But has Tashkent, which the European Union has recently sought to engage rather than isolate, moved to improve its record on torture, despite its well-documented history of abuse? That was the question at the heart of a two-day meeting of the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which concluded today in Geneva.
Later this month, the UN panel is due to issue an official report based on the talks with foreign and Uzbek rights activists and officials. Analysts say much is riding on the committee's findings, which are likely to influence the policy debate in Europe and the United States about how to deal with Uzbekistan and other Central Asian governments that are seen as strategically significant yet repressive of human rights.
The UN panel listened to pointed inquiries into Tashkent's record on torture by foreign and Uzbek human rights activists. It also heard a detailed defense by Uzbekistan, which is seen as a breeding ground of Islamic militants in Central Asia and enjoys close counterterrorism ties with officials in the West.
Uzbek officials today presented a report detailing numerous measures they said were taken to root out torture by Uzbek law enforcement. The document listed scores of new laws and regulations, and provided details on new institutions and positions created to ensure the rights of detainees.
Uzbek officials acknowledged shortcomings, but said that the problems are sporadic and isolated to acts by misguided individuals.
Human rights activists painted a very different picture, saying that Uzbekistan's reforms appear to be little more than window dressing.
Doubts Cast On Uzbek Government's Claims
Last week, the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the Uzbek government in a 90-page report of employing a wide range of gruesome torture methods on detainees. Holly Cartner, HRW's director for Europe and Central Asia, told reporters during the Geneva talks that Tashkent is trying to make the world believe it has put an end to torture.
"But official statements simply don't square with reality," she said. "Ill-treatment in Uzbekistan is endemic to the criminal justice system and not just a problem caused by a handful of rogues."
Felice Gaer, a U.S. representative on the UN panel, repeatedly contrasted Uzbek authorities' claims that detainees have access to due process with cases where specific individuals were refused access to lawyers and medical treatment. She said some had been assaulted by other prisoners working as proxies for the authorities and immune from the new antitorture legislation that only covers officials.
Gaer also noted that following Western criticism of the bloodshed in the Uzbek city of Andijon in May 2005, Tashkent closed down or expelled more than 200 domestic and international rights organizations operating in Uzbekistan.
The United States and EU had criticized Tashkent over Andijon, where rights activists say security forces killed hundreds of protesters. The Uzbek government maintains that it put down an insurrection by Islamic militants, and that 187 people were killed.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, the UN rapporteur on torture, Germany's Manfred Nowak, noted that he is still waiting for an invitation to visit the country. But he also said that while his predecessor had accused Uzbekistan of "systematic" torture, Tashkent "has taken certain steps to improve the situation." He cited the official granting of habeas corpus -- the right of a detainee to question whether his detention is legal -- and the abolition of the death penalty as visible achievements.
"The fact that legal measures have been taken does not mean that torture has been eradicated," Nowak told RFE/RL. "On the contrary, I think we have much allegations and also evidence that torture is continuing. On the other hand, we should give the government the benefit of the doubt of taking measures."
Local Activists See Little Improvement
In one apparently conciliatory gesture, the Uzbek authorities granted exit visas for three domestic rights activists to attend the hearings -- although RFE/RL was told that others were denied a similar opportunity.
Vasila Inoyatova represents one of the rare, officially tolerated civil-society organizations, Ezgulik. She said that she had informed the UN panel in a pre-hearing meeting that Tashkent remains deaf to activists like her. "We have raised the issues of torture and problems at correctional colonies and prisons, but none of them have been taken into consideration," she told RFE/RL.
Another Uzbek activist, Sukhrobjon Ismoilov, represented the umbrella organization Rapid Response Group. He argued that international attempts to engage Uzbekistan on the issue of torture and other rights violations are bearing fruit, albeit slowly. "The main progress our group can attest to is that the use of torture in criminal cases, in the criminal justice system has decreased," Ismoilov said. "At the very least, law-enforcement officials have begun to fear that if they, for example, apply torture in a criminal investigation, they will have to answer for it."
But Ismoilov went on to note that this does not mean that the number of law-enforcement officials prosecuted for using torture has increased. Ismoilov said his organization is not aware of a single case in which law-enforcement officials have been prosecuted for torture.
He also noted that much of the progress claimed by Uzbek authorities dates from the period before Uzbekistan's relations with the West became soured in the wake of the Andijon events.
Following Andijon, the EU imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan. But led by Germany, which as the recent EU president helped craft a new EU Central Asia strategy aimed at balancing strategic "interests" and democratic "values," the 27-nation bloc last month eased the sanctions, including lifting a travel ban on top Uzbek officials.
Berlin and the wider EU are seen as keen to secure non-Russian sources of energy in Central Asia. But Germany also has argued that engagement is needed as a tool for change because isolation has not proved effective in prodding the region's authoritarian governments to improve their records on human rights.
However, human rights activists have heavily criticized that new policy, saying that it amounts to turning a blind eye to torture and other grave violations, and that it also tarnishes the credibility of Western policy toward the region.
The UN panel's upcoming findings on Uzbekistan, at the very least, appear likely to influence the ongoing policy debate.
"This is part of the larger 'interests vs. values' debate -- the human rights vs. energy dilemma," says Annette Bohr, a Central Asia expert at Chatham House, a London think tank. "Should a damning [conclusion] come out, it keeps the debate in focus and in public view, which I think is very, very important, because this debate has not been resolved by any stretch of the imagination."
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