Sat, Sep 27, 2014 - Page 6 News List

Report slams Uzbekistan over political prisoners

The Guardian, LONDON

Uzbekistan has locked up thousands of people on politically motivated charges, with prisoners typically kept in abysmal conditions and subject to torture and ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said yesterday in a landmark new report on one of the world’s most repressive and secretive regimes.

The government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov has jailed human rights activists, journalists, religious clerics and numerous other perceived critics, the report says.

It profiles 34 victims, some of whom were kidnapped from abroad and locked up following sham trials.

Others wrongly behind bars include cultural figures, artists and entrepreneurs, the report says.

Most were branded “enemies of the state” and jailed for nebulous offenses such as “anti-constitutional activity” or “religious extremism.” The sentences are often extended arbitrarily for years, the report says.

The dossier is the fullest audit for a decade of the conditions inside Uzbekistan’s jails. It is based on 150 interviews with former detainees, relatives of serving prisoners and newly obtained court documents. It paints a bleak picture. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 29 of the 34 prisoners have made credible allegations of torture or ill-treatment.

Several complain of being given electric shocks and of hangings from wrists and ankles. Others say they have been subjected to threats of rape, sexual humiliation, hurt to relatives and being denied food and water.

The report says that political repression has been a “constant feature of life” in Uzbekistan for the past two decades. It suggests Tashkent has pursued various “overlapping” campaigns of persecution.

The Central Asian state has seen a crackdown on the political opposition (1992-1997); the persecution of religious Muslims (from 1997 until present); and the Andijan massacre and its aftermath (2005-2007), when hundreds of protesters in the city of Andijan were shot dead. Since 2008, the regime has targeted those suspected of links with Western and other governments.

Between 10,000 and 12,000 political prisoners are estimated to be in jail. The exact figure is difficult to determine: the Uzbek regime has banned Human Rights Watch and the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as foreign journalists, UN human rights experts and the BBC.

Hugh Williamson, Human Rights Watch’s director for Europe and Central Asia, said that “broadly speaking” the rights situation had got worse over the past 10 years.

The report is scathing about the international community’s response. The EU and US have complained about Uzbekistan’s human rights record. Over the past five years, however, the West has “softened” its criticism, it says. In 2009 Brussels lifted sanctions. In 2012 Washington loosened restrictions on giving military help to the nation. With supply routes from Pakistan under Taliban attack, Uzbekistan has become crucial to the US as a transit route for it to deliver war supplies to Afghanistan.

“Both the EU and US have made compromises,” Williamson said.

Human Rights Watch recommends tougher measures against top Uzbek officials involved in repression, including visa bans and asset freezes.

“The US, EU and other key governments know all about President Islam Karimov’s use of prison and abuse to stamp out independent journalism, human rights monitoring, and political and religious freedom,” report author Steve Swerdlow said.

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