The independent news site fergananews.com has released sensational videos made in 2005 purporting to be the confessions of Aleksandr Rakhmanov, a former agent of Uzbekistan's secret police said to have participated in death squads.
The editors of fergananews.com say they received the videos back in 2006, but were concerned that publishing them would lead to retaliation against Rakhamanov. When the editors received word recently that he had died, they decided to show the videos. The editors are hoping someone might help identify him and confirm the stories.
In the video series, titled "Confessions of a Henchman," Rakhmanov, who also went by the nickname "Uncle Shuryan," describes how, as a prison inmate, he was allegedly recruited to a special team of agents created in the 1980s to break prisoners to get them to confess, or, if necessary, kill them. According to Rakhmanov, the operation was organized by Rifkat Gubaydullin, a police agent, and Zakir Almatov, before he was made Interior Minister of Uzbekistan. Rakhmanov says he made his confession because his own role in taking part in the torture and killing of hundreds of people was beginning to weight on his conscience.
In January 2006, the Almaty newspaper Megapolis published an article about the Rakhmanov's claims in 2006, and material can be found at zakon.kz.
Employees of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also reportedly filmed Rakhmanov telling his story.
In the sensational videos, Rakhmanov, a slight man with a short haircut and gravelly voice, 42 at the time, quietly tells his horror stories, sometimes barely audible on camera, punctuating his accounts with drags on his cigarette. Sometimes he waves his hands to show how a prisoner was strung up or beaten. In his introduction, Rakhmanov describes how first, the authorities created the death squad to deal with ordinary criminals, and put an end to street crime, and then turned to religious believers outside of state control, whom they collectively called "Wahabbis."
A person caught in agitation or revolt would be detained under various pretexts, locked in a cell to identify him, and then released under a pledge not to leave town. When he left the police station and headed home, our death squad would fall on him, kill him, and then haul the body away to a previously prepared place and cover it with lime. The dry lime, water and earth would turn the corpse into an unrecognizable mass. Those were the democratic methods. After that, the "object" was destroyed, a policeman would come to the relatives and ask where the person was who had been released on the pledge not to leave town? The relatievs would say, "We don't know. He hasn't returned home yet."
In another video, Rakhmanov describes how plastic bags were put over prisoners' heads to suffocate them, with rubber sometimes set on fire to force them to inhale acrid smoke. Prisoners were beaten and raped, deprived of sleep, and not permitted to go to the toilet. Rakhmanov describes how, when one prisoner was repeatedly beaten and refused to confess again and again, the agents set his beard and body hair on fire with cigarette lighters to get him to crack. He did.
Rakhmanov said that when prisoners were killed, the bodies were buried in ditches and covered with lime, and then later, when workers laid pipes, it would be impossible to find the victims. The former agent said that heroin was also freely available for sale in Tashkent prison and other prisons.
The former agent claimed he had photographs, maps of the burial sites, testimonies from other agents, receipts from payments, and records of interrogations, and had planned to release them. But then he disappeared.
What is known is that Zakir Almatov was fired from his position and sent into retirement in January 2005 by President Islam Karimov, reportedly due to a severe illness, but possibly because in fact he was involved in the extra-judicial killings as Rakhmanov claimed. Rakhmanov, with his revelatory stories, may have been a pawn in a turf war between the National Security Service (SNB) and the Interior Ministry. Or may have been an actual SNB agent with a legend and a fake passport, sent to compromise the Interior Ministry, says fergananews.com.
Judging from the numerous comments on the fergananews.com articles, readers have been divided on how to interpret the story, wondering if the entire thing is a concoction, or if in fact Rakhmanov even ever existed. Others, like political analyst Tashpulat Yuldashev, say they find the story tracks other reports they have heard about such a death squad and how it operated, says uznews.net.
Since Rakhmanov waved his passport in front of the camera as proof of his story at one point in the video, fergananews.com decided to try to see if they could make out his address,. They then send a reporter to the apartment complex. Neighbors confirmed that in fact, a man by the name of Rakhmanov had lived at that address for a number of years, then disappeared. They also said he had been imprisoned a number of times, the last time for unlawful possession of a weapon.
The Russian journalist Orhan Jemal wrote about Rakhmanov in Russian Newsweek in March 2010, saying that he decided to tell the story of how he was recruited to the death squad after he had an altercation with his bosses and was afraid he might be the next victim. He described how people were tortured, and hanged or subjected to drug overdoses.
It's difficult to verify this story under the present conditions in Uzbekistan, where both independent journalists and human rights defenders are heavily pressured or even jailed. As Yuldashev points out, it is not likely the truth about any such death squads will ever come out until after President Islam Karimov is gone. Human rights lawyers report that sometimes they cannot find their clients in the prison system, and families often don't hear from their relatives after they are imprisoned. While the human rights situation is deplorable in Uzbekistan, and there are indeed suspicious deaths in detention and disappearances, human rights groups have not claimed that hundreds of people have been murdered by death squads, however.