The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) met in St. Petersburg on November 7 and appeared to continue its trajectory away from being a security group to an economic body, The Bug Pit reported. Tashkent has boycotted the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, and didn't show up for the meeting about Afghanistan in Istanbul. Yet Uzbek First Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov participated in the SCO meeting in St. Petersburg, uzdaily.com reported. Proposals that came out of the meeting seemed remarkably similar to those recently made by the US for its New Silk Road plan, says The Bug Pit, that is, investment in the infrastructure of the crossroads between Europe and Asia in order to provide stability and prosperity to the region,
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sounded similar to American leaders in endorsing such plans as a project to send hydropower from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to India and Pakistan, as well as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. Neither of these projects has anything for Tashkent in it, and the hydropower project could exacerbate its existing conflict with Dushanbe over the planned construction of the Roghun hydroelectric plant. Putin also said in his speech that he saw as "unconditional priorities" of the SCO, strengthening “regional security, fighting terrorism, separatism, organized crime, and certainly drug trafficking." The official Uzbek press had little to say about the SCO meeting other than it was about "economic and cultural cooperation" but certainly Uzbekistan wants to remain a key member of SCO.
The independent news site fergananews.com has released sensational videos made in 2005 purporting to be the confessions of Aleksandr Rakhmanov, a former Uzbek convict who said he was recruited as an agent of Uzbekistan's secret police in order to take part in death squads. Rakhmanov said in the videotaped interviews that he and other inmates were led by police agents to torture and kill prisoners to extract confessions from them.
The editors of fergananews.com says they received the videos back in 2006, but were concerned that publishing them would lead to retaliation against Rakhamanov. When the editors received word recently that he had died under unknown circumstances, they decided to show the videos. The editors are hoping someone might help corroborate the agent’s stories.
The confessions contain horrifying tales of the most brutal torture of prisoners, including known forms of torture such as putting plastic bags over prisoners’ heads or lighting fires to suffocate them with smoke, but also such brutalities as stringing up a religious detainee who repeatedly refused to break even when beaten severely, and then setting fire to his beard and body hair with a cigarette lighter. Rakhmanov says that in order to cover their tracks, death squad members would bury their victims in ditches and cover the bodies with lime, so that the bones would erode or construction would proceed on top of the graves. He also said they would release some prisoners under pledge not to leave town pending trial, but then accost them before they reached home and kill them.
Readers were divided on how to assess the shocking material, given that Rakhmanov, a convict, may have been a pawn in a turf war between the Ukrainian Security Service (SNB) and the Interior Ministry, or police, and may have been spreading kompromat, or compromising material in order to settle scores. In 2005, the Interior Minister whom Rakhmanov he says he worked for before he was made minister, was fired supposedly due to illness, Rakhmanov’s stories are very detailed, and track the kinds of cases followed by human rights groups and lawyers who have seen people disappear into the prison system, or relatives who have not been allowed to visit their family members and don’t hear from them, sometimes learning later that they have died.
The death squad was said to operate in the 1990s, first killing common criminals in an effort to put an end to street crime, then switching its attention to Muslim believers operating outside strict state controls. Rakhmanov claimed that hundreds of people were killed, yet independent human rights groups have not reported so many persons disappeared. It’s also not yet clear whether any of his victims have been identified with known cases of deaths or disappearances.
Fergananews.com released the videos at a time when the stories of another figure who claims he was a former SNB agent are being re-examined. Ikrom Yakubov, who says he was an Uzbek agent, sought political asylum in the UK in 2008, Yakubov brought tales of everything from Uzbek government complicity in the plane crash in Tashkent that killed UN envoy Richard Conroy to the presence of CIA officials during the torture of suspected terrorists. Yet some of Yakubov’s stories, such as a claim that President Islam Karimov was personally responsible for giving orders to shoot demonstrators in Andijan in 2005, are supported by other sources. Yakubov’s story was weakest in parts where he said that he was both caught by the SNB and tortured for his disloyalty, yet allowed to go and serve in the Uzbekistan’s Washington embassy before his defection. Recently, Yakubov came under greater scrutiny after his conviction by a UK court for using a forged Portuguese driver's license that he claimed to have obtained while on assignment for the SNB, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
Sukhrat Ikramov, a respected independent human rights leader, told RFE/RL that Yakubov held only a low-level position on Uzbekistan’s Security Council and did not have access to classified materials. After leaving this post, in fact, Yakubov worked for Ikramov’s organization as a translator and accompanied him to a conference in London, where he decided to remain and request asylum. Ikramov believes Yakubov would not face any problems if he were deported back to Uzbekistan because the government never reacted to his stories. A state does not necessarily have to prove that what someone says is true, however, in order to find that they have a well-founded fear of persecution. While the Uzbek government may have not publicly reacted to his statements, Yakubov could well face reprisals if returned.
Human rights defenders and journalists can suffer persecution for their work in Uzbekistan, making it difficult to find the facts when such allegations of atrocities are made. For example, recently an independent Russian-language newspaper was forced to close and a human rights leader, Elena Urlayeva reported, that police were trying to remove her foster son from her home in reprisal for her work.
Under such circumstances, it can be hard to verify the allegations made by figures like Rakhmanov and Yakubov. In Rakhmanov’s case, he provided many details, and his inside knowledge of the prison system and methods of torture match with known facts. Yakubov, while less credible for some, has made accusations similar to those made by both Uzbek activists and well-known critics of the Uzbek regime such as former British ambassador Craig Murray. Ultimately, as political analyst Tashpulat Yuldashev remarked about Rakhmanov’s revelations, only when Islam Karimov departs from the scene will we have more likelihood of finding out the truth.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Uzbekistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Choihona blog.