Two former political prisoners in Uzbekistan are demanding financial compensation from the government over “unjust convictions” and the suffering they endured in the country’s notorious Jaslyk Prison.
In the unprecedented civil lawsuits filed by two residents of Qashqadaryo Province, Chuyan Mamatkulov is demanding about $50,000 and Elyor Tursunov is seeking $20,000 in damages.
Since President Shavkat Mirziyoev came to power in 2016, Uzbekistan has released more than 50 political prisoners. They include activists, journalists, and human rights campaigners who were jailed by the regime of the late Islam Karimov -- Mirziyoev’s authoritarian predecessor.
Uzbekistan’s government also has freed hundreds of other so-called “religious” prisoners who were incarcerated on dubious charges of extremism and terrorism.
Tashkent has not offered apologies, compensation, or even meaningful help to rehabilitate those who spent years incarcerated in a penal system known for harsh conditions and mistreating prisoners.
Both Tursunov and Mamatkulov spent years in Jaslyk Prison in northwestern Uzbekistan. Dubbed a “house of torture,” Jaslyk Prison was closed in 2019 amid public calls for it to be shut down.
Many former inmates allege that gruesome torture methods there included electric shocks, sexual assault, the pulling out of prisoners' fingernails, and long stints of solitary confinement without food or drink.
'The Man Who Tried To Sue Karimov'
The 50-year-old Mamatkulov is an outspoken human rights defender who filed a lawsuit in 2005 against then-President Karimov, accusing him of violating the rights of military personnel.
That lawsuit was just part of a relentless human rights campaign by Mamatkulov that angered officials in a regime that retaliated harshly against its critics.
Mamatkulov was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2013 on fraud, perjury, and kidnapping charges. His supporters say the charges were completely baseless.
“As part of this wrongful criminal case, I spent 29 months -- or 880 days -- behind bars. In Jaslyk, I experienced a lot of mental and physical suffering [and] I was away from my children,” Mamatkulov says.
Denied access to medical treatment in Jaslyk, Mamatkulov says he still suffers from ill health.
Mamatkulov was released in March 2018 and given the right to a new trial. He was acquitted on all charges in March 2020.
The tentative reforms the government has introduced will not be sustainable...unless Uzbek officials are prepared to engage civil society in an honest conversation about the last three decades of repressive rule.”-- Steve Swerdlow, University of Southern California
Tursunov, 34, was sentenced to 17 years in prison in 2013 on charges that included terrorism, undermining the constitutional order, and threatening public security. He has always maintained his innocence.
Tursunov was acquitted of all charges on March 18. But his freedom and acquittal came after he’d spent seven years in prison for crimes the court later determined he did not commit.
Tursunov spoke to RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service about the mistreatment he said he faced -- first at the detention center in his native Qashqadaryo Province, then at Jaslyk Prison in Uzbekistan’s autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan.
“Officers of the Qashqadaryo regional security service and the Internal Affairs Directorate mocked me, subjected me to physical and mental torture, and then deprived me of my freedom, illegally opening a criminal case,” Tursunov said as he described his time in detention while waiting for trial.
'Money Can't Bring My Life Back'
Both Tursunov and Mamatkulov say the suffering they endured cannot be measured financially. They say no amount of compensation can bring back the years they were separated from their families behind bars.
“The court ruling indicated that I would be compensated for the…damages inflicted upon me,” Mamatkulov told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service. “I demanded compensation in the amount of 500 million Uzbek soms (about $48,000). This amount is too small to compensate for what I’d endured. Freedom cannot be measured in money.”
The government in Tashkent has not yet offered any concrete support to help the former inmates rebuild their lives.
In a majority of such cases, former prisoners of conscience haven’t been exonerated from wrongful convictions as Mamatkulov and Tursunov have been. They are still presumed by law to have committed crimes because early releases from prison don’t automatically mean criminal records are wiped clean.
International human groups have called on Uzbekistan to help rehabilitate its freed prisoners of conscience and compensate for their unjust imprisonment and the violation of their human rights.
Many had health problems in prison and continue to suffer from chronic illnesses and depression.
'Wrong To Leave Them Alone'
In 2017, Mirziyoev urged officials and religious leaders to help “reintegrate into society” some 16,000 people that he removed from the Karimov regime’s blacklist of potential extremists.
Being on the Karimov-era blacklist meant not being able to find employment or travel outside the country. It also meant facing the constant risk of being arrested on security grounds.
Mirziyoev said that some 9,500 of those removed from the list had already been provided with jobs. He ordered regional governments to help find employment for the others.
“We have removed them from the list, but it would be wrong to leave them alone,” Mirziyoev said.
But it’s not known if Mirziyoev has extended that kind of support to prisoners of conscience he freed as part of reforms he started in 2016.
“The tentative reforms the government has introduced will not be sustainable, nor successful in the long term, unless Uzbek officials are prepared to engage civil society in an honest conversation about the last three decades of repressive rule,” says Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer and associate professor of human rights at the University of Southern California.
“Tursunov and Mamatkulov’s legal battles for acknowledgment of the hell they were needlessly subjected to represent a core desire of so many Uzbek citizens who have been mistreated by Uzbekistan’s abusive criminal justice system or at the hands of its still powerful security services,” Swerdlow, formerly of Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL.
Tashkent could potentially face many similar demands for compensation if it satisfies the demands of Mamatkulov and Tursunov. But it wouldn’t be the first time a government has faced such a dilemma.
In 2014, Chile’s government paid out compensation of about $7.5 million to 30 former political prisoners who’d been held during the military rule of Augusto Pinochet.
Swerdlow, a long-time campaigner for justice for Uzbek political prisoners, says the way Uzbek authorities ultimately deal with Mamatkulov and Tursunov’s lawsuits “will determine a great deal about their relationship to the country’s recent dark history and the commitment to engage in painful, much-needed reforms.”