(Washington, DC--April 18, 2005) The prevalence of torture has escalated drastically in Uzbekistan, according to three human rights experts who spoke to a RFE/RL audience recently. According to the experts, torture, and the fear of it, may even serve as the primary tool of controlling society in Uzbekistan today.
Nozima Kamalova, director of the Legal Aid Society--Uzbekistan’s primary non-governmental organization investigating human rights abuses--said that "freedom from torture does not exist" in Uzbekistan, adding that "systematic" torture is practiced by the government despite international criticism. Kamalova also drew concern to a new regulation that redefines Article 235 of the Uzbek criminal code in such a way as to, in effect, "legalize torture in the Uzbek legal system." Kamalova described a "stifling political atmosphere" in Uzbekistan, where no opposition parties were allowed to participate in the December 26, 2004 parliamentary elections because they had all been disqualified during a government imposed re-registration process.
Alisher Ergashev, a prominent human rights lawyer and member of the Legal Aid Society, agreed with Kamalova that torture continues to be the primary tool for "gathering evidence through confessions and consequently, convictions." Ergashev cited numerous cases to illustrate conditions within the prison system in Uzbekistan. For example, he was denied access to one of his imprisoned clients for 53 days, and despite obvious signs of torture on the client's body, appeals for a doctor to examine and treat his client were also denied. Illegal detentions, Ergashev said, "are common." Citizens are taken off the streets and detained for weeks to elicit incriminating evidence about people they have never met. Witnesses have complained to international human rights organizations they were forced to give testimony to things they had never seen or heard, to avoid being tortured.
Vitaly Ponomaryov, director of the Central Asian Program at the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center, said that the use of imprisonment and torture today is as pervasive as it was in the late 1990s and in 2000. Ponomaryov noted that the Uzbek government did open a "dialogue" with the international community about improving conditions in the summer of 2001, but “any encouraging democratic signs were reversed in the spring of 2004, after violence erupted in Uzbekistan." According to Ponomaryov, "high level officials continue to ignore the very term torture in their public speeches, courts disregard claims of citizens that torture was used against them, and when law enforcement officials are held responsible, it is never covered in the national media." In a new report on human rights conditions in Uzbekistan, Memorial documents the existence of at least 4,000 political prisoners, based on convictions between 1997-2003. Ponomaryov, however, believes that the actual number of prisoners is closer to 6,800--a number cited in the latest U.S. State Department Country Report on Human Rights.