Investigate Torture, Re-examine Questionable Cases
June 8, 2011
In so many cases the entire process, from detention to conviction, has been marred by outrageous violations. People should be held to account for crimes during the June violence, but the authorities need to do that in accordance with the law.
Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher

(Bishkek) - Investigations and trials following inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010 have been fundamentally flawed and undermine efforts to provide justice, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 86-page report, "Distorted Justice: Kyrgyzstan's Flawed Investigations and Trials on the 2010 Violence," concludes that criminal investigations into the 2010 violence have been marred by widespread use of arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment, including torture. Prosecutorial authorities have refused to investigate allegations of torture, and courts have relied heavily on confessions allegedly extracted under torture to sentence defendants to long prison sentences after court hearings in which threats and other forms of intimidation and, in some cases, physical attacks against defendants and their lawyers went unchallenged. The profoundly flawed investigations and trials, mainly affecting the ethnic Uzbek minority, undermine efforts to promote reconciliation and fuel tensions that might one day lead to renewed violence, Human Rights Watch said.

"In so many cases the entire process, from detention to conviction, has been marred by outrageous violations," said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. "People should be held to account for crimes during the June violence, but the authorities need to do that in accordance with the law."

The report is based on more than 40 interviews with lawyers, defendants, victims, and representatives of the authorities.

Human Rights Watch urged the Kyrgyz authorities to:

  • Immediately enact a zero-tolerance policy for violations during detention;
  • Amend Kyrgyz legislation to ensure that it fully incorporates its international law obligations to prevent and punish all incidents of torture;
  • Promptly and objectively investigate all allegations of torture, ill-treatment, and other violations of detainees' rights;
  • Initiate a formal review process of all cases connected to the violence in the south;
  • Conduct new investigations and trials in all cases in which there have been serious violations;
  • Facilitate a visit to Kyrgyzstan by the UN special rapporteur on torture.

During four days in June 2010, ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz clashed in the southern Kyrgyz provinces of Osh and Jalal-Abad, killing more than 400 people and destroying close to 2,000 houses. Horrific crimes were committed against people of both ethnicities.

Human Rights Watch research shows that law enforcement officials in the south have used torture on a widespread basis in their investigations into the violence. Human Rights Watch has received credible information about the use of torture and ill-treatment in 65 cases. In many of these, there is extensive evidence corroborating the victims' testimony, including photos of their injuries from beatings, medical documents, and statements from lawyers, family members, and other detainees who saw the victims while they were still in detention. There is strong evidence that at least one person died due to torture in detention.

Despite numerous well-founded allegations, Kyrgyz authorities have opened only one criminal investigation into alleged use of torture and ill-treatment, which was later suspended. Prosecutorial authorities failed to investigate torture even in the one case in which a judge acquitted a defendant on the grounds that his confession was extracted under torture.

Judges also failed to assess allegations of torture critically, and in most cases summarily ignored or dismissed such allegations. Judges also placed undue weight on "confessions" despite their dubious reliability - sometimes sentencing defendants to lengthy prison terms on little else - and, at least in some cases, seemed to disregard testimony and evidence that was favorable to the defense.

"The complete impunity for torture not only perverted justice, it also signaled to police and security forces that torture would continue to be an accepted practice," Solvang said.  

Human Rights Watch also documented numerous instances in which members of the public, in courtrooms to observe trials, threatened, harassed, intimidated, and even physically attacked defendants, their relatives, and lawyers and other observers before, during, and after court sessions. These attacks commonly went unchallenged by the presiding judges or other authorities in the court buildings. The extremely hostile and violent environment in which the trials have occurred undermined defendants' fair trial rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Ethnic Uzbeks constituted the large majority of victims of the June violence, sustaining most of the casualties and destroyed homes, but most detainees and defendants - almost 85 percent - were also ethnic Uzbek. Of 124 people detained on murder charges, 115 were Uzbek. Taken together with statements from victims describing law enforcement personnel's use of ethnic slurs and focus on the ethnicity of alleged perpetrators and victims during detention, these statistics raise serious questions about ethnic bias in the investigation and prosecution of crimes during the June violence, Human Rights Watch said. 

A new general prosecutor, appointed in April 2011, issued orders to respond promptly to all allegations of torture and similar violations, and to open investigations in order to hold all perpetrators criminally accountable. Human Rights Watch said that while the orders are commendable, they have not yet ended impunity for torture for the 2010 violence.

"It is difficult to avoid the impression that the authorities have been more concerned with satisfying the ethnic Kyrgyz majority than with the need for justice and accountability," Solvang said. "That is no way to ensure reconciliation and a peaceful future. The government needs to immediately fix these problems."  

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