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Uzbekistan, key U.S. ally, plagued by torture


By Sebastian Alison 

TASHKENT, June 18 (Reuters) - The police came late one evening in May. 

"They said my brother was in detention," Karima Eshonova recalled. "They said he was seriously ill and we had to go."

So she and her elder brother made the long journey from their home outside the capital, Tashkent, to the town of Karshi, where her brother Orif was being held. 

The next day, after a long, fruitless search, they were told at the prosecutor's office that Orif had been suffering from high blood pressure, and had died from water on the lungs. 

Then she saw his body. 

"He had a broken finger. Sharp objects had been forced under his finger nails. There were bruises all over his arms and body. He had been beaten on the soles of his feet," she told Reuters. 

Orif Eshonov, 38, had just become Uzbekistan's latest victim of torture -- a plague which New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says has claimed 10 lives in the last 18 months, since the country became a crucial ally of the U.S. in its "war against terror", started in neighbouring Afghanistan. 

Eshonov's crime was membership of an Islamic party, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which Karima, 44, freely admits he belonged to.

Uzbekistan's authoritarian President Islam Karimov is clamping down on all religious practice not directly organised by the state, fearing that extremists fuelled by groups such as the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan are a threat to the fabric of Uzbekistan.

Karimov enjoys huge support from the United States -- last year it gave $500 million in aid, and it maintains an airbase in the country -- but diplomats and rights groups say Uzbekistan tortures all prisoners arrested for religious "crimes". 

"I strongly condemn the use of torture in Uzbekistan," Craig Murray, the British ambassador to Tashkent, told Reuters. "It is widespread and systematic. It affects thousands of people, many of whom are completely innocent and are being persecuted for their religious beliefs."

Torture has been rife in Uzbekistan for years, but the issue hit the headlines last December when Karimov finally allowed the United Nations rapporteur on torture, Theo van Boven, to visit. 

Van Boven said then that the use of torture "is not just incidental systemic in this country." 


In May the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development held its annual meeting in member state Uzbekistan, despite criticism that doing so implied approval of the government. 

Before the meeting started, bank president Jean Lemierre told a news briefing in London that Karimov would give a televised statement publicly condemning torture. 

In the event Karimov broke his word and said nothing. 

Since the meeting ended, the pace of torture has stepped up, says Matilda Bogner, Tashkent representative of HRW.

"There are reports of female relatives of religious prisoners being raped by police in retribution for protesting about torture and treatment in jail," she told Reuters. 

"That's new. It's not new to threaten rape, but it's new to carry out those threats." 

Bogner said she knew of two such cases, one of rape and one of "what looks like attempted rape and beating." 

"I think the human rights situation is not getting worse, it's staying the same," she added. But she did say there had been a small improvement in freedom of association -- some minor street protests have been allowed, unthinkable a year or so ago. 

A Reuters team went to one, where a group of just three protestors outside the state broadcasting company demanded the resignation of its head and the introduction of a free press. 

In a sign of the state's unease, at least five police watched the three, and a police car drove past several times. When a Reuters reporter approached the protestors, several unidentified young men appeared and started filming.

Undeterred, one protestor, Abduzhamil Boimatov, told Reuters as they filmed: "Democracy, Uzbek-style, means unemployment and torture in prisons." 

Even the Uzbek government, stung by relentless criticism from the United Nations and western governments, is now facing the fact that it has a problem, if only with its image. 

A highly placed Uzbek government official -- who would not be named, nor did he want his ministry identified -- told Reuters the state had set up both a torture ombudsman and a centre for monitoring human rights. 

"That means it is officially acknowledged that there are such problems," he said. 


Many fear that the heavy-handed religious repression, coupled with a creaking economy which sees average Uzbeks earning an estimated $27 a month and unable to import goods as the borders have been sealed, could lead directly to the very extremism Karimov says he is trying to stamp out. 

"The corruption, economic mismanagement and deepening poverty, combined with political repression, is creating Islamic fundamentalism," states British ambassador Murray. 

U.S. officials, aware of the controversy over their support for Karimov, insist their role is beneficial and that they are pressing him to reform the economy and stamp out torture. 

"I believe the human rights situation has been better in the last 18 months than in the five to 10 years before that and that's due to the U.S. connection," said one U.S. official in Tashkent, declining to be named. 

"But we also believe the human rights situation remains very poor and more progress is needed," he said, although he disputed HRW's claim that 10 people have died in the last 18 months. 

Such disputes do little to help Karima Eshonova and her family -- another brother, Maruf, was sentenced to 16 years in jail in 2000.

Sitting on floor cushions around a low table in her traditional Uzbek home, Karima, wearing a full length gown and a headscarf, felt helpless against the state's onslaught. 

"We don't know who to turn to, or how. We're just facing a wall."


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