After almost a quarter of century, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov has decided it is time to shake up the police force.
The force, he said on December 5 during a speech to mark Independence Day, lacks proper regulation and is as a consequence rife with shoddy practices.
“It is not unusual to come across cases of nonobservance and crude violations of legal norms and provisions and principles of justice, as well as sloppy attitudes among law enforcement and regulatory authorities toward their duties. This is a reality and it is impossible not to notice it,” Karimov said, speaking 24 years after Uzbekistan’s Interior Ministry was formed.
Karimov said he was moved to criticism by the flood of public complaints brought to his attention.
“Over the first nine months of this years, 500 complaints have come in from citizens about the law enforcement officials and regulatory authorities,” he said. “Every fifth complaint concerned the unlawful actions of police officers.”
Karimov was eager to convey the impression that the feedback process is working well, however, and said that 96 percent of complaints registered over the phone had been resolved satisfactorily.
“What do these data tell us? They tell us that complainants had every right to be unhappy with the decisions taken by state bodies,” Karimov said.
The claims may cause jaws to drop even among a rights advocacy community already used to egregious whitewashing.
A recent United Nations Human Rights Committee report on Uzbekistan notes that while torture, for example, remains commonplace throughout the criminal justice system, recourse is rarely an option.
“Persons complaining of torture are subjected to reprisals and family members are often intimidated and threatened to ensure that complaints are retracted,” the report said. “The rate of prosecution is very low and impunity is prevalent.”
International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), a Brussels-based NGO, noted in June that “there is no independent complaints mechanism in Uzbekistan responsible for the examination of complaints of torture.”
Far from addressing the complaints, prosecutors typically forward them to the departments directly accused of the misdeeds.
“The complaint is then examined and most often the conclusion is that the allegations could not be substantiated and no criminal proceedings are initiated,” IPHR.
Of course, much of those torture allegations concern the National Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB, which Karimov did not touch upon.
Then again, it was also evident that Karimov was not alluding to torture at all, and instead referred to unspecified “procedural violations” by investigators and unsanctioned inspections of businesses.
Karimov said that law enforcement authorities ought to realize that their main goal is to “protect the rights and interests of citizen, to ensure the primacy of the law, and to unconditionally uphold legislative acts and norms.”
Offering some figures, Karimov said that 426 complaints had been filed against prosecutors’ offices in the first nine months of 2015, leading to the disciplining and firing of several dozen employees.
Remedying the situation will require a change not just to laws, but also mentalities, the president said.
“Our choice to pursue a democratic path of development demands that we, first of all, change the consciousness and thinking of our people, to reject outdated and stereotypical attitudes toward a totalitarian system not just in words, but also in deed, in our daily lives,” he said.
The speech appears to finally augur the adoption of a purpose-built law on the police (if not necessarily the security services), whose absence was included in a list of recommendations by a joint group of rights organizations address to the United Nations.
“The rights and responsibilities of law enforcement officials are described in the internal instructions and regulations of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and are not made widely available to the general public,” IPHR said.
A law along those lines was devised by deputies and security official by the end of 2012 following earlier calls by Karimov, but somehow got lost in its iteration through the legislative system.
As a result, Uzbekistan’s police still operate under guidelines drawn up in 1991. No rules exist laying down when force by live ammunition or other means can be adopted, which leaves police ostensibly free to operate according to their own judgement.
Since Karimov has demanded a law on the police before and still been left wanting five years later, there should be no certainty things will be any different this time around.
Still, his allusions to the plight of harassed businessmen comes against the backdrop of an economic situation that even Uzbekistan’s suspiciously upbeat official statisticians admit is less than perfect.
If reports of torture cannot spur reforms, a sputtering economy may well help fix at least some problems.