Human Rights Watch has leveled sharp criticism at Uzbekistan over its rights record and chided Western governments for turning a blind eye to such abuses in an effort to foster closer ties with the administration of President Islam Karimov.
In a new 104-page report titled "'No One Left to Witness’: Torture, the Failure of Habeas Corpus, and the Silencing of Lawyers in Uzbekistan,"
the group accuses Tashkent of failing to provide basic rights to its citizens and abandoning "its promises to stop torture in its criminal justice system."
"Western governments seeking closer ties with the authoritarian Central Asian government," HRW says, have "all but ignored the abuses."
HRW says Uzbekistan continues to employ torture tactics in its criminal justice system; human rights activists are languishing in prison; and lawyers are being silenced.
The document is based on more than 100 interviews conducted in the former Soviet republic between 2009 and 2011. It documents cases of detainees being subjected to physical and psychological torture.
HRW says methods commonly used include beatings with rubber truncheons, electric shock, hanging by wrists and ankles, sexual humiliation, asphyxiation with plastic bags, threats of physical harm to relatives, and denial of food or water.
The group says it has heard several stories of detainees being subject to abuse to force them to confess to offenses such as theft, or to implicate others.
Svetlana Artikova, chairwoman of the Committee of Legislation and Judicial Issues in the Uzbek Senate, tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that authorities are taking all those issues seriously.
Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch: "I think the situation has gotten worse."
"After Uzbekistan ratified the UN Convention Against Torture [in 1995], we adopted our national program against torture, and an interministerial commission was set up in its framework," Artikova says. "As part of this, there is a working group which receives complaints from citizens. If there is some sort of complaint against a law-enforcement officer, we consider this an alarming case and there would be an immediate investigation."
She concedes that she cannot be "100 percent" certain "there is no violation of the law," but suggests it's a far cry from the systemic abuses alleged in the HRW report and elsewhere.
"Because where there is a human, where there is an action, there may be errors or mistakes," Artikova says.
'Worse' Despite Reform Pledges
HRW acknowledges that Uzbekistan has put in place legal reforms such as the 2008 introduction of habeas corpus, a legal action through which a court is obliged to determine the lawfulness of a person's detention.
But the Uzbekistan researcher at HRW, Steve Swerdlow, tells RFE/RL that the government has failed to put those reforms into action.
Swerdlow also cites the 2009 adoption of a law abolishing independent bar associations, which HRW says has "seriously weakened the criminal defense bar, silencing outspoken advocates who had taken on politically sensitive cases and were willing to raise allegations of torture in court."
"Nothing has changed except that the government has received a lot of praise for the passage of this law" on habeas corpus, Swerdlow says. "When European delegations travel to Tashkent during the human rights dialogue, they always mention the passage of habeas corpus as a positive step. But, of course, is a step positive if, in fact, it's almost a cover to not address the real issues that exist -- the real violations that are happening? And so in some ways, I think, the situation has gotten worse. The legal profession has been silenced."
HRW says that despite this record, the United States, the European Union, and individual leading European governments "have muted their criticism."
HRW argues that Western leaders are holding their tongues due to "Uzbekistan's strategic importance to neighboring Afghanistan as a land route for NATO troops and supplies."
The report criticizes the EU for dropping sanctions on Uzbekistan in 2009, while the United States moved in September 2011 to waive congressional human rights restrictions on assistance, including military aid, to Tashkent.
"There was a substantial policy shift towards softening the criticism of human rights issues and really focusing on military and security issues," Swerdlow says. "And I think that's had a strong impact in that it has led civil society in Uzbekistan to be more at risk, the lawyers more at risk, the victims of torture more at risk."
Uzbekistan is a key part of an increasingly important supply route for NATO troops in Afghanistan -- dubbed the Northern Distribution Network -- an alternative route to the one through Pakistan that was shut down last month following a NATO air strike that killed more than 20 Pakistani soldiers.
Written by Antoine Blua, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service and agency reports