Theo van Boven, the United Nations human rights rapporteur on torture, last week concluded his two-week fact-finding mission in Uzbekistan with the declaration that torture is "systematic" in the country's prisons and detention camps. RFE/RL reports that van Boven's report only upholds what Uzbek rights activists and former political prisoners have been saying for years.
Prague, 9 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Some observers say the recent visit to Uzbekistan of the UN rapporteur on torture was an attempt by Tashkent to address international concerns about its stance on human rights.
This is why the Uzbek government may have been less than pleased when the United Nations official, Theo van Boven, ended an extended visit on 6 December with the declaration that torture was strikingly common practice in Uzbekistan. "Torture, as far as I see it -- this is my impression -- is not just incidental, but has the nature of being systematic in this country. I am concerned that many confessions obtained through torture and other illegal means were then used as evidence in trials, [including] trials that are leading to the death penalty or to very severe punishment," van Boven said.
Van Boven, who spent two weeks in Uzbekistan visiting the country's prisons and talking to law-enforcement officials and former prisoners, will submit his findings on the country in a special report to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in January. But Uzbek officials are already contesting his findings, saying torture is neither systemic nor unique to Uzbekistan.
Akmal Saidov is an Uzbek lawmaker and director of the state-sponsored National Center for Human Rights. He told RFE/RL that Tashkent is aware of the problem of torture in its prisons and invited the UN rapporteur as a way of finding a solution. "I think that Uzbekistan, as an equal member of the world community, will be further implementing its international obligations, including requirements of the [UN] International Convention Against Torture. By inviting Mr. van Boven to the country, the Uzbek government once more demonstrated its openness to the international community, its readiness to solve all kind of problems together and openly," Saidov said.
But Tolib Yoqubov, chairman of the nongovernmental Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, said Tashkent was pressured into allowing van Boven's visit, a claim he said is substantiated by the fact that the Uzbek press was largely silent during the course of his visit.
Yoqubov said Uzbek authorities are in fact doing nothing to halt torture and that officials responsible for the deaths of imprisoned political and religious opposition figures still remain under government protection.
Yoqubov attended a special UN session on torture in Uzbekistan held in Geneva in 1999. He said the situation has not changed since then. "During the three years since the first [UN] session, hundreds of detainees and prisoners have been killed during interrogation. There are thousands of documents that show that barbaric torture has been continuously used in Uzbekistan," Yoqubov said.
Safar Bekjon is an Uzbek political dissident currently living in exile in Switzerland. Jailed as a member of the opposition Erk Party, Bekjon spent three years in Uzbek prisons between 1993 and 1996. He was reportedly near death when he was released under pressure from the international human rights community.
Bekjon offered a detailed look at life in the Uzbek prison system in his well-known book, "At the Threshold of Hell." He said letters and other documents he has received since his own release from prison appear to show that torture in Uzbek prisons and detention camps has not slowed and is in fact on the rise. "Even I am horrified by the documents and pictures I've received from Uzbek prisons. They show dead bodies. They show people whose ears and noses have been cut off, whose eyes have been put out, whose bodies have been burned with boiling water or fire," Bekjon said.
Bekjon and other Uzbek dissidents say they believe the use of torture in prisons and detention centers is highly organized and used as much to terrorize the general public as to extract confessions from those being interrogated. "In the first detention center, the detainee is beaten, verbally humiliated, punched, hung upside down, given electric-shock treatment, forced to wear a gas mask, and then made to inhale chemical gases. If a detainee doesn't sign the necessary document, a false confession fabricated by interrogators, then different torture methods are used. This includes cutting off fingernails, punching needles under people's nails, putting sticks or other objects into the anus, and raping women. These are mass-scale, special torture techniques. Authorities don't mind if the general public knows about this torture. It keeps them in constant terror," Bekjon said.
One of the most notorious prisons in Uzbekistan is Jasliq, a center built especially for religious prisoners in the middle of the country's vast Karakalpak steppe and often referred to as a place from which no one returns. The mother of one Jasliq prisoner described what she knew of the conditions there" "Every single morning, the first thing prisoners have to do is sing the national anthem of Uzbekistan and then of Karakalpakstan. If there is the slightest mistake, they are beaten severely. Every single mistake, like making a bed improperly, is punished by beatings. A prisoner has to keep saying, 'Thank you, Mr. Chief' while they are being beaten. Otherwise, more punishment follows."
Jasliq was one of the prisons where van Boven was not permitted to observe conditions firsthand. The UN official had asked permission for a six-hour visit but in the end spent just two hours at Jasliq, where he met only with officials and was not permitted to visit the prisoners. He was also denied access to two prisons in the Navoiy and Karshi regions, notorious for their reported use of torture, as well as the National Security Service's detention center in Tashkent.
But van Boven said that even with these notable exceptions, he was able to glean sufficient evidence that torture remains widespread and unopposed by state officials. "I have received testimonies from victims, alleged victims, and relatives, who came from all parts of the country. I don't think that the fact that I saw some institutions only in a limited way or [that there were] some others I couldn't visit would undermine the credibility [of my findings]," van Boven said.
A number of Uzbek officials are due to be in attendance when van Boven's report is submitted to the High Commissioner for Human Rights in January.