I met 25-year-old Akram Rustamov by chance when I was researching a story on the hardships Central Asian migrants face in Moscow, where millions work the most menial jobs.
He was facing serious charges at home in Uzbekistan.
Uzbek prosecutors accuse Akram of recruiting for the “Islamic Movement of Turkestan” (some regional experts believe the group is an invention of the Uzbek secret police), of calling for jihad at home, and of seeking militant training in Syria.
Uzbekistan has used trumped-up terrorism charges for years to jail critics and thousands of others, mostly peaceful Muslims, rights groups say. The regime of Islam Karimov uses the arrests and closed trials to perpetuate fear and legitimize its authoritarian rule both at home and abroad. The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is the latest excuse.
Activist Bahrom Hamroev at Memorial, a leading Russian human rights organization calls the charges against Akram “fabricated and falsified.”
Akram asked me to film his story. He was desperate to prove his innocence.
Spending time with Uzbeks in Moscow, I quickly came to see that many live in fear of something far worse than the nationalist Russian gangs or shady employers I had set out to document.
When one of Akram’s friends – a bulky, confident guy I will call Ahmed – heard us discussing theories that the Karimov regime was behind bombings in Tashkent in 1999, he panicked. If anyone found out, he said, he would be locked up immediately. Ahmed and another friend facing charges similar to Akram’s are so afraid that they have stopped going to work, fearing abduction by Uzbek security services operating in Moscow.
Torture is “a defining feature” of Uzbekistan’s criminal justice system, routinely employed by the security forces not only to extract confessions but also to extort bribes, a new report by an international human rights watchdog finds.
Torture “is central to how the Uzbekistani authorities deal with dissent, combat security threats and maintain their grip on power,” says the study by Amnesty International, published on April 15.
The watchdog accuses the international community of turning a “blind eye” to “endemic” torture in order to protect its strategic interests with a “perceived geo-strategic ally.” (Tashkent has supported the “war on terror” and the US-led coalition in neighboring Afghanistan.)
“The attitude of Uzbekistan’s international partners to the routine use of torture appears at best ambivalent, and at worst silent to the point of complicity,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia director, said in a statement. “As long as Uzbekistan uses torture-tainted evidence in court, it will remain a torture-tainted ally.”
The report, based on over 60 interviews with victims and relatives, details a range of gruesome torture methods, from beatings; asphyxiation; rape; and sexual assault to psychological torment; food, water, and sleep deprivation; exposure to extreme temperatures; and electric shocks.
“They beat me everywhere, on my head, kidneys…When I lost consciousness they would throw water on me to wake me up and beat me again,” one victim recalled. “They beat me bloody. The first time I came to they must have suspended me from above because I couldn’t bend. The second time I came to they put me on a chair and put a cellophane bag on my head, suffocated me and beat me and I lost consciousness.”
Azerbaijan’s status in a prominent international transparency organization has been downgraded. Representatives of the group cited Baku’s ongoing crackdown on individual liberties as the reason for the demotion.
Azerbaijan had been a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, or EITI, since 2003. The organization comprises companies, governments and civil-society groups and is dedicated to promoting greater transparency about state revenues earned from energy extraction and mining operations. Also inherent in membership is a commitment by member states to uphold basic liberties, in particular freedom of the press and broad access to information.
On April 14, EITI’s board deemed Azerbaijan was falling short in fulfilling the group’s obligations and downgraded the country from full member to candidate. To have its membership restored, Baku needs to “ensure that civil society in Azerbaijan can participate in the EITI in a meaningful way,” the Norway-based group’s chairperson, Clare Short, said.
Azerbaijan’s troubles with the EITI date back to 2013, when some organization representatives expressed concern about a crackdown on government critics, and launched a probe into the country’s commitment to the transparency standard.
UPDATE, March 28: American journalist Umar Farooq says he has been freed and is leaving Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, lawyers for human rights watchdog Bir Duino have filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office for the raids on their office and several top employees’ homes.
The arrest of an American journalist on extremism charges and the subsequent raid of a prominent human rights organization, both in southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest city, Osh, suggest that Kyrgyz authorities are still cagey about independent inquiry in a region associated with growing adherence to Islam and festering inter-ethnic tensions.
Kyrgyzstan has styled itself as a bastion of democracy in an authoritarian region, but rights activists see looming Russian-style legislation that would brand NGOs “foreign agents” as impending death for the country’s once-vibrant civil society.
Umar Farooq was researching the recent arrest of a popular cleric accused of supporting Syrian radicals, said a local journalist who had met with him shortly after he arrived in Kyrgyzstan a few weeks ago. On his webpage, Farooq identifies himself as a journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor and others.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) released a statement late March 27 confirming Farooq’s March 25 arrest, and claiming he had been found with documents and video materials of a "religious extremist and terrorist character."
A US Embassy spokeswoman told EurasiaNet.org that American officials had been in touch with Farooq and were providing consular support.
Azerbaijan’s most prominent investigative reporter, Khadija Ismayilova remains in extended pre-trial detention, awaiting her day in court to face a variety of criminal charges. Meanwhile, Ismayilova’s fellow reporters at the Azeri service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are experiencing a rising level of harassment.
Authorities seem intent on turning the screws slowly on Ismayilova. On February 23, following a closed-door trial, she was found guilty of libel and fined the equivalent of $2,400. Ismayilova was originally arrested on December 5 on charges of incitement of suicide. She denies all charges. Media freedom monitors consider the criminal case against her to be politically motivated.
In a recently published letter to The Washington Post, Ismayilova says she has no access to news and her family members are not allowed to visit her. “My cellmates are also my new audience, that most precious thing that every journalist must have, even a journalist whom the government is trying to silence,” Ismayilova wrote.
These days, Azerbaijani authorities are paying more attention to others with an RFE/RL affiliation. For example, Babek Bakirov, RFE/RL’s former Baku bureau chief, was not allowed to board an international flight on February 23, the same day when Ismayilova’s libel decision was announced. The RFE/RL bureau also revealed that one of its contributors was questioned by prosecutors. His name was not disclosed for safety concerns.
Tajikistan has sent an award-winning human rights lawyer to prison on charges his supporters say are meant as a warning to critics of the authoritarian regime.
A court in Dushanbe sentenced Shukhrat Kudratov to nine years in a penal colony for bribery and fraud on January 13, Asia-Plus reported.
Kudratov’s real crime, it appears, was defending opposition activist Zaid Saidov in 2013. That year, Saidov, a local businessman and former official, was swiftly arrested after starting a political party and charged with, among other things, polygamy. He received 26 years in prison. The politician’s supporters said they had received death threats.
Last year, another one of Saidov’s lawyers, Fakhriddin Zokirov, was arrested on forgery charges. He was released after eight months and promised he would no longer defend Saidov.
The cases against the lawyers are widely seen as politically motivated. Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch called Kudratov's jailing "a serious setback for the freedom of expression and the independent legal profession in Tajikistan."
Kazakhstan does not persecute political opponents or attack freedom of expression, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has avowed, fending off awkward questions from journalists during a December 5 visit to Astana by his French counterpart, François Hollande.
“There are no censorship questions here, no political persecutions,” Nazarbayev said in remarks quoted by Vlast.kz, calling on critics to “abandon stereotypes here and look with new, open eyes.”
Nazarbayev was speaking the same day that two high-profile cases which raise questions about political liberties and freedom of speech reached the courts.
In one, the Adam Bol magazine – which was one of the last remaining independent media outlets in Kazakhstan – is fighting closure on the grounds that it allegedly called for war in its coverage of the Ukraine conflict. The case was adjourned until December 22.
The magazine was closed down on November 20 over an interview in which opposition activist Aydos Sadykov pledged to urge citizens of Kazakhstan to take up arms to fight pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. The closure was condemned by OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic as “drastic and disproportionate,” and by Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog, as the “orchestrated throttling” of an opposition-minded outlet.
For 12 years, Tatyana Shikmuradova has wondered if her husband is alive or dead. Authorities in her country, Turkmenistan, have answered none of her queries.
Her husband, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikmuradov, was one of dozens arrested, charged, sentenced and jailed within days of a purported assassination attempt on former Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov on November 25, 2002. The New York Times characterized the show trials aired on Turkmenistan’s state-run television at the time as “the most chilling public witch hunt since Stalin.”
At his trial, Shikmuradov – whom the police claimed to have “picked up with drugs in his pockets” – admitted to being an “addict” and a “thug.” Sentenced to 25 years, Shikmuradov’s prison term was increased to life the day after his trial. His sentincing was clearly political, activists say.
“I need to know where my husband is,” Tatyana Shikmuradova pleads in a new video released by Human Rights Watch to mark the anniversary. “For the past 12 years now I haven’t been able to get any information.”
The video is part of the Prove They Are Alive campaign, which demands Turkmenistan provide proof of life of the missing, or admit they are dead. From Human Rights Watch’s statement:
Azerbaijan wrapped up its chairmanship on November 13 of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, one of the continent’s leading human rights organizations. Civil society activists used the occasion to lob verbal brickbats at Baku, assailing the Azerbaijani government for accelerating a domestic crackdown on dissent during its tenure at the helm in Strasbourg.
Azerbaijan took over as chair of the Committee of Ministers, the Council of Europe’s executive arm and decision-making body, back in May. Over the course of its six-month term, authorities in Baku bullied and imprisoned scores of local journalists and rights advocates, jailing some of the country’s most prominent civil society figures, including Leyla and Arif Yunus, on what watchdog groups contend are trumped-up, politically motivated charges.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov attended a ceremony in Strasbourg on November 13 marking the transfer of the chairmanship from Azerbaijan to Belgium. He also presented an assessment of Azerbaijan’s performance as the committee chair. A document posted on the Council of Europe’s website, titled “Stocktaking of the Azerbaijani Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe,” said that “Azerbaijan deployed considerable efforts in furthering the objectives of the Council of Europe around its three key pillars – human rights, rule of law and democracy.”
The 19th-century Kazakh and Russian cultural icons depicted enjoying a kiss on a poster may be long dead. But that has not stopped a court in Kazakhstan awarding massive damages to a group of living people who claim the image of two men kissing has hurt their feelings.
On October 28, a court in Almaty ordered the advertising agency that designed the poster – which shows Kazakh composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbayuly and Russian poet Alexander Pushkin kissing – to pay 34 million tenge ($188,000) to a group of 34 music students and teachers whose only tenuous connection to the image is that they study and work at the Kurmangazy Kazakh National Conservatory, Tengri News reports.
The ruling awarding each plantiff a million tenge is “unfair,” said Dariya Khamitzhanova, director of the Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan agency, which designed the poster. “This 34 million will ruin our company.” She pledged to appeal, but meanwhile the court has frozen the agency’s assets.
The controversial poster – advertising an Almaty gay club at the intersection of Kurmangazy and Pushkin streets and inspired by a famous image of the leaders of East Germany and the Soviet Union kissing in 1979 – was designed for an advertising competition in August and was never intended for showing in the public domain.
However, after the picture started doing the rounds on social media a public outcry ensued and three separate lawsuits were launched against the agency, which has repeatedly apologized for any offense caused.