June 8, 2011

Summary

There is only one word for what is going on here—mess. There is no rule of law. There are no authorities. Everybody does what they want. If I had been younger I would have left for Russia right away.
—Lawyer, Osh, December 7, 2010

One year after large-scale violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan claimed hundreds of lives and destroyed thousands of homes, Kyrgyz authorities are failing to provide justice for victims and to hold perpetrators to account.  The courts have sentenced many people to lengthy prison terms, but threats, violence, and serious violations such as arbitrary arrest, torture, and ill-treatment have marred investigations and trials. 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.

Massive inter-ethnic violence erupted in the southern city of Osh on June 10, 2010, following weeks of increasing tensions between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz.  During the next four days, violence spread to other cities in the south, killing 400 people and destroying close to 2,000 houses. Horrific crimes were committed against both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. Ethnic Uzbeks endured the majority of casualties and destroyed homes. Kyrgyz authorities failed to prevent or stop violence once it erupted, and there are strong indications that some military and police forces knowingly or unwittingly facilitated attacks on Uzbek neighborhoods. 

Kyrgyz authorities have an obligation to investigate the crimes committed during the June violence and hold perpetrators accountable. They also have a duty to adhere to international human rights standards in the criminal justice process. Their failure to do so, which this report documents, is astonishing.

Torture has been a long-standing problem in Kyrgyzstan, but lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the situation worsened after the June violence. Law-enforcement officials in the south have used torture on a widespread basis in their investigations. In total, 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 victim testimonies, 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.

Detainees were abused in several detention facilities in the south, including in police stations falling under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and offices of the National Security Service. The main methods of ill-treatment include prolonged, severe beatings with rubber truncheons or rifle butts, punching, and kicking. Victims also reported being tortured by suffocation with gas masks or plastic bags put on their heads; being burned with cigarettes, and being strangled with a strap. In most cases, the main purpose was to obtain confessions to solve specific crimes, but ethnic hatred seemed to have played a significant role as well.   

The use of torture and ill-treatment was accompanied by numerous violations of detainees’ due process rights, such as the right to representation by a lawyer of their own choosing and the right to consult with a lawyer in private.

Kyrgyz authorities have opened only one criminal investigation into allegations of use of torture and ill-treatment against people detained in relation to the June violence, which was later suspended. Despite numerous complaints and, in several cases, overwhelming evidence, Kyrgyz authorities have failed to promptly and thoroughly investigate and prosecute other incidents of torture connected to the June violence.  Perpetrators of torture and ill-treatment have enjoyed virtual impunity for their crimes.

In most cases, prosecutorial authorities have refused to open criminal investigations after flawed and superficial preliminary inquiries: in several cases the authorities did not even question the victims of the alleged torture before deciding not to open investigations. In other cases, investigators and prosecutors have threatened or otherwise pressured detainees to withdraw torture complaints.

Prosecutorial authorities have also failed to act on information about the use of torture and ill-treatment presented during trials. In several, trials defendants retracted statements they made during the investigation, saying that they made them under torture. The prosecutorial authorities failed to take the initiative to examine these claims, even when the defendants presented supporting medical documents, photographic, and video material.

The prosecutorial authorities failed to investigate torture even in the one case in which a judge acquitted a defendant because his confession was extracted under torture. Despite a special decision issued by the court, requesting that the police and prosecutor’s office examine the torture claim and report back to the court, prosecutorial authorities have yet to question the victim of the alleged abuse, much less open a criminal investigation.    

Judges also failed to critically assess allegations of torture, and in most cases ignored or dismissed such allegations. A common excuse for dismissing allegations, even when presented with overwhelming evidence, was that the defendants had failed to complain earlier to the prosecutorial authorities. For the most part judges dismissed lawyers’ arguments that prosecutorial authorities had refused or dismissed their complaints without a proper investigation. Judges also placed undue weight on confessions—sometimes sentencing defendants to lengthy prison terms on little else—and, at least in some cases, seem to have disregarded testimony and evidence in favor of the defense.

The complete impunity for torture not only perverted justice for the June violence, it also signaled that police and national security services could torture detainees in the months that followed. Police and national security personnel also tortured and ill-treated people detained in the context of counter-terrorism and other crimes unrelated to the June violence. 

The extremely hostile and violent environment in which the trials have occurred undermined defendants’ fair trial rights. Audiences in trials have frequently threatened, harassed, intimidated, and even physically attacked defendants, their relatives, and lawyers and other observers before, during, and after court sessions. The hostile atmosphere has been particularly evident in high-profile trials, such as murder cases, and particularly in cases concerning the murder of policemen.

This charged atmosphere meant that lawyers were reluctant to ask witnesses for the prosecution tough questions; Uzbek witnesses were afraid to come to court to testify; and defendants and lawyers were afraid to insistently raise allegations of torture and ill-treatment. Police and soldiers who were present largely failed to intervene, although their numbers increased after a series of serious attacks in mid-October. Judges failed to use the powers at their disposal to maintain order in the courtrooms.

While most victims of the June violence were ethnic Uzbek, most detainees—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 widespread use of ethnic slurs during detention, these statistics raise serious questions about ethnic bias in the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators.  It is difficult to avoid the impression that throughout the investigations, prosecutions and trials, appeasing the ethnic Kyrgyz majority eclipsed the need for justice and accountability.  It is also difficult to avoid the impression that lack of effective investigations has made it easier to paint the ethnic Uzbeks as solely responsible for the June violence, and has given license to law enforcement and security bodies to target them for arbitrary arrest and ill-treatment.

A new general prosecutor, appointed in April 2011, issued orders to promptly react to all allegations of torture and similar violations, and to open investigations in order to hold all perpetrators criminally accountable. While the orders are commendable, they had not ended impunity for torture for the 2010 June violence by time of writing.

The Kyrgyz authorities should immediately enact a zero-tolerance policy for violations during detention, and promptly and objectively investigate all allegations of torture, ill-treatment and other violations of detainees’ rights. The authorities should also facilitate a visit to Kyrgyzstan by the UN special rapporteur on torture. The parliament should enact laws to bring Kyrgyz legislation in line with its international law obligations to prevent and punish all incidents of torture. The Kyrgyz government should also initiate a formal review process of all cases connected to the violence in the south, and conduct new investigations and trials in all cases in which there have been serious violations.