U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Briefing "Political Prisoners in Central Asia"
Statement by Sanjar Umarov
May 15, 2012
Rayburn House Office Building
Thank you for the opportunity to make a statement to this committee regarding "Political Prisoners in Central Asia."
Since independence in 1991, the Government of Uzbekistan has consistently repressed all opposition – including commercial, political and religious groups - using the criminal courts and security services to persecute persons perceived as potential threats. An alarming trend is the increasing number of people sent to prison under special, arbitrary national security laws (Sections 8 and 159 of the Uzbek criminal code). These laws are especially pernicious because they can be used to convict anyone of anything, so in practice they are most often used for political purposes. In the past, (1990’s), they were used to repress a relatively small number of members of political, religious and economic elites. Now, we are witnessing vastly increasing numbers of prosecutions under these and similar statues, resulting in a dramatic rise of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Uzbekistan.
In March of 2006, after my appeal, I was sentenced to prison for 10 1/2 years under these laws. This conviction was entirely due to my participation and leadership in the “Sunshine Coalition,” an alliance of secular groups and individuals supporting peaceful dialog on political and economic reforms in Uzbekistan. Due to the political nature of the charges against me, from the early minutes of my arrest on October 22, I was drugged and tortured routinely. At first, my interrogators tortured me hoping for confessions. However, prison administrators and guards continued to torture me even after my sentencing.
Those who carry the label of a “political prisoner” while in custody in Uzbekistan are tortured more severely and more frequently than the general population. As one example of many, in the brutally cold winter of 2008, I was held at Penal Colony 47, Kyzyl-Tepa, near Bukhara. Three other prisoners and I spent five freezing days in January in the “monkey cage”-unheated, open-air punishment cell- with nothing to wear other than t-shirts. We survived by lying back-to-back and moving continuously. If we would have slept or stopped moving, we would have frozen to death. After this experience, my health seriously deteriorated and I spent several months in a near-death health condition. In my case, public concern over my health made the prison administration as well as the governing regime fear my death at their hands and I was, eventually, spared and set free on the basis of humanitarian grounds. Yet, for every case like mine, there are thousands of other prisoners who die as a direct result of abuse and torture by investigators, prison guards and administrators.
The United Sates and the world community must defend the thousands of prisoners in Uzbekistan that are being tortured as we speak. The US and the world community must demand that the Government of Uzbekistan take specific and verifiable actions to address political persecutions and the torture of prisoners. The lifting in January of the prohibition on the sale of military goods to the GOU provides the US with an opportunity to show the GOU that systematic, institutionalized violence must stop. Any deepening of US military ties to Uzbekistan must be explicitly conditioned upon real and verifiable concessions on human rights.
As we, the people who are trying to bring Uzbekistan closer to world civilized standards reconfirm our belief in our ultimate goals of freedom for all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, the free return of those in exile and independent political representation in Oliy Majlis, we must also set the agenda for realistic progress on human rights and torture. For the record, I would like to mention that a broader list of prisoners of conscience will be provided. The minimum conditions in this agenda could include, release of prisoners of conscience such as Rustam Usmanov, Khairullo Khamidov, Solidjon Abdurakhmanov, Dilmurod Said and students (up to 200) of legally registered Turkish lyceum arrested since 2007. Other agenda items can include supporting meaningful dialog between key members of local independent groups promoting human rights on one end and Ministry of Internal Affairs on the other. Such dialog can only be meaningful if internationally-respected human rights organizations would be allowed to monitor such processes, in an effort to protect local groups from repression.
Unfortunately, the issue of prisoners of conscience is not unique to Uzbekistan, as there are prisoners of conscience in all of the States of the former Soviet Union. In particular, the ethnic tensions in Southern Kyrgyzstan continue to be aggravated by the imprisonment of Azimjon Askarov and his group. This should be viewed not just in the interest of inter-ethnic relations of these individuals, but as a case for justice, as they were not given fair opportunity to defend themselves. An expedited release of the above-mentioned people would be a good sign towards improvement of the human rights situation.
Over the years, the Helsinki Committee has held many hearings about the worrying trends for human rights in Central Asia. Unfortunately, the Commission’s record of testimony demonstrates that year after year the trend of political repression is aggravating and escalating. A dramatic example of this is the continued widespread use of torture in Uzbekistan’s jails and prisons. The US and the world community have a responsibility to support human rights in Uzbekistan by conditioning deeper economic and military ties to practical and verifiable steps from the GOU for real reforms. Such a start can be achieved via inter-parliamentary cooperation on developing overhauled legislation aiming at streamlining the role and functions of the law enforcement institutions, such as the Office of Attorney General, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Justice, courts and penitentiary systems in matters of protecting the human rights and the supremacy of the Rule of Law.