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Uzbekistan: New Prison Deaths Signal U.S. Ally Still Guilty Of Human-Rights Abuse

The recent deaths of two prisoners in Uzbekistan have raised suspicions the Uzbek government is doing little to address issues relating to the torture of independent Muslims serving prison sentences for alleged violations of the country's rules on religious activity. Uzbekistan, a Central Asian ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, has promised to improve human-rights conditions in the country. But RFE/RL reports the two recent deaths signal that little has been done to reverse the regime's brutal treatment of religious worshippers.

Prague, 13 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- On 8 August, the bodies of two men jailed for their alleged involvement in the outlawed Hezb ut-Tahrir Islamic group were returned home to Tashkent for burial. Neither 34-year-old Khusnuddin Alimov nor 35-year-old Muzafar Avazov -- serving 16- and 19-year sentences, respectively -- appeared to have died of natural causes.

Matilda Bogner, the Tashkent representative of Human Rights Watch (HRW), told RFE/RL that both men seem to have died under "suspicious circumstances." "The body of [Avazov] showed clear signs of torture. And there was a heavy police presence when both of the bodies were brought back [home]. According to information that we've received in relation to [Alimov's] body, the police restricted access to [viewing] the body, which also adds to the suspicion that the person was tortured and died as a result of torture," Bogner said.

HRW reports that doctors who saw the body of Avazov said it bore burns that could only have been caused by being immersed in boiling water. Other witnesses said his fingernails had been removed and that there was a large, bloody wound at the back of his head and heavy bruises on his forehead and neck.

Bogner said that earlier this year, HRW received reports that Avazov had been placed in a special cell and was being beaten for saying that he would continue to pray. Both he and Alimov were inmates at Uzbekistan's notorious Jaslyk prison in the country's northwest Karakalpakistan region.

HRW has documented 11 suspicious deaths in Uzbek prisons in the past 15 months. Both HRW and Amnesty International have routinely criticized the Central Asian country for alleged police violence and illegal detention of members of outlawed Islamic groups. Bogner, who is urging Uzbek authorities to heed recommendations made by the United Nations Committee Against Torture in its May report on Uzbekistan, said torture is widespread throughout the country's prison system. "Some of the other Central Asian countries certainly have problems with torture, [but] Uzbekistan stands out to an extent, in that torture is so systematic here. In particular, religious prisoners are subject to torture here, and there are a large number of religious prisoners in Uzbekistan. So that really highlights the problem with torture here," Bogner said.

Over the past several years, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has waged a kind of war against religious Muslims who practice their faith beyond the restrictive boundaries of state control. Human-rights groups say there may be as many as 7,000 alleged Muslim extremists in Uzbekistan's jails. Many of them are members of Hezb ut-Tahrir, an outlawed group with members throughout Central Asia that calls for the creation of a regional Islamic caliphate.

Most religious prisoners are serving terms of up to 20 years for violating the country's constitution, participating in prohibited Islamic organizations, or distributing pamphlets. Many, too, are subjected to vicious, systematic beatings. Ozoda Rafikova, whose son is serving a prison sentence at Jaslyk for Islamic extremism, said inmates live under a nearly constant threat of being tortured. "Every morning, they get up and sing the hymns of Uzbekistan and Karakalpakistan. If one sings wrong, he is beaten. If one's bed is not made correctly, he is beaten. When one is beaten, he should say 'Thank you, sir' or he is beaten again," Rafikova said.

Rafikova added that Jaslyk prisoners are forced to write letters denouncing the government and all family ties. The treatment, she note, has grown steadily worse in recent months. "I don't know about other prisons, but in Jaslyk, the situation has gotten worse, especially since January. If you remember, the International Committee of the Red Cross visited [Jaslyk] last year. After that, the torture seemed to subside. But starting in January, the torture began to increase again and [previous] rules began to reappear. Harassment of visitors and the prisoners' relatives has also gotten worse," Rafikova said.

In January 2001, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) signed an agreement with the Uzbek authorities permitting ICRC delegates to tour the country's prisons. The visits were suspended just four months later, however, and have yet to be resumed.

The continued failure of the Uzbek authorities to respond to international critics and rights observers is especially notable in light of the fact that Uzbekistan has become a staunch U.S. ally in the wake of 11 September. Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan, has had some 5,000 special-forces troops stationed at its Khanabad air base since last October.

In return, the U.S. has tripled its aid to the region to $160 million, and U.S. officials, including, most recently, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, have paid regular visits to the country. Karimov was granted an audience at the White House in March, and the IMF is in negotiations to restart lending programs.

Suddenly in the Western spotlight, Uzbek officials made certain concessions to rights watchers. In January, four police officers were sentenced to 20 years in prison for torturing two prison inmates, one of whom died as a result of his injuries. In June, three security officers were sentenced in the beating death of a religious detainee. Uzbek authorities also formally registered a local human-rights group in March -- the same day the U.S. State Department released its annual human-rights report criticizing Uzbekistan for cracking down on religious and free-press rights, and a week before Karimov's Washington visit.

But the recent deaths of Alimov and Avazov signal that, in fact, disappointingly little appears to have changed in Uzbekistan. Imram Waheed, a London-based spokesman for Hezb ut-Tahrir, told RFE/RL that torture appears to be on the rise once again in Uzbek prisons. "We have received information from Uzbekistan that there is a plan in place, put forward by Karimov, that by November of this year he wants to eliminate every member of Hezb ut-Tahrir [now in] prison in Uzbekistan. The [prison] conditions seem to be worsening every day. Recently, we received information from Uzbekistan that some of our members are being injected with HIV and other diseases when they are in prison, especially in Jaslyk prison and Navoi prison [in southwest Uzbekistan]," Waheed said.

The Uzbek government recently declared success in its battle against Hezb ut-Tahrir, which it blames for spreading Islamic extremism and advocating violent revolt throughout the region. But Waheed denied the group's numbers or activities have been seriously affected. "The Hezb ut-Tahrir in Uzbekistan recently issued a leaflet [that] was widely distributed throughout Uzbekistan that talked about the policy of the Uzbek government toward traders, and the new taxes, and legislation [being] introduced by Karimov. We are still very much active in Uzbekistan. If we are not active, then why are they killing our members? What do they fear?" Waheed said.

Local and international rights observers have long argued that the government's restrictive policies, rather than reducing the risk of extremism, only foment greater resentment and risk of revolt. A prominent Uzbek Islamic scholar, Sheih Mohammad Sodik Mohammad Yusuf, last week urged Uzbek authorities to abandon the use of force in fighting religious extremism. He told reporters that the government's intolerance of religious dissent is blocking the way toward more moderate views. He added that, "Religious extremism should be fought through education and enlightenment."

(Khurmat Babadjanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)