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Uzbekistan 2016/2017

Torture in detention centres and prisons continued to be pervasive. The authorities secured the return, including by secret rendition, of hundreds of people they suspected of criminal activity, of being in opposition to the government or of being a threat to national security; they were at risk of torture. Forced labour was widely used. The rights to freedom of expression and of association remained severely restricted. Human rights defenders continued to face routine harassment and violence.

Background

President Karimov died on 2 September, after 27 years in power. The authorities controlled all information surrounding his death and launched sustained attacks on social media against independent news outlets and human rights activists who criticized the late President’s human rights record.

Prime Minister Mirzioiev, appointed acting President in September, was elected President on 4 December.

Torture and other ill-treatment

The authorities continued to categorically deny reports of pervasive torture and other ill-treatment by law enforcement officials. In October, the Director of the National Centre for Human Rights said that torture allegations were based on fabricated evidence and “clearly designed as a means of disinformation… to put undue pressure” on Uzbekistan.1

Human rights defenders, former prisoners and relatives of prisoners continued to provide credible information that police and National Security Service (NSS) officers routinely used torture to coerce suspects, detainees and prisoners into confessing crimes or incriminating others.

Judges continued to ignore or dismiss as unfounded allegations of torture or other ill-treatment, even when presented with credible evidence.

In February, the Dzhizakh Regional Criminal Court convicted fish farmer Aramais Avakian and four co-defendants of plotting anti-constitutional activities and of membership of an “extremist organization”. They were sentenced to between five and 12 years in prison.

Aramais Avakian consistently denied the charges and told the court that NSS officers had abducted him, held him incommunicado for a month, tortured and forced him to confess. They broke several of his ribs and gave him electric shocks. In court, several of the prosecution witnesses said that NSS officers had detained and tortured them in order to incriminate Aramais Avakian and his co-defendants. During the appeal hearing in March, his co-defendant Furkat Dzhuraev told the judge that he, too, had been tortured. The trial and appeal judges ignored all allegations of torture and admitted the defendants’ forced “confessions” as evidence against them.

Counter-terror and security

The authorities continued to secure the return – through extradition proceedings or otherwise – of numerous Uzbekistani nationals they suspected of criminal activity, or labelled as opponents or a threat to national security.

Forced returns

In October, the authorities said they had secured the return of 542 individuals between January 2015 and July 2016.

The government offered assurances to the authorities of the sending state saying that independent monitors and diplomats would have free and confidential access to extradited individuals and that they would receive a fair trial; in reality, access was limited. In some cases it took up to a year for diplomats to be granted permission to see a detainee or prisoner, and they were generally accompanied by officials, precluding confidential conversations.

NSS officers continued the practice of secret renditions (abducting wanted individuals) from abroad. In Russia, local security services were complicit in this practice in those rare instances when the Russian authorities refused to comply with extradition requests.

Those abducted or otherwise forcibly returned were subjected to incommunicado detention, often in undisclosed locations, and tortured or otherwise ill-treated to force them to confess or incriminate others. In many cases, security forces pressured relatives not to seek support from human rights organizations, and not to file complaints about alleged human rights violations.

On 4 March, Russian intelligence officers apprehended asylum-seeker Sarvar Mardiev as he was released from prison in Russia and drove him away. His whereabouts were undisclosed until October, when the Uzbekistan authorities confirmed that Sarvar Mardiev was detained in Kashkadaria the day after his release from prison in Russia. They said he was in pre-trial detention charged with crimes against the state. He was not granted access to a lawyer for a month.

Persecution of family members

The authorities increased pressure on relatives of those suspected or convicted of crimes against the state, including individuals working or seeking protection abroad.

The authorities used the threat of bringing charges of membership of a banned Islamist group against a detained relative to prevent families from exposing human rights violations and seeking help from human rights organizations at home and/or abroad.

Local mahalla (neighbourhood) committees continued to collaborate with security forces and local and national authorities in closely monitoring residents of their mahallas for any signs of behaviour or activities considered improper, suspect or illegal. Mahalla committees publicly exposed residents and their families and took punitive action against them.

In February, mahalla members informed the wife of Aramais Avakian that local residents had decided to expel her and her children from their neighbourhood because of the “actions of her terrorist husband” and because she had given interviews to foreign journalists, slandered local officials and brought Uzbekistan into disrepute.

Forced labour

Forced labour was used in the cotton industry. International organizations estimated that the authorities compelled over a million public sector employees to work in the cotton fields, in the preparation of the fields in spring and the harvest in the autumn. Uzbekistan was the world’s second biggest user of modern-day slavery according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index.

Freedom of expression – human rights defenders

The rights to freedom of expression and association remained severely restricted.

Activists who attempted to document the use of forced labour in the cotton fields were repeatedly detained and searched.

On 8 October, police and NSS officers detained the head of the independent NGO Human Rights Defenders’ Alliance of Uzbekistan, Elena Urlaeva, and independent photographer Timur Karpov as well as two French activists in Buk District of Tashkent Region. They were interviewing medical staff and teachers sent to work in the cotton fields. Elena Urlaeva reported that she was escorted to an interrogation room in Buk police station by a group of women, two of whom pulled her by her hair, punched and verbally insulted her. Police officers did not stop them but instead threatened Elena Urlaeva and refused to call medical assistance for her. They released her without charges after six hours. Timur Karpov was detained for 10 hours and threatened. Their recording equipment and documentation materials were confiscated.

  1. Uzbekistan: Fast-track to torture − abductions and forcible returns from Russia to Uzbekistan (EUR 62/3740/2016)

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