Even after becoming a US ally by providing vital military bases following 11 September, experts argue that little has changed in the human-rights situation of Uzbekistan. With an ongoing campaign against independent Muslims, widespread torture in prisons, and repression of women, the country remains reclusive and authoritarian.
In an interview with IRIN, Matilda Bogner, the head of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Uzbekistan, maintained that with more than 7,000 independent Muslims languishing in prisons, the human-rights situation remains abysmal. She urged the international community to constantly monitor the situation in Uzbekistan
and make decisions about any future cooperation with the country on the basis of realistic human-rights assessments.
QUESTION: How would you describe the human-rights situation in Uzbekistan?
ANSWER: The human-rights situation in Uzbekistan is not good. Massive human-rights abuses throughout the country involving a whole range of areas. The area that we have been focusing on in the last few years has been religious persecution, because that's an area where some of the most extreme violations of human rights have been occurring. But it also crosses over into other areas such as procedural rights in the criminal justice system, including torture within the criminal justice system.
Independence of the judiciary here doesn't exist. There are a lot of problems which helped to lead to torture being very widespread in the country.
Independent Muslims in the country are regularly arrested and put in jail. We estimate, along with other human-rights groups - and it's a conservative estimate - that there are around 7,000 people in jails for their religious beliefs in the country.
Political opposition here has been decimated in the early to mid 1990s. The government had a campaign against political opposition, with most opposition leaders either in exile, in jail or not active any more within the country.
Q: You have reported on prison conditions. How appalling are these now?
A: The prison conditions here are atrocious, from material levels, including food that the inmates get, the heating and the lack of adequate basic facilities, leading to illnesses. There is an epidemic of tuberculosis in the prisons along with many other diseases. If you get sentenced to a period in
prison here that can actually mean that it is a death penalty, because even if you get sentenced to several years of imprisonment, you can die of the many diseases that you get within the prison.
Q: How serious and rampant is torture in the country?
A: Torture is also very widespread within the prisons, and particularly focused on religious and political prisoners. There were two deaths in August this year, which provide a very good example of the type of things that go on in the prisons here. Two religious prisoners were tortured to death and were brought
back to Tashkent in August for the families to bury. One of the families saw the body and it had signs that showed that he had been immersed in boiling water. He had no finger nails, serious injuries to his head and bruising throughout his body.
It's just one example of the particularly gruesome and harsh treatment that religious and political prisoners are subjected to. However, ordinary prisoners are also subjected to torture. In pre-trial detention, torture is an endemic part of the system. Basically, even somebody who is suspected of a relatively minor criminal charge can be tortured quite seriously in order to gain a confession to be used in evidence here.
Q: Central Asia is often thought of as a place where women are emancipated. How would you describe their condition in the country?
A: We did a report on women and domestic violence. Looking in particular at the way that the government has helped to aid the process by which women are kept in dangerous situations, such as the local mohallah (community) committees.
They often will provide no support for a woman who is facing violence in the home, and will encourage or force her back into a violent home situation. They usually put up barriers for the women who want to separate or divorce from husbands who are very violent against them. They also prevent investigation or public interference in that situation.
This year, large numbers of women have been committing suicide, and in this region it is often by burning themselves. It seems that local authorities are not dealing with this issue adequately and that, therefore, can raise human-rights issues.
Q: Uzbekistan lifted the official pre-publication censorship this year. What is the state of media freedom in the country?
A: This year censorship was officially lifted. However, we have been monitoring media since then and it's clear that the government still has a very strict control over the content of the media.
After censorship - that was pre-publication censorship - all the heads of the media organisations were called to Tashkent two days after the ban was lifted. There they were told that they were now responsible to ensure that the contents of their publications remain as they were before. If articles were being
published which weren't in line with the government requirements, the editors would have to answer for that. Similar meetings were held in all the regions of Uzbekistan.
I know of one case in which an editor allowed some articles to be published in his paper which were discussing social issues in a way that hadn't been discussed quite so openly before. It was talking about unemployment, poverty, admitting that there were problems in those areas. He was called in by the presidential administration and dressed down to ensure that it didn't happen
It's very clear that media output is tightly controlled. If you rate the types of articles that are published, the types of things on television, it's very clear that it's pro-government and there is very little criticism or even very little debate about public policy and about issues that affect society at large.
Q: Elsewhere Wahhabis and other Islamic fundamentalists are often associated with terrorism. Why are you advocating their rights in Uzbekistan?
A: In Uzbekistan, the people that are imprisoned are not terrorists. They are not people who promote violence. They are people who have their own Muslim beliefs and who want to express them in their own way. However,they don't believe in violence.
In the past, there had been the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and they were based outside of the country, and there were a couple of incursions in 1999 into Kyrgyzstan and in 2000 into Uzbekistan. However, it seems that the movement no longer poses any threat since the US went into Afghanistan [in 2001]. Most of
its leaders were either killed or escaped elsewhere.
The 7,000 prisoners are either, as the government labels them Wahhabis or Hizb ut-Tahrir [Liberation Party]. There are a few other groups who, for example, follow Nursy, a Turkish Muslim scholar from last century into this century.
We sort of group all those people [together] and call them independent Muslims,but they don't promote violence. If you go to a Hizb ut-Tahrir trial, you will find that the allegations against them are that they distributed some leaflets or materials, that they perhaps collected money to give to families of jailed Hizb ut-Tahrir activists, or they were members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir and took oaths as its members.
That's the basic allegations against some 95 percent of the people in prison. For Wahhabis, there is a similar set of allegations. They are imprisoned for meeting others, learning and reciting the Koran in Arabic. It will be pointed out that they were particularly pious in terms of women and that they wore
headscarfs in a way which was not traditionally Uzbek, but fundamentalist Islamist or Arabic.
Q: What changes do you see in the human rights situation post-11 September, when the government of Uzbekistan joined the international coalition and in return also received massive amounts of Western assistance?
A: Earlier this year, people were waiting to see what will happen in terms of human rights, particularly in terms of religious persecution. However, by now it's clear that the government is intent on continuing its campaign against
independent Muslims. [President Islam] Karimov himself has said that they will continue prosecuting Hizb ut-Tahrir people, and that human-rights organisations will understand sometime soon that they also should support the government's approach in relation to this.
The US has been arguing that there has been a decrease in the number of new arrests. They have been arguing that there are some positive steps taken by the Uzbek government. It's true that there have been some steps taken by the Uzbek government that HRW has welcomed. There were two trials of law-enforcement
agents for torturing to death independent Muslims in custody. They did register one independent human-rights organisation. There have been a few other steps taken, such as lifting the pre-publication censorship.
However, if you examine the steps that were taken, I find that there has been no fundamental change in policy in relation to human rights in the country. There are still continuing human rights violations.
Q: How would you compare the human-rights situation in the country to those in the neighbouring Central Asian republics?
A: I think Uzbekistan is one of the worst. Turkmenistan is even worse, but it is closed and it's hard to get a lot of up-to-date information. Compared to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and even Tajikistan, Uzbekistan is a much more tightly controlled environment. That means that there is a lot less freedom of
expression, the media is much more tightly controlled and here the campaign against independent Muslims is a lot harsher than in those other countries. Also torture occurs on a more systematic basis here. Overall, Uzbekistan is one of the worst.
Q: What recommendations do you have for the international community and the US-led anti-terrorist coalition in particular, to improve the human rights situation in the country?
A: I think the international community has to be very careful in continuing to examine for itself the human-rights situation in the country and not to accept the government's point of view. The Uzbek government has put a lot of rhetoric in saying that they were on a path to democracy and improving the human-rights
situation in the country.
I think the international community must not accept that at face value and continue to examine what is going on in this country. They should make decisions about their future cooperation with Uzbekistan based on that real assessment. Other interests in security in the region shouldn't take priority over human
rights in the region. Human rights should be at the top [together] with regional stability and not be overlooked.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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