. According to family members, his body was bruised and had several bones broken, though police reports claimed that the official cause of death was a heart attack. In their testimony, the defendants claimed that the Haitov brothers beat themselves, trying to throw themselves out windows and down stairs, shouting "Allah Akbar." The defendants also claimed that that they resorted to force to prevent the two brothers from self-immolation and an escape attempt.
Rasul Haitov, who survived the detention and beatings and is still recovering from his injuries, testified January 10: "They brought us into the building of the regional police station, took us to different rooms and immediately started beating me claiming that they knew I was a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir."
He denied to the police that he had any associations with Hizb-ut-Tahrir. But "the beatings turned into tortures. They were lifting me up, holding my legs and arms, and then beating me against the floor. They put my head in a plastic bag so I could not breathe." Rasul Haitov also said that the last time he saw his brother, Ravshan was lying in a pool of blood and handcuffed on the floor. "By that time, he was probably already dead," Rasul said.
Khikmat Uktamov, Deputy Chief of the Sabir Rakhimov District Department of Internal Affairs, testified that there was nothing criminal in his subordinates' actions, confirming the defendants' claims that Ravshan Haitov fell from the third floor staircase, in an attempt to escape, thereby breaking six ribs and suffocating to death. In his testimony, he cited the international efforts against Islamic fundamentalist terrorism since the September 11 terrorist attacks as a reason for the policemen's actions. Uktamov also portrayed the Haitov brothers as "enemies of the state."
The convictions were welcomed by the US-based group Human Rights Watch and by local human rights organizations as 'a good first step.'
"Cases against the [Hizb-ut-Tahrir] party members are often fabricated and faked or received through tortures, it is the first time that law enforcement agents are tried for killing a person," said Mikhail Ardzinov, chairman of the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan.
"But there are many other police and security officers in Uzbekistan whose actions need the same kind of scrutiny," said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. According to human rights groups, at least 15 people have died in Uzbek custody due to torture in the past three years.
Notable cases during the past year include those of human rights defender Shovrik Ruzimuradov, who also died in police custody under highly suspicious circumstances that suggested torture in July 2001, and the case of the well-known writer and journalist Emin Usman, who also died in police custody in February 2001.
"President Karimov should use the court ruling as an opportunity to articulate a new policy of bringing torturers to justice," said Andersen in a press release. "He should deliver the message to law enforcement - and the entire country - that torture and extrajudicial execution are impermissible and will be punished."
Family members insisted that the Haitov brothers had no ties with Hizb-ut-Tahrir. According to some local human rights observers, there are an estimated 7,000 independent Muslims imprisoned in Uzbekistan because of their religious beliefs and activities. Roughly 4,000 of that total are reportedly Hizb-ut-Tahrir supporters.
Uzbek authorities say Islamic radicals support terrorist activities and that the crackdown against them is needed to maintain stability in the country. Mass arrests and convictions of Hizb-ut-Tahrir members began in 1999. In response, the movement has published and distributed flyers in the country's crowded bazaars containing harsh criticism of President Karimov's policies on religion.
The trial comes at a time when Uzbekistan's democratization and human rights record is under scrutiny. Several high-profile US delegations have visited Tashkent in recent weeks [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Some US congressional leaders have sought to link the strengthening of US-Uzbek military cooperation with improvements in Tashkent's troubled human rights record.
Though the court case was open to international organizations, embassies, human rights activists and journalists from international news agencies, Ardzinov noted the lack of Uzbek state mass media covering the case to inform Uzbek citizens.
"We hope that this [court ruling] is the genuine beginning of bringing some order and fairness into the law enforcement agencies," Ardzinov said. "Hopefully, it is not a merely PR or show-off case [for the international community]."
The article was written by Josh Machleder
with additional reporting by Bonu Usmanova, the pseudonym
of an Uzbek journalist.