By Max de Haldevang
I meet Nigora Khaidarova and her sister-in-law, Sada, in a kitsch, western-style burger joint on Osh’s main street. I cannot guess how old they are, for their faces, which hint at past beauty, have been aged by grief.
In 2010, this Silk Road market town, the second city of the tiny Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan, erupted into ethnic violence in what locals refer to as ‘the war’. More than 400 people were killed and entire areas burned to the ground after simmering tensions between local ethnic Kyrgyz and a large ethnic Uzbek minority burst into murder, rape and destruction.
Nearly four years later, inter-ethnic peace has largely been restored in this 3,000 year-old city but human rights activists say ethnic Uzbeks continue to face blatant discrimination from the predominantly ethnic Kyrgyz authorities. Of those killed in the violence, around three-quarters are believed to have been ethnic Uzbeks, yet Uzbeks also make up 96 of the 107 people charged with murder. Many of the arrested say they have been tortured and brutalized at the hands of police and prison guards, while their lawyers and families have been known to be attacked by relatives of their alleged victims.
Dilmurat Khaidarov, an ethnic Uzbek lawyer who is Nigora’s husband and Sada’s brother, is a victim in a particularly egregious case, says one human rights lawyer.
“Six people are being tried and two of them are terribly ill. The doctors have openly stated that they are dying,” says the lawyer, who did not wish to be named for the sake of his safety.
Back in the café, Nigora sits in near silence, her features contorted with sorrow. She speaks little Russian and I know no Uzbek, so Sada does the talking. When ‘the war’ broke out in May 2010, Sada and her family fled to the border with Uzbekistan to escape the horror murder and arson. She begged her brother to come with her.
“But he refused. He kept saying, ‘I am a man, I must defend my home and my neighbours’ homes’,’” she says.
Dozens of witnesses of varying nationalities and ethnicities say that back in June 2010 they saw Dilmurat and other friends close off the road to their neighbourhood to stop the unknown, rampaging men who were torching homes and killing bystanders. In doing so, they saved the lives of dozens of their predominantly ethnic Kyrgyz neighbours.
But shortly after the violence ended, Dilmurat was arrested and charged with organizing and participating in mass disorder and partaking in three murders, some of which took place when witnesses attest he was in a different part of the city.
He was held in pre-trial detention, where he says police beat his head and kidneys with rubber truncheons, ramming paper clips under his finger nails with his face smothered by a plastic bag. This allegedly went on for three days. Sada says he has lost hearing in one ear after it was beaten until it streamed with blood and, a year later, he continued to suffer kidney problems. In the face of all this, Dilmurat still refused to sign a confession.
Nigora furtively passes a photograph under the table. It is a grainy close-up of Dilmurat’s face, taken a long while after the torture but still bearing angry blue bruises. A black eye glows beneath an eyebrow that had been burst open. While Dilmurat’s health has improved considerably since then, there is little sign of reaching a fair verdict, Sada says.
“The court has sent the case back six times for further investigation because there is no evidence against him. They can’t convict him for lack of evidence but they also can’t let him out because the family of the deceased will cause a scandal. They want money from us. They have demanded that we sell our homes to pay them compensation,” she says.
On 22 January 2014, Osh City Court sentenced Dilmurat Khaidarov to seven years’ imprisonment. The presiding judge found him not guilty of murder, but found him guilty of organizing and participating in mass disorder. However, on 4 February, the Prosecutor General’s office appealed the verdict, stating that it was too lenient. The case will now be considered in the Osh Regional Court, and it can take months before it will reach its decision.
“Nigora has been on her own with three young children for three and a half years. Their youngest daughter was one year old when my brother was imprisoned…the most horrible thing is that most of the people who died were Uzbeks but it is we who are being punished,” Sada says.
Despite the horror of their situation, Sada says they have been overwhelmed by letters of support from total strangers from all around the world, with some sending toys for the children. She repeatedly asks me to publish how eternally thankful they are, for they would not have been able to cope without such kindness. The letters are a result of Amnesty International’s campaign to investigate Dilmurat’s torture claims and bring those responsible to justice – a demand with which the Kyrgyzstani authorities refuse to comply.
This blog is an adapted extract from a longer essay by Max de Haldevang, Kyrgyzstan and the Uzbeks, published in the Los Angeles Review of Books on 26 January 2014.
Please write, urging the authorities to conduct a thorough, impartial and effective investigation into the allegations of Dilmurat Khaidarov’s torture in June 2010.
Send your appeals to: General Prosecutor Aida Salianova, Generalnaya Prokuratura Kyrgyzskoi Respubliki, Ul. Toktonalieva 139, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.