Otamaza Gafarov was due to be released in September from Chirchik prison in northern Uzbekistan. Instead, he died there on May 3, apparently from torture.
Human Rights Watch received information about his death shortly after the U.S. State Department issued a memorandum certifying that Uzbekistan has made “substantial and continuing progress” in respecting human rights.
“Another prisoner tortured to death in Uzbekistan is not progress—it is more of the same,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. “This is the tenth torture-related death in custody we’ve documented in the past year and a half. The State Department’s claims of human rights progress simply do not reflect reality.”
Family members who helped to wash Gafarov’s body told Human Rights Watch that they observed a large wound to his head that appeared to have been caused by a sharp object. There was also bruising to the back of his head. Gafarov’s rib cage, chest and throat were also bruised, and his hands were scratched.
The State Department memorandum, signed in May 2003, specifically cited torture among the areas where the Uzbek government had made progress. The memorandum certifies that Uzbekistan made overall progress in meeting its human rights and democracy commitments under the “Declaration on the Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework” that the two countries signed in March 2002. The certification is required semi-annually to release U.S. assistance to the Uzbek government.
The March 2002 declaration committed Uzbekistan to ensuring a “strong and open civil society,” “respect for human rights and freedoms,” a “genuine multi-party system,” “free and fair elections,” “political pluralism, diversity of opinions and the freedom to express them,” “the independence of the media” and “independence of the courts.”
In a critique of the memorandum Human Rights Watch noted that the State Department cited isolated positive steps taken by the Uzbek government without acknowledging ongoing practices that undermine these nominal measures. The critique describes ongoing setbacks, including torture-related deaths in custody; new arrests and convictions based on peaceful religious expression; denial of the right to register for political opposition parties; dismissals, intimidation, and beatings of journalists; and harassment and arbitrary arrest of human rights defenders.
With regard to torture, the State Department cited the Uzbek government’s “adequate cooperation” with the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Theo van Boven during his December 2002 visit as evidence that the government “has become more willing to discuss torture.” In fact, Mr. van Boven has made clear that he did not receive adequate cooperation. Moreover, the Uzbek government has taken no serious steps to implement his recommendations for ending torture.
Background on the Gafarov Case
Before his death, Otamaza Gafarov was nearing the end of a seven-year ordeal. He was sentenced to imprisonment in 1996, on what his family believed to be trumped-up charges of stealing state property. While in prison, he was frequently sent to punishment cells for objecting to prison authorities’ mistreatment of fellow prisoners and demands for bribes from prisoners’ family members.
Gafarov was transferred to a pre-release prison in September 2002, where he was able to live with his family and work, remaining under supervision of prison authorities. Subsequently, Gafarov again clashed with prison authorities over money he earned while working in prison, which the warden allegedly attempted to confiscate.
Following this incident, authorities again sent Gafarov to punishment cells, and subsequently confined him to the prison grounds, prevented him from working, and even pursued a criminal case against him regarding the money he had earned while working. The investigation was closed, and Gafarov returned to Chirchik prison at the beginning of April.
A month later, on May 5, Gafarov’s family received a telegram that Gafarov had died two days before. When they retrieved his bruised body, prison authorities told them that he died of a heart attack, although one guard told the family that Gafaraov’s death “happened differently.”
“This continuing pattern of horrific abuse warrants a forceful response from the international community,” said Andersen. “We are looking to the governments of the United States and the European Union, and international institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, to firmly condemn Gafarov’s death and call for an independent investigation into the incident.”
Senior government officials from both the U.S. and the E.U. were gathering in Tashkent for the EBRD annual meeting when Gafarov’s family brought home his battered body.