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Central Asia: In Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Police Leave Residents Feeling Anything But Safe

  • Farangis Najibullah

The police in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are mistrusted and viewed as ineffective, if not irrelevant, in protecting people from crime. High-ranking officials say they are reforming the institution that faces shortage of funds and lack of qualified personnel.

Prague, 31 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Informal public-opinion polls show that residents in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan place virtually no trust in law-enforcement officials. They say the police force cannot protect the population from even routine crimes, let alone major security threats like terrorism, organized crime, and drug trafficking.

To the contrary, many say it is the police themselves who are often engaged in corruption and criminal activities.

"A police officer arrests an innocent person instead of a guilty person, and it happens in a broad daylight. If you say anything about it, the police will arrest you as well. I don't believe that the police service here will ever improve," an Uzbek woman said.

"Look at our streets. Nobody obeys the law. The traffic police only extort money from drivers. I haven't seen any good from them," a Tajik man said.

"When a police officer fines someone, the money goes directly into his own pocket. They never give a receipt. The police chase people who come from other Uzbek cities, such as Namangon and Andijan, and check their documents. My nephew lost his passport, and it took him eight months to get a new one. He had to pay so much money -- both fines and bribes. Is that fair?" An Uzbek woman said.

The traffic police have a particularly tarnished reputation in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. With numerous checkpoints along every major traffic route, police officers in both countries often stop passing cars and take money from drivers with no explanation. Residents say some traffic police officers sometimes say simply, "Give me some money for tea and move on."

Saifulloh, a resident of Khojand in northern Tajikistan, complained that the police have become unresponsive to the point that people cannot rely on them for assistance even in emergency situations. "You cannot get through to 02 [the emergency police phone number]. Even when you get through and ask for help, the police almost never come to help you," Saifulloh said.

Khudo-Nazar Asoyev is a spokesman for the Tajik Interior Ministry. In an interview with RFE/RL, he admitted that the police do not always respond immediately to emergency calls, but he said there is a reason for this. "When people call for help, the police are responsible for reaching them within 24 hours," Asoyev said.

Police officials say they face numerous challenges in their job and cite a lack of vehicles and equipment and a shortage of funds. Even so, police, at least in Uzbekistan, are relatively well-paid, often earning several times more than average residents.

Moreover, police forces in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan enjoy far more influence than the military and remain the countries' most powerful armed institutions. Statistics on police personnel are considered classified information in both countries. But some experts say the Uzbek Interior Ministry has at least 200,000 armed personnel, including more than 25,000 police officers in the capital Tashkent alone.

The Tajik Interior Ministry has an estimated 28,000 armed personnel. Though small in comparison to Uzbekistan, experts say it is a high number for a country of just 6 million people.

Human rights groups have long been critical of the police forces in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, saying they are essentially political agencies that work to protect the government rather than society.

Activists say they are especially concerned by the activities of the Uzbek Interior Ministry, which controls the country's prisons, which are notorious for their reported use of torture and ill-treatment.

In Tajikistan, control of the prison system was recently transferred to the country's Justice Ministry.

High-ranking officials in both countries say they are attempting to reform their law-enforcement institutions in order to regain public trust. Tashkent has allocated funds to help modernize its police force, and both countries have established academies for the training of special forces.

Abdurahim Kahorov, Tajikistan's deputy interior minister, told RFE/RL that in response to complaints about widespread nepotism in the law-enforcement system, the ministry has launched a campaign to purge the forces of unqualified personnel.

Kahorov also admitted that some police officers were found to be involved in criminal activities. Over the past year, at least 14 Interior Ministry officers have been charged with involvement in criminal activities, primarily drug trafficking. "In the past, we didn't have enough professionals, and we would recruit people with different qualifications. But during the past two or three years, we have only been recruiting graduates of the special police academy. Well, unfortunately, these incidents [of police involvement in criminal activities] have taken place among our employees. But again, it was the police themselves who discovered such cases," Kahorov said.

Tajikistan is sending law-enforcement specialists to Russia and the United States for training as part of its reform efforts. Asoyev told RFE/RL the Chinese government is also providing the ministry with technical assistance worth some $700,000, including 50 patrol vehicles.

But despite such steps, organizations like the International Crisis Group say law-enforcement institutions in Central Asia need a complete overhaul, not just cosmetic changes, and should be accompanied by reforms of the entire criminal-justice system.