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Uzbekistan: Human Rights Watch Acknowledges Erroneous Torture Allegation

Prague, 2 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Human Rights Watch (HRW) has acknowledged its error in attributing the cause of an Uzbek prisoner's death to police torture, after a team of international experts concluded that he had hanged himself.

Thirty-six-year-old murder suspect Andrei Shelkavenko was arrested by Uzbek police in late April and died last month while in police custody outside Tashkent.

Uzbek police said he died after hanging himself.

In a press release issued on 21 May, the New York-based rights watchdog said Shelkavenko's body bore the marks of severe beatings, including an "open, bloody head wound" and various other injuries to his neck, legs, and scrotum. HRW accused police of torturing Shelkavenko and urged that those responsible be brought to justice.
"We were wrong in suggesting that it was torture injuries which had caused his death."

Shelkavenko's relatives also reported to HRW that several witnesses had alleged that Shelkavenko was beaten while in custody.

But HRW issued a statement yesterday acknowledging its error, saying Shelkavenko had died as a result of hanging. Steve Crawshaw is HRW's London director: "We were wrong in suggesting that it was torture injuries which had caused his death. He, in fact, died by hanging, presumably by suicide. There had been a number of previous allegations which we had been looking into -- that he had been beaten -- but that was some weeks ago."

Uzbek authorities allowed a group of American and Canadian experts to observe the Uzbek investigation, as well as a second autopsy. It was the first time international experts have been granted such access by Tashkent.

Earlier this week, the experts concluded that Shelkavenko died after hanging himself and that some of the marks initially thought to be from torture were normal changes that occur to bodies after death. They found that there were "no significant injuries" to Shelkavenko's body at the time of the autopsy, and no evidence of torture.

Crawshaw stresses that Human Rights Watch is scrupulous in always basing its claims on clear evidence and in rectifying possible errors as soon as possible: "We are enormously careful not to make wild allegations, precisely because that would have damaged the credibility of our work. We are very, very careful that we go with our accusations only when there is evidence. Here, there was clear evidence. The immediate cause was suicide, and we have immediately corrected the error."

An interdepartmental commission established by the Uzbek government continues to investigate the death.

Crawshaw urges that commission to address allegations that he had been beaten while in custody and that his relatives were harassed by police. He also is calling on the commission to thoroughly investigate how Shelkavenko could have hanged himself in a cell with three other inmates present.

Crawshaw adds that the commission should also take appropriate steps to prevent such deaths in the future and establish a minimum standard for investigating deaths in police custody: "We are glad that there has been transparency on this occasion, [where] the Uzbek authorities -- very unusually -- have invited international experts to look at how the death was caused. We would very much hope that that kind of transparency would be repeated on many, many other cases. Repeatedly, we have had deaths in custody [in Uzbekistan] where there has been very strong evidence that those have been caused by torture. The Uzbek system needs to open up."

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International, in its annual report released late last month, described Uzbekistan as having an "appalling human rights situation" -- with at least 6,000 political prisoners continuing to be held in cruel, inhuman, and degrading conditions. It said human-rights defenders and hundreds of people suspected of political or religious dissent have been harassed, beaten, and detained without trial, and that torture is common.

The UN rapporteur on torture, who visited Uzbekistan in 2002, reported that torture in Uzbek prisons was systemic.

Human rights activists and Uzbekistan's top prison official announced last month a program to jointly monitor conditions in the country's prisons.