Uzbekistan: US and Europe turning a blind eye to torture
Geostrategic and business interests overshadow human rights abuses
The USA, Germany, and other European Union countries’ continuing ‘blind-spot’ to endemic torture in Uzbekistan ensures that appalling abuses will continue unabated, said Amnesty International in a new report published today.
The report, Secrets and Lies: Forced confessions under torture in Uzbekistan, reveals how rampant torture and other ill-treatment plays a “central role” in the country’s justice system and the government’s clampdown on any group perceived as a threat to national security. It warns that police and security forces frequently use torture to extract confessions, to intimidate entire families or as a threat to extract bribes.
“It’s an open secret that anyone who falls out of favour with the authorities can be detained and tortured in Uzbekistan. No one can escape the tendrils of the state,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Director, launching the report in Berlin.
“What is shameful is that many governments, including the USA, are turning a blind eye to appalling torture, seemingly for fear of upsetting an ally in the ‘war on terror’. Other governments, like Germany, appear to be more concerned with business opportunities and not rocking the boat.”
“Strategic Patience” a shameful strategy in the face of human rights violations
As the 10th anniversary of the May 2005 Andizhan mass killings of hundreds of protestors approaches, Amnesty International’s report highlights how the USA and EU governments, including Germany, have put security, political, military and economic interests ahead of any meaningful action to pressure the Uzbekistani authorities to fully respect human rights and stop torture by its authorities.
European sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan after the 2005 mass killings in Andizhan were lifted in 2008 and 2009, revoking travel bans and allowing arms sales to resume despite no one being held to account for the killings. The last time EU foreign ministers even put Uzbekistan’s human rights record on the agenda was in October 2010.
Germany in particular has close military ties with Uzbekistan. In November 2014 it renewed a lease for an airbase in Termez to provide support to German troops in Afghanistan. On 2 March 2015, Germany and Uzbekistan agreed a €2.8 billion investment and trade package.
In January 2012, the US government waived restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan originally imposed in 2004, due in part to the country’s human rights record. This year the military relationship between the two countries strengthened significantly with the implementation of a new five-year plan for military cooperation.
In December 2014, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia, Nisha Biswal, said Washington exercised “strategic patience” in relations with Uzbekistan.
“The attitude of Uzbekistan’s international partners to the routine use of torture appears at best ambivalent, and at worst silent to the point of complicity. The USA describes its engagement with Uzbekistan as a policy of “strategic patience”, but it is perhaps better described as strategic indulgence. The USA, Germany, and the EU should immediately demand that Uzbekistan clean up its act and stop torture,” said John Dalhuisen.
“The international ban on torture is absolute and immediate. Yet while Germany and the USA foster closer ties with Uzbekistan, people are being snatched up by police, tortured into confessing to trumped-up charges, and subjected to unfair trials. As long as Uzbekistan uses torture-tainted evidence in court, it will remain a torture-tainted ally.”
Torture endemic in Uzbekistan’s criminal justice system
Amnesty International’s report is compiled from more than 60 interviews conducted between 2013-2015 and evidence gathered over 23 years. It lifts the lid on the use of sound-proof torture cells with padded walls used by the secret police, the Uzbekistani National Security Service (SNB), and documents the continued use of underground torture cells in police stations.
The police and secret police use horrific techniques, including asphyxiation, rape, electric shocks, exposure to extreme heat and cold, and deprivation of sleep, food and water. The report also documents elaborate, prolonged beatings delivered by groups of people, including other prisoners.
One man, who was never told the reason for his arrest, described what happened after he was taken to the basement of a police station in the early hours of the morning: “I was in handcuffs with my hands behind my back … There were two police officers beating me, kicking me, using batons, I lost consciousness. They beat me everywhere, on my head, kidneys… When I lost consciousness they would throw water on me to wake me up and beat me again.”
Security forces targeting entire families
The report documents widespread use of torture and other ill-treatment, with victims including government critics, religious groups, migrant workers and business people. The authorities sometimes also target victims’ extended families.
Zuhra, a former detainee, told Amnesty International how security forces targeted her entire family, most of whom remain in detention today. She was regularly called to report to the local police station, where she was detained and beaten to punish her for being a member of an “extremist family” and force her to reveal the whereabouts of male relatives, or to incriminate them. She said: “There is no peace in our house. We wake up in the morning and if there is a car in front of our door, our hearts beat faster… There are no men left in our house. There are not even any grandchildren left.”
Arbitrary brutality in an unaccountable justice system
New testimony received by Amnesty International exposes the institutionalized use of torture and other ill-treatment to elicit confessions and incriminating evidence about other suspects.
People are often tried using evidence extracted from torture. Judges extort bribes for lenient sentencing and the police and secret police use the threat of torture to demand huge bribes from detainees and prisoners.
Turkish businessman, Vahit Güneº, was accused of economic crimes including tax evasion and connection to a banned Islamic movement, charges which he denies. He was held for 10 months in secret police detention, where he says he was tortured until he signed a false confession. He was tortured again when the secret police wanted to extort several million US dollars from his family in exchange for his release.
The response he received when he asked for a lawyer illustrates the unfair and arbitrary nature of Uzbekistan’s justice system: “One of the prosecutors said: ‘Vahit Güneº pull yourself together. In the whole history of the SNB no one has been brought here and found innocent and released. Everyone who is brought here is found guilty. They have to plead guilty.’”
Vahit Güneº described the dehumanizing conditions, psychological intimidation, beatings and sexual humiliation of detention: “You are not a human being anymore. They give you a number there. Your name is not valid there anymore. For instance my number was 79. I was not Vahit Güneº there anymore, I was 79. You are not a human being. You have become a number.”
Torture continues unabated and unpunished since 1992
Although torture is against the law in Uzbekistan, it is rarely punished. Even the government’s own figures show the scale of impunity for torture, with only 11 police officers convicted under Uzbekistani law from 2010-2013.
During this time 336 complaints of torture were officially registered, of which just 23 cases were prosecuted and six taken to trial. To make matters worse, the authorities charged with investigating those complaints are often the same ones accused of torture, severely limiting the likelihood that victims will ever receive justice and reparations.
Amnesty International is calling on President Islam Karimov to publically condemn the use of torture. The authorities should also establish an independent system for inspections of all detention centres and ensure that confessions and other evidence obtained by torture or other ill-treatment are never used in court.
This report is the fourth in a series of five different country reports, after Mexico, Nigeria and the Philippines, to be released as part of Amnesty International’s global Stop Torture campaign, launched by Amnesty International in May 2014. In the past five years alone, Amnesty International has reported on torture and other ill-treatment in 141 countries.
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Report Secrets and Lies: Forced confessions under torture in Uzbekistan