Uzbekistan's Former Chief Interrogator Decries Being Tortured In Prison

Members of the SNB get out of a minivan during an operation outside the capital, Tashkent, in June 2015.

Once known as a ruthless inquisitor, Farrukh Tokhtimametov insists there was no mistreatment of detainees in the notorious jails of Uzbekistan's powerful National Security Service (SNB), arguably the most feared institution in the country.

But just minutes later Tokhtimametov, a former senior SNB interrogator, contradicts himself, recalling a brief stint in prison of his own by the very same organization where he worked for 14 years.

"They kept me completely naked in a very small, overcrowded cell along with 12 other men," Tokhtimametov tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service in an exclusive interview from a hospital room in Istanbul where he is receiving medical treatment.

Tokhtimametov claims he was beaten, denied medical assistance, and humiliated while jailed in Uzbekistan on "trumped-up charges" -- the all too familiar detainee refrain that has been documented by human rights advocates in Uzbekistan for many years.

The difference, however, is that the alleged victim is the man who once oversaw SNB interrogations and probes -- a man who multiple former prisoners accuse of having them imprisoned on fabricated charges.

Tokhtimametov, 42, served almost half of his time in the notorious SNB as part of its investigation unit, where he rose through the ranks to a top position.

Tokhtimametov was at the pinnacle of his career as the acting head of the investigations unit and held the rank of lieutenant colonel when he was arrested during a business trip to the southern Surkhondaryo Province in May 2014.

"I was taken by two local SNB officers at the Surkhondaryo airport the moment I got off the plane," Tokhtimametov recalls. "They took away my documents, put a sack over my head, and drove me away without explaining why."

Tokhtimametov describes how he was taken to a military jail and "shoved" into a cell he likens to "a place only dogs would sleep."

Then one of the most senior interrogators at SNB headquarters in Tashkent found himself in the unlikely position of being interrogated by provincial officials. "They wouldn't even ask a question; they would just demand that I talk. ‘About what?' I asked. 'About everything,' they would say.'"

He was later charged with abuse of office and illegally acquiring state property.

'They Stripped Me Naked'

By his own account, Tokhtimametov spent 45 days in the Surkhondaryo jail. He says no visitors were allowed to see him and he was prevented from all contact with the outside world. "I was forced to stay completely naked there the entire time," he says. "Other inmates had their clothes on."

Tokhtimametov's hands shake and his voice breaks as he recalls the details of his alleged mistreatment, an account he says his "former cellmates and the prison guards would confirm."

"I would try to cover my private parts with a chessboard we had in the cell, but the guards would demand that I remove the board. They wanted to put huge psychological pressure on me, to humiliate me," he adds.

Tokhtimametov's detention came just a year after he underwent surgery on his thyroid gland, leaving him dependent on a daily hormone dosage. He claims he was denied medical help when he was "feeling very ill and asked for a doctor and the medication."

He describes being hit with batons, verbally insulted, and left nude and handcuffed on the floor of the interrogation room.

The former interrogator was asked whether the mistreatment he experienced led him to realize what horrible abuses other inmates -- many of which he had personally sent to SNB jails in Tashkent -- had been through.

"Yes, I thought about it," Tokhtimametov says. "I experienced it in my own skin."

But he still denies widespread allegations by many victims of such abuse -- including human rights activists -- that torture was commonplace in SNB jails. "There was no torture within the SNB -- none of the people I interrogated was tortured," he says. "Maybe it existed in other departments in the provinces...but not in Tashkent."

But Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), says Tokhtimametov's claim there was no torture in Tashkent is untrue.

"Any suggestion that SNB officials did not torture or ill-treat detainees in its custody during Tokhtimametov's tenure is patently false given the solid and well-documented systematic practice of torture across -- at least -- dozens of cases over the course of several years," Swerdlow tells RFE/RL.

Swerdlow says one notable case was a former security guard at the British Embassy in Tashkent, Kayum Ortikov, who spent nine months in SNB custody in the Uzbek capital in 2009.

Ortikov and his family said the SNB officials burned his genitals with flaming newspapers, pushed needles under his fingernails, and threatened to have allegedly HIV-positive prisoners rape him if he did not confess to being a spy, Swerdlow says.

Ortikov's case is one of dozens that HRW has documented in Uzbekistan.

Targeting Businessmen

Tokhtimametov also denies the charges against him -- abuse of his official position and stealing state property. However, several suspects interrogated directly by Tokhtimametov claim otherwise.

Businessman Azamjon Yulchiev was questioned by Tokhtimametov in a tax-fraud case in 2008. Yulchiev accuses Tokhtimametov of illegally seizing $10 million worth of goods the businessman imported to Uzbekistan in dozens of containers. Yulchiev was charged with failing to pay custom duties.

According to Yulchiev, the interrogator wrote in his case that only $2 million in property was confiscated from the businessman. Yulchiev tells RFE/RL that he believes Tokhtimametov and his team took the rest of the goods, which the businessman said he never saw again.

In video footage sent to RFE/RL, Yulchiev says he was threatened by Tokhtimametov to sign a confession or "rot behind prison bars."

Tokhtimametov says he remembers Yulchiev's case but claims he "didn't have access" to the property confiscated from the businessman.

Similar stories were told to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service by several other people who say they were interrogated by Tokhtimametov.

Tokhtimametov says he doesn't know what will happen to him next. He was tried in a Surkhondaryo court in June 2014, found guilty, and ordered to pay a fine. He was set free in the courtroom.

Several months later, Tokhtimametov left for Turkey along with his wife and five children. The family is living in a two-room dormitory near the hospital where Tokhtimametov is getting treatment for thyroid cancer.

Tokhtimametov might face a retrial in Tashkent as the country's new president, Shavkat Mirziyoev, has begun a purge of the SNB and vowed to reform it.

In February, Mirziyoev removed vastly influential SNB chief Rustam Inoyatov, who led the powerful and secretive institution for more than two decades.

Mirziyoev said the SNB's "time was up," adding that the organization had been "exceeding its authority," unfairly targeting ordinary people, businessmen, and government officials alike.

In a recent speech in Bukhara Province, the president said he received evidence of how SNB officials had unjustly targeted and tortured local businessmen.

In his modest hospital room, Tokhtimametov tells RFE/RL he "fully" supports Mirziyoev's stance toward the SNB, quietly adding that he is ready to go home to face a new trial.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on an interview conducted by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondent Sirojiddin Tolibov