Four Uzbek police officers were sentenced last week to 20 years in prison for torturing to death one detainee and seriously injuring a second. It is the first such prosecution of its kind in Uzbekistan, where allegations of police brutality and other rights abuses are widespread. Human Rights Watch is welcoming the decision, but says this first conviction is only the tip of the iceberg.
Prague, 6 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Last October, 32-year-old Ravshan Haitov died just hours after being taken into police custody for his alleged membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), an Islamic group banned in Uzbekistan.
Haitov's 27-year-old brother, Rasul, was also detained. He was placed in intensive care after spending just a few hours, together with Ravshan, at the Sobir Rakhimov district police station.
Rasul says he and his brother were subjected to brutal beatings and torture by the police. Last week (30 January), a Tashkent city court agreed, sentencing four Uzbek police officers to 20 years of imprisonment each for torturing the two men. The policemen were convicted of causing premeditated serious injury, abuse of power, and unlawful use of violence during the arrest and questioning.
The case marks the first time the Central Asian nation has handed down a conviction on charges related to police brutality, a problem believed to be widespread in Uzbekistan. Elizabeth Andersen is executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch (HRW). She welcomes last week's landmark conviction, but notes there are many other police and security officers in Uzbekistan whose actions need the same kind of scrutiny:
"It's certain that this [sentence] is a positive sign, but it is only a very first step. [Police brutality] is a systemic problem and it requires a systemic response."
Observers at the trial reported the prosecutor during closing arguments on 21 January called for two of the four police officers to be convicted on murder charges. The judge instead convicted all four on the lesser charge of "inflicting bodily harm that caused death" -- Article 104 of the Uzbek Criminal Code. People sentenced under this article are qualified for release under a presidential amnesty declared in August 2001. Andersen says this provision leaves open the possibility the officers will not be forced to serve out their sentences:
"We are concerned that the article of the Uzbek law under which they were convicted is one that is also subject to an amnesty. So we are going to be watching very closely [to see] that they are not amnestied in the future and that this conviction will hold."
The conviction comes as Uzbekistan's human-rights record is being subjected to increasing scrutiny. The nation's new partnership with the U.S. in its antiterrorism campaign has led some rights-watchers to suspect the U.S. may be downplaying rights issues in exchange for Uzbek cooperation. Others defend the alliance, saying it is likely to step up pressure on the Central Asian nation to crack down on rights violations.
Uzbekistan has undertaken certain legal and administrative measures intended to reform the justice system, but human rights groups say none of these measures has had any perceptible effect on the prevalence of police brutality.
In a November 2001 briefing on human rights in Uzbekistan, Amnesty International raised its concerns about reports that prisoners from minority Islamic groups are "singled out for particularly cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment." At least 20 prisoners have died in the country's Yaslik prison camp over the last two years as a result of torture and poor conditions, the organization reported.
Local rights activists estimate that at least 7,000 independent Muslims are imprisoned in Uzbekistan for their religious practices or affiliations, and that some 4,000 of these were convicted for affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir. The government has repeatedly claimed that Hizb ut-Tahrir supports terrorism, though the vast majority of people detained for connection to the group are not charged with acts of violence.
HRW Director Andersen says "accountability for torture" has been a priority for the U.S. and other countries in their relations with Uzbekistan. But she adds her organization remains skeptical that last week's conviction signals any real change in official Uzbek thinking on human rights:
"I must say we remain a little bit skeptical about whether this is a breakthrough. It's a first step and it needs to be followed by further steps."
Alisher Ilkhamov is a social researcher in Uzbekistan. He believes there is a clear relation between the last week's conviction and pressure from the West to promote democracy and human rights:
"I would accept that in this case we can see some correlation between the pressure which is undertaken by the Western community towards the Uzbek government; and from the side of the Uzbek government, the willingness to behave better than in the past [in order] to be more accepted by the Western community."
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones, who visited Tashkent the day before the convictions were handed down, announced that Washington has pledged $160 million toward development projects in the country this year. But she also noted that the U.S. is eager to help Tashkent improve standards of democracy and human rights:
"The new relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan allows us to have a broader discussion on every single kind of issue -- from the military-to-military, economic, democracy, human rights, border controls -- everything you can imagine is now on the agenda in a very detailed, very collegial way."
Also last week, the EU announced a doubling of its development aid to Uzbekistan to $43.07 million a year. An EU statement on the increase says Brussels intends to cooperate with Tashkent "by eradicating significant factors which may lead to the growth of terrorism."