Individuals who had seen one of the bodies told Human Rights Watch that it showed clear signs of torture. The authorities reportedly restricted viewing of the second body. Both men had been imprisoned at Jaslyk Prison, well-known for its harsh conditions and ill-treatment and torture of religious prisoners.
Human Rights Watch has learned that the body of Muzafar Avazov, a 35-year old father of four, showed signs of burns on the legs, buttocks, lower back and arms. Sixty to seventy percent of the body was burnt, according to official sources. Doctors who saw the body reported that such burns could only have been caused by immersing Avazov in boiling water. Those who saw the body also reported that there was a large, bloody wound on the back of the head, heavy bruising on the forehead and side of the neck, and that his hands had no fingernails.
"These deaths reveal the horror of Uzbek prisons," said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division. "It seems the small signs of progress on torture we had seen were mere window-dressing, intended to hide Uzbekistan's persistent problem and placate international critics."
These latest incidents of serious human rights violations could complicate Uzbekistan's relations with the United States. The United States has allied itself closely with Uzbekistan in the war against terrorism, but U.S. government officials have expressed concern that Uzbekistan's harsh treatment of independent Muslims could be counterproductive to the anti-terror effort. The U.S. government recently adopted a law requiring that before delivering aid to the Uzbek government, the Bush administration must determine that Uzbekistan is making "substantial and continuing progress" in meeting the human rights commitments contained in a U.S.-Uzbekistan March 2002 joint declaration.
Uzbek authorities, including numerous police officers, brought the body of Muzafar Avazov, to the family home at about 3:30 p.m. on August 8. Police cars surrounded the area and checked visitors who approached the house, preventing some from entering. When the burial occurred at 6:00 p.m. that evening, police closed the road to traffic. Authorities from the office of General Prosecutor Rashidjon Kodirov reportedly threatened the family not to talk to the media or give interviews to others about the circumstances surrounding Avazov's death.
In May 2002, Human Rights Watch received reports that prison authorities had beaten Muzafar Avazov and put him in a punishment cell for stating that nothing could stop him from performing his prayers.
The authorities also returned the body of 34-year old Husnidin Alimov to his family in Tashkent on August 8, but they reportedly restricted viewing of the body.
Prior to the death, relatives of people imprisoned in Jaslyk told Human Rights Watch that prison officials had placed Alimov in a punishment cell. He was reportedly placed there before the end of June and spent many weeks there before his death. Prisoners are often placed in such cells for praying or refusing to ask for forgiveness from Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Conditions are reportedly severe and beatings common.
"Deaths under such circumstances are highly suspicious," said Andersen. "The Uzbek government must ensure that full and open investigations are conducted into these deaths and into the conditions and treatment of prisoners in Jaslyk. There is an urgent need for regular, independent, international monitoring of conditions there."
A large number of police accompanied Alimov's body and were present during the funeral. The father of another man who died in May, apparently after terrible beatings in Jaslyk, was reportedly detained by police directly after the funeral and sentenced Friday to 15 days in custody on an administrative charge, related to his attendance at the funeral. Police reportedly questioned him about how he heard about the funeral and why he attended.
Both men were serving prison sentences on charges related to their religious activity. Since 1997, the government of Uzbekistan has waged a campaign against religious Muslims who practice their faith outside of state controls. The peaceful expression of independent religious views has landed thousands in prison on charges of extremism. The government has particularly targeted members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a banned Islamic group that calls for the peaceful reestablishment of the Caliphate in Central Asia. Uzbek authorities routinely prosecute those accused of affiliation with the group on charges of anti-state activities or possession or distribution of "illegal religious materials."
"Torture is an unmistakable feature of this campaign," said Andersen.
In the past fifteen months alone, Human Rights Watch has documented 11 deaths arising from suspicious circumstances in custody.
According to information from the human rights group Memorial, Alimov was sentenced in 1999 to 16 years in prison, on a range of charges, including spreading religious "extremist" materials. Avazov was sentenced in mid-2000 to 20 years in prison. He had been accused of membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir. His sentence was reduced on appeal in February 2001 to 19 years.