A year after ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan claimed over 400 lives, authorities continue a campaign of torture and injustice against minority ethnic Uzbeks, say two international watchdogs marking the one-year anniversary of the bloodletting. Bishkek’s failure to address the discrimination could rekindle violence, warn Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
“The profoundly flawed investigations and trials, mainly affecting the ethnic Uzbek minority, undermine efforts to promote reconciliation and fuel tensions that might one day lead to renewed violence,” says Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its report, Distorted Justice, released June 8. The Kyrgyz authorities’ failure to investigate widespread allegations of torture and abuse in the justice system is “astonishing,” while “[p]erpetrators of torture and ill-treatment have enjoyed virtual impunity for their crimes.”
President Roza Otunbayeva has acknowledged that Uzbeks have been subjected to police harassment and unfair prosecution, but most government officials reject claims of anti-Uzbek bias. Authorities and law enforcement officials in southern Kyrgyzstan are overwhelmingly ethnic Kyrgyz, leading many to perceive themselves as direct participants in the conflict, rather than impartial arbitrators. According to official figures, 105 of the dead were ethnic Kyrgyz, including a number of police officials.
“While most victims of the June violence were ethnic Uzbek, most detainees -- almost 85 percent -- were also ethnic Uzbek, ” says HRW.
Both HRW and Amnesty found that torture is routinely applied to Uzbek suspects and, given the rising Kyrgyz nationalist rhetoric ahead of presidential elections this fall, officials are unwilling to address the problem. Methods include beatings, suffocation with plastic bags and strangulations, being burned with cigarettes or hot nails, and electric shocks to the genitals. “In most cases, the main purpose was to obtain confessions to solve specific crimes, but ethnic hatred seemed to have played a significant role as well,” HRW found.
Kyrgyzstan is a signatory to multiple international treaties banning torture, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. Yet the Prosecutor General shows an unwillingness to investigate the allegations, opening only one probe into abuse charges, which was later suspended, HRW alleges. In many cases, prosecutors and police have “pressured defendants to withdraw torture complaints.”
Many Uzbeks have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms based on confessions extracted during torture. “The prosecutorial authorities failed to investigate torture even in the one case in which a judge acquitted a defendant because his confession was extracted under torture.”
The reports are unlikely to be warmly received in Kyrgyzstan, where officials and investigators have repeatedly blamed ethnic Uzbeks for inciting the violence, helping stoke the nationalism. In response to Otunbayeva’s June 2 remark recognizing bias against Uzbeks in the judicial system, Interior Minister Zarylbek Rysaliev said 90 percent of such claims were “rumors.”
“It is difficult to avoid the impression that throughout the investigations, prosecutions and trials, appeasing the ethnic Kyrgyz majority eclipsed the need for justice and accountability. It is also difficult to avoid the impression that lack of effective investigations has made it easier to paint the ethnic Uzbeks as solely responsible for the June violence, and has given license to law enforcement and security bodies to target them for arbitrary arrest and ill-treatment,” HRW wrote.
Last month, an international investigation concluded that the Kyrgyz military played a role in the violence June 10-14, 2010, and, if proven in a court of law, some attacks on civilians could constitute crimes against humanity. Parliament rejected the report, claimed the author was biased in favor of ethic Uzbeks, and banned him from returning to the country. Responding to accusations that Uzbeks have been targeted disproportionately, the Prosecutor General’s office wrote to HRW that “it was mostly ethnic Uzbeks who destroyed and ransacked government buildings, or attempted murder, to the point where they killed a law enforcement official,” and blamed Uzbeks for “provoking the inter-ethnic conflict.”
That attitude, and officials’ failure to uphold the rule of law, contributes to ongoing tensions between ethnic groups, Amnesty International Europe and Central Asia Director Nicola Duckworth said in a statement. Amnesty also found widespread use of torture against Uzbek suspects to extract confessions later used as evidence in court. “The failure to bring to justice those behind the violence could provide fertile soil for the seeds of future turmoil and future human rights violations,” Duckworth said.