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In Central Asia, Torture Persists, as Does Impunity

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In Central Asia, Torture Persists, as Does Impunity

No one should be subjected to torture at any time and in any circumstances. Central Asian governments must continue to strive to stamp out this illegal and inhuman practice. 

In Central Asia, Torture Persists, as Does Impunity
Credit: Depositphotos

June 26 is the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. In all the Central Asian countries, serious problems with torture and ill-treatment continue. It is shocking how often impunity persists for perpetrators of torture, and in many harrowing cases of abuse the authorities either hand down punishments to perpetrators that do not correspond with the severity of the crimes committed or simply do not punish them at all.

In support of victims of torture in Central Asia, International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) today published a statement together with our partners in the Coalitions against Torture in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (AHRCA, Uzbekistan, based in exile in France), the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR, Turkmenistan, based in exile in Austria) and Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR).

In Kazakhstan, hundreds of cases of torture were reported during the Bloody January events of 2022 (known locally as Qandy Qantar). Although some perpetrators have been prosecuted and convicted, the number of such cases is low compared to the scale of the documented abuses. There has been a high rate of impunity for perpetrators of torture; in many cases, investigations were closed as a result of the alleged lack of elements of a crime. 

A general problem in Kazakhstan is that convicted perpetrators of torture and ill-treatment often have had their prison sentences commuted to fines. Although in 2023, legal changes were finally adopted putting a stop to this practice, this new law has yet to be systematically implemented. For example, five police officers accused of performing particularly cruel acts of torture during the Bloody January events, such as burning victims with hot irons, putting needles under fingernails, brutal beatings and pulling out teeth with pliers, were sentenced to between three and four years of imprisonment in February 2023. However, as our partner the NGO, Coalition Against Torture in Kazakhstan, learned, four of them have since had their sentences commuted to fines. This completely undermines not only the new law, but also the government’s stated commitment to zero tolerance of torture

In Kyrgyzstan, impunity for torture and ill-treatment also remains a significant problem. There are particular concerns about the prolonged detention of people arrested for politically motivated reasons in conditions that can be considered to constitute degrading and inhuman treatment. 

For instance, more than 20 bloggers, activists, politicians, and journalists arrested in autumn 2022 after peacefully voicing their criticism of the Kyrgyz authorities’ border deal with Uzbekistan regarding control over the Kempir-Abad reservoir were held for many months in pre-trial detention, in conditions that were reported to be unsanitary and degrading, with inadequate access to medical treatment, and denials of family visits. While some of them were eventually moved to house arrest before the start of the trial, others remained in pre-trial detention for more than 19 months. In a ruling welcomed by human rights groups, most of the defendants in this case were recently acquitted and those still in detention were released. However, those responsible for violating the activists’ rights should also be held accountable.

Tajikistan’s prisons are known to be dangerous, overcrowded, and unsanitary, and there are concerns that people who have been arrested on politically motivated grounds are at risk of torture and ill-treatment. This includes Manuchehr Kholiqnazarov, director of the Lawyers Association of Pamir in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), who has been imprisoned since 2022 on trumped up charges related to his human rights work. Kholiqnazarov is currently serving a 16-year-sentence in a maximum security prison colony. He has not been given proper medical care despite the fact that his health has significantly deteriorated.

Additionally, a recent “trend” of extraditions of Tajikistani government critics and opposition members from Europe and Turkey to Tajikistan has emerged, including from EU member states like Germany. As there is a high risk of torture and ill-treatment upon return, these extraditions violate returning states’ obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and other international commitments

In Turkmenistan, the prison system (much like the country) remains extremely closed and non-transparent, with no independent national mechanisms for monitoring prison conditions and lack of access for international monitors. While recent open source research by Crude Accountability indicates that the prison system is expanding, we have almost no way of tracking what happens in the correctional facilities throughout the country, except for rare testimonials from individuals who have been released. Information from them indicates that prison conditions are degrading and inhuman, and detainees are kept in unsanitary conditions with no proper access to medical treatment and adequate food.

In addition, detainees are often kept in isolation for long periods of time. As documented by the “Prove They Are Alive” campaign, the practice of enforced disappearances continues, meaning that the relatives of dozens of people imprisoned following unfair and politically motivated trials have had no information about the fate and well-being of their loved ones for many years. 

In Uzbekistan, torture remains common. Unfortunately, pressure from the authorities means that human rights activists and other independent bodies are unable to systematically and effectively monitor the prison system and conditions for detainees. But reports of torture in Uzbekistan’s prisons are the stuff of nightmares. People are often tortured in police stations after they have been arrested.

In May this year, Denis Nikolaev, a 30-year-old man, was arrested by police outside a nightclub because of an alleged administrative offence. He was then taken to Chilanzar District Police Station in Tashkent, where policemen beat him with a mop while he was handcuffed. One blow hit him directly in the eye, but despite visible injuries, the judge at his remand hearing did not do anything about it. Nikolaev was sentenced to ten days of administrative detention, and only after being released was he able to have an examination by an eye specialist. The doctor told him that only a costly operation could save his eyesight – money that Nikolaev did not have. Thus, he lost the sight in that eye. Nikolaev and his family are currently trying to get a criminal case opened against the perpetrators.

International law, the supremacy of which is enshrined in many country’s constitutions, clearly stipulates that no one should be subjected to torture at any time and in any circumstances. The governments of Central Asia must continue to strive to take effective measures to stamp out this illegal and inhuman practice.