Uzbekistan – No Rights But Cotton, Oil and… U.S. Troops
“For centuries, Uzbekistan was famed as a hub of trade and rich cultural exchange on the Silk Road connecting China to Western Europe. More recently, however, the Central Asian country has come to be known for something far darker: torture,”‘ says Human Rights Watch report “No One Left to Witness” on Uzbekistan’s record of rights abuses.
Based on over 100 interviews with torture victims, their relatives, lawyers, human rights defenders, scholars, and government officials between 2009 and 2011, the report focuses on three issues: the failure of habeas corpus, the persistence of torture in pre-trial detention, and the dismantling of the independent legal profession.
With 28 million inhabitants, Uzbekistan is the most populous Central Asian country, and has the largest armed forces. No legal political opposition is allowed and the state holds media under tight controlled.
Despite frequent criticism of its human rights record, Uzbekistan’s energy resources and strategic location have led both the West to turn a blind eye. Uzbekistan is one of the world’s largest cotton producers and is rich in natural resources, including oil, gas and gold.
Following the 11 September attacks, Uzbekistan won favour with Washington by allowing its forces a base in Uzbekistan, affording ready access across the Afghan border, the BBC reports, noting that human rights groups accused the international community of ignoring the many reported cases of abuse and torture.
**Electric shock, Hanging by Wrists and Ankles, Rape, Sexual Humiliation…**
HRW report examines whether habeas corpus has had an impact on torture in pre-trial detention, whether it meets Uzbekistan’s obligations under international law, and analyzes how additional procedural rights crucial to preventing torture, such as access to counsel, are implemented in practice.
It also documents the use of various forms of torture and ill-treatment in pre-trial detention since habeas corpus and other reforms were adopted, such as beatings with rubber truncheons and water-filled bottles, electric shock, hanging by wrists and ankles, rape and sexual humiliation, asphyxiation with plastic bags and gas masks, and threats of physical harm to loved ones.
Finally, the report documents the authorities’ crackdown on Uzbekistan’s fledgling legal profession, particularly against criminal defines lawyers who have dared to raise allegations of torture and take on politically sensitive cases.
**Just on Paper**
HRW found that in the four years since its enactment, habeas corpus exists largely on paper. Habeas corpus (literally: “you may have the body”) is a writ or legal action which guarantees that a detainee must be brought to court so the court can determine the lawfulness (both the legality and the necessity) of a person’s continued detention after arrest.
“It is a core international right meant to prevent arbitrary detention, which international law and legal systems across the world recognize as a crucial safeguard against torture. But in Uzbekistan arbitrary detention is the rule rather than the exception. In practice, habeas corpus does little to protect detainees in Uzbekistan from torture and ill-treatment.”
Uzbek courts approve prosecutors’ applications for detention in most cases, often adopting government-proposed sentences verbatim, without independent review, says the report. The operative legal standard is so narrow that it violates habeas corpus’ fundamental principle—to ensure a judge reviews the lawfulness of detention. Courts also lack discretion to impose less restrictive alternatives to detention, such as bail or house arrest.
Torture—the second focus of HRW report—also remains widespread. As it shows, police and security agents continue to use torture to coerce detainees to implicate themselves or others, viewing it as an effective instrument for securing convictions and meeting internal quotas.
While used against suspected opponents of the government, torture is also applied to detainees for “common” crimes. As before habeas corpus, confessions obtained under torture are often the sole basis for convictions. Judges still fail to investigate torture allegations, to exclude evidence obtained through torture or without counsel present, or to hold perpetrators accountable, it adds.
Some lawyers, victims, and activists report that torture may be on the rise given Uzbekistan’s deepening government-imposed isolation since the 2005 Andijan massacre and the absence of any independent monitoring of torture on the ground.
**No UN Rights Experts Allowed**
Uzbek government has persistently refused to allow the UN special rapporteur on torture and other UN human rights experts to visit the country, despite their repeated requests for access, and does not allow international human rights groups or independent media outlets to operate.
An important measure of the Uzbek government’s lack of commitment to implement habeas corpus or combat torture is its campaign to extend its control over the legal profession—the third focus of HRW report.
In January 2009, a new law restructuring the legal profession abolished the previously independent bar associations, and subordinated their replacement to the government. All lawyers were required to re-apply for their licenses to practice law and to re-take a bar examination every three years.
The new law, which violates guarantees in the Uzbek Constitution and international standards on the independence of lawyers, has resulted in the government’s co-opting the entire profession. As interviews with practicing and disbarred lawyers show, several lawyers who consistently take on politically sensitive cases or raise allegations of torture have been disbarred, and there has been a chilling effect on those who remain licensed to practice.
**Europe and the U.S.: Silence on Torture!**
“During this same period the governments traditionally viewed as champions of the cause of human rights in Uzbekistan—the US, EU, and its key members—have muted their criticism of the government’s worsening human rights record, including its continuing and widespread use of torture.”
“Driven by a short-term interest in Uzbekistan’s strategic importance as a conduit of supplies and troops for the war in Afghanistan, the US and the EU have failed to respond to Uzbekistan’s deepening human rights crisis and the government’s continued gutting of independent civil society,” HRW underlines.
“Even though their core human rights demands have never been met, Washington, Brussels, and other key international actors have largely abandoned the firm stances they adopted immediately after the May 2005 killings by Uzbek government forces in Andijan.
“They have been eager to accept the adoption of habeas corpus and other so-called reforms as signs of “progress,” relegating concerns about specific human rights cases to closed-door discussions and to “dialogues” away from the view of the public realm and even further from the view of ordinary Uzbeks who confront harsh treatment, according to HRW.
But this policy of “engagement without strings” is a short-term strategy that has compounded Uzbekistan’s deepening human rights crisis, it adds.
“Indeed, such undue praise for hollow reform combined with increasingly quiet diplomacy has allowed the country’s torture epidemic to worsen and has further imperiled Uzbekistan’s embattled human rights activists and lawyers, sending an unmistakable signal to the Uzbek government that brutalizing the population and stonewalling civil society are cost-free.”
Read Human Rights Watch [“No One Left to Witness”](http://www.hrw.org/reports/2011/12/13/no-one-left-witness) full Report | 2012 [Human Wrongs Watch](http://human-wrongs-watch.net/)