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Uzbek Security Service Profits from Penal System

(Washington, DC -- June 19, 2003) Uzbekistan's Internal Affairs Department (MVD) is the primary profiteer in a shadow economy that systematically exploits prisoners and the general populace, said Nikolai Mitrokhin, a human rights activist working in Uzbekistan. Mitrokhin, who spoke at a recent RFE/RL briefing in Washington, said that under the auspices of President Islam Karimov, the security service uses illegal tactics, such as planting weapons and drugs, not just to eliminate organized criminal clans but to control other segments of Uzbek society as well.

Mitrokhin, a Central Asia monitor with the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, has published more than 100 papers on human rights, religious, ethnic and economic issues in CIS countries. Mitrokhin's recent report on the extent of MVD corruption in Uzbek law enforcement concludes that "every business in Uzbekistan has at least one patron among the authorities to whom it provides payment in exchange for protection." Racketeering is also practiced by numerous members of the MVD, who have the ability to detain people, Mitrokhin said. Essentially, police officers stop and charge individuals a "tax for walking down someone else's street," as Mitrokhin said. Through fear of arrest and retribution, citizens have little choice but comply with the demands.

According to Mitrokhin, the Uzbek federal penitentiary system is the most lucrative sphere of corruption for the MVD. During the Soviet era, prison populations were governed through a self-imposed shadow law or "criminal code" -- an ordered understanding between criminals who submitted to a leader, Mitrokhin explained. The leader would act as a mediator between inmates who could offer services, and guards or outsiders who would provide goods or improved conditions in return. This code both protected individuals from one another and prompted the prisoners to "struggle for autonomy over their internal lives," Mitrokhin said. He said this willful engagement in one's social sphere limited the despotic activities of the MVD, saying this "regime was a definite blessing for prisoners."

However, beginning in the 1990's, Mitrokhin said a deliberate effort has been underway to "break" the keepers of the criminal code and subject the will of prisoners to the police. This coincided with government efforts to eliminate opposition, he said. As a result, an abusive structure now holds sway in penal colonies. This new "regime" makes the prospect of earning money off of prisoners "quite natural," and is based on a harsh suppression of any prisoner's attempt to establish self-rule. Mitrokhin said this system is maintained by extremely cruel treatment. Prisoners may be tortured, raped or forced to pay in goods or labor for food, medicine, clothing and places to sleep. If a prisoner is unable to pay, they may be beaten or their families extorted. Mitrokhin said that both penitentiary systems perpetuate the criminal and corrupt environment, and what is needed is a transformation to a more humane and controlled penitentiary system

The problem of MVD corruption requires comprehensive reform of the institution, Mitrokhin said. But raising guard salaries or training them in human rights will not work since there are still no moral standards resistant to corruption nor are there adequate social and media controls by which to impact behavior. The MVD "has a tendency to reproduce itself... and is incapable of independent self reform," he said. Mitrokhin's study concluded there is little hope improvements will be made in the near future, unless serious re-thinking about the role of the MVD takes place in the Uzbek government.

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