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Uzbekistan's Rights Record: 'Atrocious On Every Level'

Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch discusses the findings of a new report on torture in Uzbekistan with RFE/RL journalists in Prague.
Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch discusses the findings of a new report on torture in Uzbekistan with RFE/RL journalists in Prague.
When Obitkhoja O., a 17-year old Uzbek boy, was arrested in 2009 for alleged petty theft, he had little idea what kind of police interrogation he was in for. Officers handcuffed his wrists and ankles and tossed him around in the air; he was kicked repeatedly in the head while bound to a chair; and police tied a gas mask tightly around his head to induce asphyxiation.

The authorities eventually got the confession they were looking for from Obitkhoja. When his mother briefly got to see her son three days later, she said she “almost didn’t recognize him.”

Obitkhoja’s story is just one of many that appear in a groundbreaking new report from Human Rights Watch, “No One Left to Witness,” documenting the deterioration of basic rights in the secretive nation of Uzbekistan. The report is based on hundreds of first-hand interviews with Uzbek human rights activists, lawyers, and government officials. It paints a grim portrait of a regime in which brutal torture is routinely employed as a pre-trial detention procedure for both political prisoners and common criminals.

Aside from asphyxiation by gas mask and cellophane, documented Uzbek torture methods also extend to beatings with rubber truncheons and water filled bottles, electric shock, hanging by the wrists and ankles, and rape and sexual humiliation.

Steve Swerdlow, a researcher for Human Rights Watch and the author of the report, visited RFE/RL’s Prague offices December 9 to discuss the report’s findings. He says that torture has become a vehicle for advancement among members of the country’s security services.

“Torture is ubiquitous as a routine method for doing police work, for skirting the real police work that you should do when investigating a case. If you apply pressure physical or psychological to your detainee you can quickly get a confession which means a conviction, which means a promotion,” Swerdlow told RFE/RL.

Swerdlow described how his research team focused on Uzbekistan’s observance of its citizens’ legal right to habeas corpus (“you may have the body”), which requires that suspected criminals be formally brought before a judge soon after arrest to be charged with a crime. It is a widely observed legal right meant to protect individuals from unlawful arrest and improper treatment (such as torture) during pre-trial detention.

Habeas corpus was written into Uzbek law in 2008. But the report noted that the law is not enforced, and that today “habeas corpus exists largely on paper” and “does little to protect detainees from torture and ill-treatment.”

Obitkhoja’s hearing with a judge took place six days after he had already been tortured. He was still sentenced to nine years in prison for crimes to which he had “confessed” under severe torture.

Swerdlow’s research, which included a two-month period of on-the-ground reporting in Tashkent, provides a rare peek into the workings of the opaque Uzbek judicial and state security system. Since the government’s crackdown on civil society and free media following the 2005 Andijon massacre, Uzbekistan’s few remaining independent journalists and human rights activists have faced constant repression.

In the face of these discouraging circumstances, what keeps Swerdlow and Human Rights Watch going? Swerdlow noted during his visit to Prague that he had discovered a spirit of resilience among activists and ordinary citizens in Uzbekistan, and a yearning for a more open society. Comparing Uzbekistan to the pre-Arab Spring regimes of Tunisia and Egypt, he advised RFE/RL journalists that governments in “countries like Uzbekistan are stable until they are not.”

-- Deana Kjuka