As Gulnara Karimova, the embattled daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman President Islam Karimov, stares the prospect of a jail term in the face, a new report by an international human rights watchdog offers a chilling peak at life behind bars in her father’s authoritarian state.
The report, released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on September 26, details the cases of 34 detainees and ten former detainees whom the watchdog views as political prisoners, jailed on trumped-up charges ranging from plotting to overthrow Karimov to corruption, illegal religious activity, and human trafficking.
These cases “shed light on larger trends of political repression in Uzbekistan and on the government’s attempt to suppress a wide range of independent activity that occurs beyond strict state control,” the watchdog said in the 121-page report, entitled Until the Very End: Politically Motivated Imprisonment in Uzbekistan.
The detainees profiled include human rights campaigners, political activists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and witnesses to the shooting of protesters in Andijan in 2005.
Tashkent “appears to have a policy of using imprisonment to target virtually anyone engaged in activities outside very tight state controls,” Steve Swerdlow of HRW, the report’s author, told EurasiaNet.org.
Like other detainees inside Uzbekistan’s notoriously harsh jails, political prisoners are held in tough conditions and suffer “a wide range of human rights abuses,” the research found, with “credible allegations of torture or ill-treatment” made in 29 of the case studies.
US-based political activist Sanjar Umarov says in a video released to accompany the report that he was tortured for refusing to falsely confess that he received $20 million from the US government to overthrow Karimov.
“I refused to make such a statement so they started to choke me,” he explains in a rasping voice. “And to this day my voice is ruined because of that.”
In 2002 a visiting UN rapporteur found evidence of “systematic torture” in Uzbekistan’s jails. In the intervening 12 years, Tashkent has denied access to all 11 UN experts who have requested permission to visit.
HRW says it approached Uzbekistan’s interior, justice, and foreign ministries, prosecutor’s office, and human rights ombudsman in July with its findings, but none has responded.
Tashkent denies holding political prisoners or torturing detainees in its jails. In an outburst at the United Nations last year, Akmal Saidov, director of Uzbekistan’s National Human Rights Center, described “systematic torture” as “an antiquated, hackneyed expression that has long been thrown in our faces.”
“People are prosecuted not for their political deeds but for specific crimes that they commit,” he stated.
The International Committee of the Red Cross terminated visits to Uzbekistan’s jails last year on the grounds that they were “pointless” since it was unable to follow its standard procedures.
Umarov was released under international pressure. But thousands of prisoners are languishing in Uzbekistan’s jails due to their political or religious beliefs or “legitimate exercise of civil and political rights,” HRW said.
The precise number of political prisoners is not known, but the study quotes estimates ranging from 7,000 to 12,000. One prisoner, religious leader Akram Yoldashev (jailed in 1999 on terrorism charges), has not been heard from since 2009, which is tantamount to “enforced disappearance,” Swerdlow said.
HRW catalogued other abuses including denial of access to medical treatment and to counsel; incommunicado detention; and arbitrary extension of prison sentences.
The sentence of Murod Juraev, a political activist jailed in 1995 for 12 years on treason charges, has been extended four times—once for “peeling carrots incorrectly.” Other terms have been extended for “failure to lift a heavy object” and “wearing a white shirt.”
Juraev is one of five prisoners profiled who was kidnapped from abroad (Kazakhstan in his case) and spirited back to Uzbekistan to face trial. Political activist Muhammad Bekjanov was abducted from his home in Ukraine in 1999 and jailed for 15 years on charges of threatening the constitutional order. He remains behind bars, after his sentence was extended for five years in 2012.
HRW called on Tashkent to immediately release all political prisoners, take steps to eliminate torture, allow access to UN experts, and comply with its own international human rights commitments.
The watchdog also urged the international community – the UN, the US government, the European Union – to place Uzbekistan’s human rights record on their agendas and pressure Tashkent to release political prisoners and end torture, with clear consequences if it fails to respond.
Tashkent has shown in the past that it is susceptible to international pressure over political prisoners, Swerdlow told EurasiaNet.org, and “Karimov with the stroke of a pen tomorrow could release all of them.”