In a report released Wednesday, Amnesty International highlights the central role of torture in Uzbekistan’s justice system. Based on more than 60 interviews with exiles, human rights defenders, torture survivors and their family members, academics, journalists and others the report, titled Secrets and Lies: Forced confessions under torture in Uzbekistan, sheds light on a tragically familiar topic.
“Torture has become a defining feature of the Uzbekistani criminal justice system,” the report concludes.
It is central to how the Uzbekistani authorities deal with dissent, combat security threats and maintain their grip on power. It is deeply wrong and in the long-run unsustainable. But this has not prevented the international community from turning a blind eye to the glaring indiscretions of a perceived geo-strategic ally. This is both short-sighted and a deep disservice to the thousands of victims languishing in Uzbekistan’s torture chambers.
In the report, the stories of several torture victims are retold, including that of Dilorom Abdukadirova. In May 2005, Abdukadirova, a farmer, had gone to central Andijan to join the thousands demonstrating in Babur Square. She was there when security forces opened fire on the protestors. Exactly what happened, and how many died, is still a subject of much debate.
According to the Amnesty International report, Abdukadirova was among 500 protesters who survived the massacre and escaped to Kyrgyzstan. She was moved to a refugee camp in Romania, and then granted refugee status in Australia where she moved in early 2006. In 2010, Abdukadirova, who had left a husband and four sons in Uzbekistan, was told by authorities that nothing would happen if she chose to return.
However, she was immediately detained upon arrival at Tashkent airport because she did not have a valid exit permit in her passport. She was questioned for four days by Tashkent police and released after they charged her with “illegal exit” from the Republic of Uzbekistan under article 223 of the Criminal Code
Eventually Abdukadirova was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of “illegal exit” and “attempts to overthrow the constitutional order of the Republic of Uzbekistan.” In 2012, her sentence was extended eight years on account of vague charges of “bad behavior” in prison. Her family says that when they saw her at the 2010 trial, there were bruises on her face.
Among the torture recounted in the report are instances of beatings, asphyxiation, use of electric shocks, needles inserted under the fingernails, rape, humiliation and threats made against family and friends used to extract false confessions, which in turn lead to extensive prison sentences and often, more torture.
In September 2014, Human Rights Watch released its own report on Uzbekistan, focusing on the thousands of political prisoners sitting in Uzbek jails. At the time that report was released, I wrote that:
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.
With this report, Amnesty International perhaps hopes that the moment is right for the United States and Europe to change course on Uzbekistan. It has happened before. In 2005, U.S. pressure on Uzbekistan regarding human rights rose as focus on the war in Afghanistan shifted away, back to Iraq. The U.S. criticized Uzbekistan over the events at Andijan and in return Uzbekistan evicted the U.S. from the Karshi-Khanabad (K2) airbase, which it had been using since 2001 to support the war in Afghanistan.
Amnesty International writes that the U.S. policy of “strategic patience” toward Uzbekistan is emblematic of how the U.S. has repeatedly prioritized the conduct of the war on terror above human rights. By partnering with repressive governments for intelligence and operational support, the U.S. and others, the report states, “become complicit in the authorities’ abuses.”