The new relationship between Uzbekistan and the United States spurred by the antiterrorism campaign has led many observers to worry that closer ties will result in a softening of the West's stance on Uzbekistan's poor human rights record. These concerns were heightened recently when it was revealed that a 32-year-old Uzbek man died while in police custody in Tashkent. But in a marked change from earlier such cases, Uzbekistan is opening an investigation into the man's death.
Prague, 25 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Thirty-two-year-old Ravshan Haidov was taken into custody by Uzbek police on 17 October on suspicion of belonging to a banned Islamic group. Police returned the father of two to his family the next day -- for burial -- after police say Haidov suffered a heart attack while in custody.
Yamin Ota, a village aksakal, or elder, in Tashkent told RFE/RL how Haidov looked when he saw his body the next day: "There were bruises all over his [Haidov's] body. The entire body was black and blue. From the neck to the bottom of the shoulder blades, everything looked broken. From the shoulders to the mid-back, it was black as a raisin."
The incident seemed to confirm the worst fears about Uzbekistan's internal policies. Uzbekistan, which of all the CIS countries has expressed the strongest support for the United States-led military campaign against Taliban targets in Afghanistan, has routinely used the threat of Islamic extremism to justify crackdowns on Muslim groups.
Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, or HRW, as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the U.S. State Department in its annual status report, have criticized Uzbekistan about the severity of this crackdown.
But while many CIS countries have opened their airspace to U.S. planes -- with the provision that those planes carry only humanitarian cargo for Afghanistan -- only Uzbekistan is actually hosting American troops and granting the use of a strategic air base for the U.S.-led cause.
Human rights groups now worry that this new relationship between the Uzbek government and the U.S. will temper Western criticism of Tashkent's rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch reported Haidov's death on 20 October, calling Haidov "the latest victim of Uzbekistan's vicious crackdown on Muslims who practice their faith outside state controls."
HRW's Acacia Shields was in Uzbekistan at the time and spoke to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service the day after Haidov's body was returned to the family.
"We learned on Friday [19 October] about this terrible and gruesome death of Ravshan Haidov and the apparent beating of his brother, Rasul. We were deeply disturbed to hear of the damage done to Ravshan's body. Our main concern now is that those officers responsible for Ravshan Haidov's death be held accountable and prosecuted in accordance with the law."
Haidov's brother, Rasul, is still in hospital, reportedly in critical condition. His mother, Nozira Opa, says she has not been permitted to visit her surviving son: "I went there to the hospital, and I was not allowed to enter. Only my son-in-law could go. He is the only one [of our family] who can see him [Rasul Haidov]. His condition is very bad, very bad."
If the past is any indication, an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Haidov's death and his brother's beating seemed unlikely.
Last July, for example, the body of Shovrukh Ruzimuradov was delivered to his family by police. The 44-year-old Ruzimuradov was taken into custody in mid-June after police say they discovered drugs, gun cartridges, and leaflets from a banned religious group in his home. When his body was returned, it showed evidence of what appeared to be a severe beating. Police said Ruzimuradov hanged himself. There was no reported internal investigation of the case.
But in a move that has surprised many observers, the Uzbek government has, indeed, launched an official investigation. One major and three lieutenants are under investigation for possible involvement in Haidov's death, as well as in the beating of his brother.
The case marks one of the first public acknowledgments of possible misdeeds by the Uzbek police. A senior police official in the Sobir Rahimov district of Tashkent, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says Uzbek police are more often the victims of criminals than the other way around.
Certainly the police in Uzbekistan, in their attempt to enforce the government's laws, are in a difficult position. Arrests are expected to produce convictions, and the failure to do so is not looked at kindly by the authorities.
But Acacia Shields of Human Rights Watch, while acknowledging that Uzbek police are in a tricky spot, says they are still expected to uphold the law: "We understand police in Uzbekistan are often under great pressure to obtain confessions. But that is not an excuse for beating people instead of using real investigative techniques."
The launch of an investigation into Haidov's death is viewed as an encouraging sign by human rights organizations, but analysts note this apparent change in policy must be put into proper perspective.
These analysts note that there are many foreign journalists now in Uzbekistan covering the military campaign against Afghanistan. These journalists are also reporting on the human rights situation in Uzbekistan, and the current investigation may have been prompted by their presence.
Also, Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana recently visited Uzbekistan in his capacity as the current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Whether the investigation into the death of Ravshan Haidov is a true change in policy or simply a temporary response to greater international scrutiny remains to be seen.
(Gulnoza Saidazimova of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)