Despite Limited Access, UN Envoy Finds Torture Throughout Uzbekistan
On December 6, UN Special Rapporteur Theo van Boven met journalists outside the UN office in Tashkent and assessed the results of a two-week fact-finding tour. Though he claimed that his visit was not as complete as he would have liked it to be, and has not yet prepared the conclusions and recommendations that will appear in his report in January, van Boven provided some initial impressions concerning his findings. Uzbekistan's use of torture, he said, is "not just incidental, but has the nature of being systematic."
The UN had tried to investigate torture claims there for nearly three years and gained permission to send investigators after Secretary-General Kofi Annan visited
Uzbek President Islam Karimov in October. By granting access, Karimov may have been acknowledging that his country's human rights record has drawn intense criticism since he became a strategic partner to American and allied officials in autumn 2001.
But the country received more criticism about its human rights record during van Boven's visit. On December 4, Human Rights Watch reported that an Uzbek judge had sentenced an activist to death despite claims that the activist confessed to crimes only under torture. "The failure to investigate these torture claims, even while the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture is in the country, shows that the authorities remain indifferent," said Elizabeth Andersen, Human Rights Watch's Central Asia director, in a statement.
Van Boven himself had complaints about the government's conduct. He visited almost all the country's main regions, but he said that his access to certain key sites was limited. The terms of his visit ought to have provided for his free movement throughout the country. "I have to say that I could not carry out my visit to Jaslyk in a satisfactory and comprehensive manner," he said. Jaslyk, in the autonomous province of Karakalpakstan, has a reputation for harsh conditions. The facility is home to prisoners of conscience, according to rights activists.
Van Boven said that officials only gave him two hours in the facility, when he felt he needed six, and denied him a guided tour. He complained that the shortened visit, which he said officials justified because of bad weather, curtailed his conversations with inmates. (He did report having a long conversation with Jaslyk's director.) Bad weather also kept van Boven from inspecting the notorious Navoii and Karshi prisons. He also said that he could not make a "prompt visit" to the National Security Services (SNB) lockup in Tashkent because of a refusal from a high-level official. This appears to violate the access agreement, which allowed unannounced access to sites where violations of liberty might take place.
Nonetheless, the Rapporteur claimed that he still received a fair picture of the situation of torture among detainees. He met with several prominent officials, including the top government ministers and leaders of the law-enforcement apparatus. "There may be certain areas where it may be more severe than elsewhere, but I have received testimonies from alleged victims and relatives who come from all parts of the country," he said. "I visited this country for two weeks, which is quite long compared with other visits that Special Rapporteurs are paying. So I do not think that the fact that I saw some institutions in a limited way and some others I could not visit
Josh Machleder is the country director of Internews Uzbekistan.