Four men broke into Yusuf’s apartment in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent in July 2009 and started beating him, before putting him in handcuffs and taking him to the local police station. Yusuf says this was not the first time he was attacked and detained, but on this occasion he was questioned by officers for three days, who took a long baton to his head and used a plastic bag to suffocate him.
He refused to sign a confession saying that he’d plotted to overthrow Uzbekistan’s constitutional order, but was ultimately convicted in court on drug charges and slapped with a fine.
Yusuf’s story of torture and abuse at the hands of Uzbek authorities is just one of 60 testimonies compiled in a damning report out on Wednesday from Amnesty International alleging that “rampant torture” is an integral part of the justice system in the Central Asian country.
The organization slammed the US and European Union (EU), claiming they are turning a blind eye to “endemic torture” in Uzbekistan — pinning this ambivalence on the country’s role as an ally in the War on Terror.
“Uzbekistani people are routinely and systematically tortured there, it’s a regime that uses torture flat out, straight up, with no nuance,” Julia Hall, Amnesty’s expert on counter-terrorism and human rights, who led the two year investigation, told VICE News.
Related: The toxic Uzbek town and its museum of banned Soviet art. Read more here.
Beatings, asphyxiation, needles inserted under finger or toenails, electric shocks, and rape are some of the torture techniques allegedly employed by President Islam Karimov’s regime that were highlighted by the human rights organization. The head of state has been in power since 1990, months before the country — which shares its southern border with Afghanistan — declared its independence from the Soviet Union.
Authorities also reportedly use various psychological approaches, including intimidating detainees awaiting charges in detention centers with dogs. A letter given to Amnesty last year describes one inmate’s torture experience after being beaten in his kidneys, legs, and face.
“I was in such pain, I was cold and naked, I thought I would not survive. On the third day, when I asked one of the officers to give me something to drink, he marched me from the basement [to the courtyard], tied me to a dog kennel, pointed to the dog’s feeding bowl and said: ‘If you want to eat and drink, help yourself,'” the letter reads. “He left me tied to the kennel. I stand, next to me sits a hound and every time I move it starts barking, so that I don’t dare move.”
Uzbekistan has long been criticized for its human rights abuses, with Human Rights Watch calling the country’s record “atrocious.” Hall told VICE News that anyone who criticizes the government becomes a target. Free speech is heavily curtailed, with activists and journalists often caught in up in the mix. Muhammad Bekzhanov, the editor-in-chief of an opposition party newspaper, has been in prison since 1999, making him one of the longest-imprisoned journalists globally.
While accusations against Karimov’s regime are nothing new, Hall said that the boost to global anti-terrorism efforts has given it a new feel. According to her, human rights abuses and the crackdown on people in Uzbekistan has been severe in the past few years, as Muslims and others have been labeled terrorists and subsequently targeted.
Related: Reporters without borders unblocks censored news sites. Read more here.
“It was kind of under a new frame after 9/11, governments like Uzbekistan in Central Asia, and governments all over the world could invoke national security at rogue under the veil of terrorism,” Hall added. “Other governments saw Uzbekistan as an ally in the War on Terror, and were less inclined to criticize the Uzbek government for human rights violations.”
In the last decade, a series of countries around the world have lifted a series of sanctions against the regime. After the 2005 Andijan Massacre — during which authorities killed hundreds of protesters — the EU imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan, including bans on arms sales and travel. These measures, however, were pulled in 2008 and 2009.
A 2004 US ban on military aid was revoked in 2012. Up until 2005 the US maintained a base near the country’s border with Afghanistan. The Tashkent regime pulled the plug in 2005, but allows the government to move goods for humanitarian purposes through Uzbekistan.
The US State Department qualifies Uzbekistan as an authoritarian state, outlining human rights problems in a 2013 report, listing issues including torture, harassment of religious minorities, and denial of due process or a fair trial. The report also highlights violence against women, prolonged detentions, and life-threatening prison conditions.
According to Hall, foreign governments have been cautious in their approach to Uzbekistan, in what she said is an attempt to keep the country on their side, especially as it will be a key ally as the war in Afghanistan appears to come to a close.
At the same time, Uzbekistan has cracked down in the face of the Islamic State’s violent campaign in Iraq and Syria. While no official estimates exist for the number of Uzbek fighters in the group’s self-declared caliphate, the government — along with others in Central Asia — recently raised concerns about the threat of the group entering the country. Plus, as Hall notes, the country’s citizens have a history of traveling to foreign wars, like in the case of Bosnia and Chechnya.
“It’s not a new phenomenon, but the rise of the Islamic State is a new threat,” she explained. “[But] we weren’t really looking at armed groups trying to establish a caliph, so you’re looking at something quite different in ISIS. The threat is real but there is no threat that can ever justify torture.”
Moving forward, Amnesty is asking Karimov to condemn the use of torture. The rights group is also asking the US and EU member countries to bring human rights and torture into discussions with officials. Hill noted that the United Nations is also in the country.
“We have asked them to make sure in every meeting they have with Uzbek authorities that human rights are on the table, we’re not even sure human rights are on the agenda,” She said. “They cannot go into total isolation, they are part of international community, but the reality is there is no pressure to clean up.”
By Kayla Ruble
April 16, 2015 | 2:05 pm