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Uzbekistan: Rights Activists Reject U.S. Probe Into Prison Death

  • Gulnoza Saidazimova

A team of investigators from U.S. democracy watchdog Freedom House concluded yesterday that natural causes were behind the death in prison of Samandar Umarov, an Uzbek man convicted on charges relating to terrorism and membership in the banned Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Umarov died earlier this month while serving the fourth year of a 17-year prison term. Family members and Uzbek rights activists have rejected the Freedom House findings, saying Umarov was tortured to death.

Prague, 18 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Samandar Umarov was imprisoned in connection with the February 1999 explosions that rocked the Uzbek capital Tashkent.

He was convicted on a number of charges, including attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, and was handed a 17-year sentence at the Navoi prison camp in central Uzbekistan.

A father of two, Samandar Umarov, 35, died on 2 January. The official cause of death was said to be a stroke.

An independent investigation into his death led by the U.S. democracy watchdog Freedom House with the cooperation of the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office announced its findings yesterday. Their conclusions, as presented by American forensic pathologist Ronald Suarez, were largely the same as the official version. "The death of Mr. Umarov on 2 January 2005 did not occur as a result of unnatural causes," Suarez said. "That is, it did not occur as a result of trauma."

Suarez said the Freedom House team conducted a comprehensive investigation but did not examine the dead man's body. Umarov's relatives refused to have the body exhumed, citing religious reasons.
"There was blood everywhere, his jaw was broken, and face damaged severely," his sister said.


Mjusa Sever, Freedom House's representative in Uzbekistan, told RFE/RL the investigation was based on a review of documents provided by Uzbek forensic officials. The team also examined tissue samples taken from Umarov's body before his burial.

"The first autopsy [conducted by Uzbek experts] -- unlike the previous cases we would deal with -- was done very well according to Western standards. It wasn't just looking for the immediate cause of death, but it was also a procedure that excluded any other kind of trauma. [It also included] taking all the necessary samples to look into possible poisoning, to look into changes in tissues. All the laboratory tests were done and we were given all the samples in order to repeat the laboratory tests," Sever said.

But family members and others have criticized the Freedom House findings as sloppy and incorrect. Human rights activist Surat Ikramov said anyone who saw the body would conclude that Umarov died not of natural causes, but from sustained torture.

"This is an absolutely wrong conclusion and it goes absolutely against the law. Our organization was first to provide information on Umarov's death. I personally went to his family's house and collected all the photos. His parents and family gave interviews to journalists. From the photograph of the body [the cause of his death] is obvious. His body was not exhumed. I don't know how the examination could provide a conclusion without exhumation. No one from an independent rights group was allowed be part of the investigating team," Ikramov said.

Umarov's older sister, Yashnar, said her brother's body was returned wrapped in a blanket and still oozing blood. A second relative also said there were clear signs Umarov had been tortured. "There was blood everywhere, his jaw was broken, and face damaged severely," his sister said. "We saw that sides of his body were bruised." The relative added: "Toenails and fingernails were pulled out. Of course, one dies if nails are pulled out."

Yashnar Umarova said the police who delivered her brother's body said an autopsy had already been conducted. They refused to present any official documents to the family, and pressed them to bury the body as soon as possible. During Umarov's funeral, relatives said the area was surrounded by large groups of policemen in order to prevent any independent observers from witnessing the body.

But representatives from three Uzbek rights groups did manage to see the body. They concluded Umarov had been tortured to death, and called for an independent investigation.

Mjusa Sever of Freedom House denied Umarov's nails had been pulled out, and said his family members had simply responded to stitches they saw on the body -- a result of the autopsy.

Vitalii Ponomarev, the head of the Central Asia Program of the Moscow-based Memorial human rights organization, told RFE/RL that since 1999, more than 100 Uzbek inmates have died in prison as an apparent result of torture. "We have information including the family names of 100 people," he said. "Seventeen of them died during pretrial incarceration, and 83 in prison camps. I believe this information is not complete and the general number may be as high as 300 persons."

Ponomarev said Umarov's case is one of very few to attract international attention. "Almost in all the cases of death, fake documents were made up that said the death was due to natural causes," he said. "In most cases, however, there were signs of torture on the bodies. Unfortunately, very few cases attracted international attention and few of those guilty of the torture were charged and tried."

Another death in custody took place the same day (2 January) as Umarov's but attracted little attention. Rayim Quldoshev, a 32-year-old resident of the southern town of Jizzakh, was called in for questioning and died four hours later. Police officials said he died of a heart attack.

But Bakhtiyor Hamroev, head of the local branch of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, told RFE/RL he believed Quldoshev died after a blow to the chest received while he was being interrogated by four policemen. Jizzakh police officials said that a criminal investigation has been opened into the incident.

This is only the second time an independent investigation has upheld the official version that an inmate's death was a result of natural causes, not of torture. But observers say this case is particularly significant because it involves an alleged member of Hizb ut-Tahrir -- the group that is believed to be singled out for the worst treatment in prison.

Western rights groups have said torture is systemic in Uzbek prisons.
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