Just days after his department had to launch an investigation into the suspicious death of Hamza Ikromzoda in a detention center in mid-September, Izzatullo Sharifov found himself having to promise another probe amid claims of systematic torture in Tajik jails.
Upon being released from a Dushanbe penitentiary on October 8, Ikromzoda's former cellmate Saidali Kazakov told RFE/RL's bureau in the Tajik capital that abuse by prison authorities was a widespread practice.
He said that the only way inmates could avoid mistreatment was to get their relatives to pay bribes of $200- $500 to prison officials.
Kazakov also showed RFE/RL reporters bruises on his body, which he said he received as a result of torture.
He also intimated that those who abused prisoners to extort money felt they could do so with impunity because they were related to people in high places.
Kazakov said that some of those doling out punishment in prisons had claimed to be relatives of President Emomali Rahmon and some even told him that they were actually Sharifov's nephews.
Sharifov told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that no members of his family were working in the prison system, but he promised to look into Kazakov's allegations even though he considered them "unfounded." He defended the prison system and insisted that the UN's special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, had told him the situation in Tajik jails was much better than in other Central Asian countries.
Sharifov also said that the now notorious Hamza Ikromozoda case was still being investigated by the Prosecutor-General's Office.
Relatives of Ikromozoda claim that his body carried traces of torture, including bruises and burns caused by a heated iron.
Tajik authorities deny these allegations. They maintain that Ikromozoda committed suicide by hanging and that the marks on his body were caused by desperate attempts to revive him after he had been found.
These damaging accusations have come at a time when Dushanbe is coming under increasing pressure over apparent abuse in its penitentiary system.
On September 26, Sergey Romanov, director of the Independent Center for Human Rights, told a Warsaw meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that many Tajik detainees have regularly been "subjected to torture."
His claims echo those of various rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, which has said that the "torture and ill-treatment" of prisoners in Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries "continues to be routine and is abetted by corruption and impunity."
In its World Report for 2012, Human Rights Watch also suggested that "torture remains an enduring problem within Tajikistan's penitentiary system," although it did acknowledge that the country's authorities have recently taken "a few small steps to hold perpetrators accountable."
-- Coilin O'Connor