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Uzbekistan: Faces Tough Questioning By UN Rights Committee

A UN panel charged with monitoring a major international human rights treaty has found numerous problems with Uzbekistan's implementation of rights obligations. Independent experts on the UN Human Rights Committee signaled dissatisfaction with the country's response to questions on a range of issues including torture, executions, violence against women, and prison conditions. Uzbek officials cited progress in reducing the number of prisoners and in carrying out recommendations of an international rapporteur on torture. But they acknowledged challenges in reforming their justice system.

United Nations, 23 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Members of the UN Human Rights Committee have raised serious concern about abuses in Uzbekistan despite the government's stated willingness to cooperate with international bodies.

The committee this week conducted its review of Uzbekistan's compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a signatory.

Committee members on 21 and 22 March ( presented a high-level Uzbek delegation with tough questions about repression of political opponents and abysmal prison conditions. They questioned controls on media and freedom of expression and violence against women. Members were especially troubled by the government's use of the death penalty.

The experts said Uzbekistan was in "serious breach" of its treaty obligations for ignoring a previous committee request for a stay of execution in cases involving 15 prisoners.

They repeatedly complained about the government's lack of specific data on a range of issues. Several experts challenged the Uzbek delegation's claim that death-penalty figures were "state secrets" that could not be divulged.

Panel member Ivan Shearer of Australia said the government has reneged on its promise to provide details about use of the death penalty.

"It seems to me that one cannot stress too much to the delegation that to keep such vital information secret is totally lacking in transparency and the ability of people both inside Uzbekistan and outside to understand the progress that is being made which the delegation has promised us," Shearer said.

The Uzbek delegation was led by Akmal Saidov, a senator and chairman of Uzbekistan's national center on human rights. He said the government aimed to liberalize its justice and legal system, including preparation of a habeas corpus bill and measures to gradually abolish the death penalty.

He denied reports that as many as 6,000 people are being held in Uzbek prisons on religious grounds. Thousands of prisoners have been released through an amnesty program, he said, and those remaining in prison are what he deemed "extremists."

"Today in Uzbekistan's prisons there are about 800 people incarcerated for their religious beliefs, for extremist actions which they have carried out on the territory of Uzbekistan," Saidov said.

The chairwoman of the UN committee, Christine Chanet of France, later asked the delegation to specify whether they had been imprisoned for "blood crimes or crimes of opinion."

Saidov acknowledged problems, saying they were caused in part by the state's initial efforts to integrate global international legal norms into national laws.

A Swiss expert on the committee, Walter Kalin, said Tashkent had made some progress since the last report in 2001. But he was concerned about the widespread reports of continuing abuses.

"The overall impression remains that there is somehow a gap between what was presented to us and [to what] effect many of these measures seem to be in reality. Troubling information about many violations are still available not only from [nongovernmental organizations] but also from the special procedures within the UN system and the mass media," Kalin said.

The Uzbek delegation stressed the government was committed to following through on the recommendations of a UN special rapporteur on torture in 2002. It said the government has increased prosecutions of law-enforcement officials for using torture. But information on those prosecutions has not been independently verified.

Watchdog groups like Human Rights Watch say torture and ill treatment of prisoners remain pervasive in the Uzbek criminal justice system.

They say real reforms are unlikely as long as President Islam Karimov retains near-absolute power in the country.

The UN Human Rights Committee is due to issue a report on its review of Uzbekistan's record early next month. Uzbekistan could also face scrutiny at the separate UN Human Rights Commission meeting, which runs through next month in Geneva.

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