In a 121-page report released last week, Human Rights Watch chronicles the dismal fates of 34 prominent political prisoners jailed in Uzbekistan. The report highlights larger trends of political repression in Uzbekistan, shedding light on the government’s “attempt to suppress a wide range of independent activity that occurs beyond strict state control.”
Using information gathered from more than 150 interviews with the relatives of prisoners, their lawyers, other human rights activists, former government officials, and former prisoners, the report includes detailed profiles of the prisoners and their harrowing experiences with Uzbekistan’s justice system.
Nearly half of the prisoners profiled in the report are rights activists. Journalists, independent religious figures, government critics, and witnesses to the 2005 Andijan massacre account for the rest. Several of the prisoners mentioned in the report are over 60 years old; four are women.
Though the report highlights only 34 prisoners, it is estimated that there are between 7,000 and 12,000 political prisoners in Uzbek jails.
One of the prisoners profiled in the report is Isroiljon Kholdorov, now 63. He had been the chairperson of the Andijan branch of Uzbekistan’s only registered human rights organization in 2005. Following the May 15, 2005 shooting of protesters in Andijan, Kholdorov spoke to international media about seeing mass graves after the massacre. Later that year his home was searched by police and he was forbidden from leaving the country. Kholdorov immediately fled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
That was not far enough, however.
“On June 10, 2006, Uzbek security services kidnapped Kholdorov in the city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan on his way home from the UNHCR office and forcibly returned him to Uzbekistan,” Human Rights Watch has noted. With less than a year left on his prison term in July 2012, Kholdorov was sentenced to an additional three years due to “such infractions as ‘not getting up when called’ and refusing to lift a heavy object when asked to by a prison guard.”
Among the human rights abuses outlined in the report are 29 “credible allegations of torture or ill-treatment,” 18 cases of prisoners being denied access to counsel, 11 instances of sentences being arbitrarily extended, and at least six cases of imprisonment for 15 years or longer.
The report’s recommendations are targeted to the government of Uzbekistan, demanding the unconditional release of the persons detailed in the report, immediate steps to eliminate torture, provision of fair trials, compliance with UN conventions against torture, and the allowance of unimpeded independent monitoring of Uzbek prisons.
In addition to recommendations for the Uzbek government, the report provides several recommendations for the EU, U.S., and UN, including: elevating human rights in bilateral agendas, establishing set timelines for improvements and ensuring that specific policy consequences for lack of progress are imposed.
When the Uzbek government has faced “sustained external pressure, including sanctions, [and] restrictions on military assistance” in the past, the report says it has responded with incremental steps to improve human rights. In the absence of such pressure, however, the government reverts to either defiance of international calls for improving human rights or denial of the existence of political prisoners in Uzbekistan. Both the U.S. and EU have occasionally criticized the Uzbek government’s abuses in public; “however, their criticism and public diplomacy have softened over the past five years.”
A decade after the Andijan massacre, denial and defiance remain the modus operandi of the Uzbek government. The U.S. and others have been shy about criticizing Uzbekistan because of its logistical importance to the war in Afghanistan. But once the wider mission in Afghanistan has ended, Western nations may have an opportunity to alter the course and tone of their relationships with Uzbekistan.