As Gulnara Karimova, the embattled daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman President Islam Karimov, stares the prospect of a jail term in the face, a new report by an international human rights watchdog offers a chilling peak at life behind bars in her father’s authoritarian state.
The report, released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on September 26, details the cases of 34 detainees and ten former detainees whom the watchdog views as political prisoners, jailed on trumped-up charges ranging from plotting to overthrow Karimov to corruption, illegal religious activity, and human trafficking.
These cases “shed light on larger trends of political repression in Uzbekistan and on the government’s attempt to suppress a wide range of independent activity that occurs beyond strict state control,” the watchdog said in the 121-page report, entitled Until the Very End: Politically Motivated Imprisonment in Uzbekistan.
The detainees profiled include human rights campaigners, political activists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and witnesses to the shooting of protesters in Andijan in 2005.
Tashkent “appears to have a policy of using imprisonment to target virtually anyone engaged in activities outside very tight state controls,” Steve Swerdlow of HRW, the report’s author, told EurasiaNet.org.
Like other detainees inside Uzbekistan’s notoriously harsh jails, political prisoners are held in tough conditions and suffer “a wide range of human rights abuses,” the research found, with “credible allegations of torture or ill-treatment” made in 29 of the case studies.
A man in northern Kazakhstan who was the victim of police torture has won a seven-year legal battle for damages, after a court upheld a ruling that he is entitled to financial compensation for his injuries.
The ruling was handed down by an appeals court in Kostanay on January 23, local newspaper Nasha Gazeta reported. Police must now pay some $13,000 in compensation to 44-year-old Aleksandr Gerasimov for injuries they inflicted by beating him up and suffocating him with a plastic bag in police detention to extract a confession in 2007. Gerasimov was arrested after going to a police precinct looking for his stepson, who had been rounded up during a murder investigation.
The court upheld a lower court ruling issued in November which came after Gerasimov, supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative and the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, won his case at the UN Committee Against Torture in 2012, the first ever brought from Central Asia. [Editor’s note: The Open Society Justice Initiative and EurasiaNet.org are separate entities operating under the auspices of the Open Society Foundations.]
“This ruling is an important step in redressing unjust actions from which victims of the most terrible violations of human rights such as torture continue to suffer,” Roza Akylbekova, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, said in remarks quoted by Nasha Gazeta.
Torture and inhumane methods of confinement are rife in Kazakhstan, global human rights watchdog Amnesty International alleged in a new report published on July 11.
The report, “Old Habits: The routine use of torture and other ill treatment in Kazakhstan,” accused Astana of breaking its “bold promise” to the United Nations in 2010 that it “would not rest until all vestiges of torture had been fully and totally eliminated.”
“In 2013, the security forces in Kazakhstan still enjoy impunity for human rights violations,” Amnesty said.
The report singled out fatal unrest in the western oil town of Zhanaozen in 2011, pointing to a “lack of effective investigation and prosecution into the use of excessive and lethal force […] as well as the torture and other ill-treatment” of protestors detained over the violence.
Fifteen civilians died in clashes with security forces in Zhanaozen after a protracted oil strike spiraled out of control. Allegations of torture by detained protestors – who said they had suffered beatings, suffocation, and sexual abuse – were dismissed by investigators and 37 civilians were convicted of unrest-related crimes. Some were amnestied or given suspended sentences; 10 remain in jail, as does opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov (alleged to have fomented the unrest) and six police officers jailed over the demonstrators’ deaths.
Security services across the former Soviet Union are increasingly collaborating to send Central Asian nationals – often critics and others with legitimate asylum requests – home to countries where they face a real risk of torture and abuse, according to a new report by London-based Amnesty International.
In the July 3 report, "Return to torture: Extradition, forcible returns and removals to Central Asia," the watchdog exposed the ease with which Central Asian states secure the return of their citizens from other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a post-Soviet club. Few CIS nations wish to damage relations by refusing extradition requests, the report says. Moreover, perceived mutual interests in fighting terrorism come long before human rights in this region, even though the threat is often exaggerated.
“Twenty years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, old collegiate ties, common institutional cultures and the shared perception across the region of the threat from Islamist extremist groups bind together the successor institutions to the Soviet KGB,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Program Director, said in a press release. “These renditions would not be possible without the complicity of public officials in the judicial and law enforcement structures. Nor would they be possible without CIS states willfully disregarding the absolute ban on torture and their obligation not to return people to countries where they may be at risk of torture.”
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, two countries where torture is reportedly rampant, are making the most requests.
The International Committee of the Red Cross will no longer try to visit prisoners in Uzbekistan because authorities are not allowing ICRC officials private access as promised, the organization said on April 12.
Uzbekistan has one of the world’s worst human rights records; torture and incommunicado detention are considered common. The Geneva-based ICRC suspended visits, which have been held sporadically since 2001, last October.
The decision, which the ICRC described as rare, came after last-ditch talks between its director-general Yves Daccord and authorities this week in Tashkent.
"Visiting all detainees of ICRC concern and speaking to them in private - without witnesses - are essential preconditions for the effective protection of detainees," said Daccord in a statement.
"Visits must have a meaningful impact on detention conditions, and dialogue with the detaining authorities must be constructive. And that's not the case in Uzbekistan," he said.
ICRC officials have been visiting prisoners on and off in Uzbekistan since 2001. In return for access, their findings are only shared with authorities.
The U.S. envoy to the U.N. Human Rights Council last month drew attention to alleged violations.
"Torture and abuse of detainees by security forces, denial of due process and fair trial, and government-organised forced and child labour in cotton-harvesting continues," ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told the Geneva forum.
EurasiaNet.org has already called attention to how Azerbaijan and Georgia assisted the CIA in carrying out a secret program to detain and interrogate suspected terrorists. But let’s not forget that Uzbekistan also played a role in facilitating so-called renditions to CIA “black sites.”
Uzbekistan (along with Azerbaijan and Georgia) was among 54 nations that cooperated with the CIA, according to a recently released report, Globalizing Torture: Secret Detentions and Extraordinary Renditions. The report was prepared the Open Society Justice Initiative, a component of the New York-based Open Society Foundations (OSF). [EurasiaNet.org also operates under OSF’s auspices, but has no direct contact with the Justice Initiative].
The report suggests that Uzbekistan may have hosted, and, presumably, interrogated some terrorist suspects that were extraordinarily rendered by the CIA. Tashkent also helped out by permitting the use of its airspace and airports “for flights associated with the CIA’s extraordinary rendition operations.”
Uzbekistan’s involvement in the CIA program can’t be considered all that shocking, given that President Islam Karimov’s administration is notorious among international rights watchdog for engaging in systematic torture.
Human rights groups are calling on Uzbekistan’s government to use a Constitution Day amnesty to release political prisoners, not just petty criminals.
Authorities often mark Constitution Day, December 8, with a mass prisoner release, freeing convicts accused of minor crimes who are not considered a threat to national security. However, those jailed on politically motivated charges are rarely released as part of these amnesties.
“Journalists, rights defenders, writers, and opposition and religious figures held solely on account of their peaceful activities shouldn’t be in prison in the first place,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a December 6 statement signed by nine groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Fiery Hearts Club. “Freeing political prisoners for Constitution Day is an opportunity for President Islam Karimov to show Uzbekistan’s people and international partners that he’s willing to take a genuine step toward reform.”
Last week, a leading activist said Uzbekistan is holding more than 2,000 political prisoners.
Nadejda Ataeva of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, one of the signatories, described how, when political prisoners’ terms are almost up, they often are charged with new transgressions. Ataeva pointed to the the case of Murad Juraev, a former member of parliament who has been jailed since 1994 and is reportedly gravely ill with tuberculosis:
His fourth term expired on November 13, but was not released. Between October 10 and 22, he was held in solitary confinement near the town of Almalyk, on a disciplinary charge.
Juraev’s lawyers have not been given access to his case files in 18 years. It’s possible there’s no evidence there.
Reports of torture in Tajikistan’s police stations and KGB holding cells are common. But even by Tajik standards, a case that surfaced today is shocking.
A mother in Dushanbe says the security services – colloquially still referred to as the KGB – held her 12-year-old son hostage for three days in August and beat him to extract information about his Arabic teacher, whom authorities suspect of membership in a banned Islamist group. Asia-Plus reports:
After her son returned, she noticed scrapes and bruises on his face and body. "When I asked what happened, he replied that a GKNB [State Committee on National Security] detective had beaten him to obtain testimony against the alleged ‘extremists,’" said the child’s mother.
The boy himself said the following: "When I was brought into the detective’s office, a few of his other colleagues were there. The detective began telling me to say that the teacher had been distributing banned leaflets and that my teacher had taken money from me for the Arabic lessons, although that’s not the case and all the lessons were free. He accompanied his demands with punches to my face and stomach. I was also lifted and thrown to the floor [more than once]. I was scared and in pain, I had to obey.”
Inobat Yakubova, the boy’s mother, was afraid to report the abuse until now. She had previously complained to the prosecutor’s office, which sent her back to the GKNB. She says an investigator there threatened that if she did not drop her complaint he would arrest her son and 17-year-old daughter.
Abdulvosi Latipov had been in and out of Russian courts facing extradition hearings for years. Authorities in his native Tajikistan wanted to try Latipov, who allegedly fought with the opposition during the country’s 1990s civil war, on charges including kidnapping and terrorism. He was seeking asylum, fearing, probably rightly, that he would never receive a fair trial in Tajikistan.
Under its commitments to the European Court of Human Rights, Russia cannot extradite a suspect to a country where he might be tortured (like Tajikistan, where abuse is well documented).
Yet somehow, Amnesty International reports, Latipov is back in Tajikistan and being held incommunicado. “Reportedly he was released from detention [in Russia] on 15 October 2012 and days later forcibly taken from a flat he had been staying [in] by unidentified armed men wearing masks,” Amnesty said this month. Now in Tajikistan, “his lawyer fears that his client is being tortured and otherwise ill-treated in order to extract confessions or force him to incriminate other people.”
It's not the first time a Central Asian has disappeared in Russia only to reappear a few days later in a prison cell at home.
The United Nation’s chief torture inspector has wrapped up a trip to Dushanbe, where he found that police and prosecutors employ violence against detainees as their “main investigatory tool.” He called on “the highest levels of authority” to pledge “zero tolerance” for torture.
These findings coincide with reports by rights groups, who say Tajikistan’s prisons and detention centers are rife with abuse, and point to several suspicious deaths in the past year as proof.
Juan E. Méndez, the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, said at the end of his nine-day visit that though Dushanbe is taking steps in the right direction -- by introducing legal provisions defining torture and authorizing prosecution -- officials need to do more to put an end to the practice, which he says happens “often enough and in a wide [enough] variety of settings that it will take a very concerted effort to abolish it or to reduce it sharply.” From a UN statement issued May 18:
The Special Rapporteur also expressed concern at the relatively low penalty of five years for a first offense established with the new legal definition of torture of the Criminal Code, noting that such penalty does not seem to comply with the obligation to treat torture as a severe crime with commensurate penalties, as it allows for the application of amnesty and other forms of reduction and mitigation. “A relatively low penalty does not offer a strong disincentive to commit torture,” he stressed.