Police routinely torture detainees in Uzbekistan, and reports of deaths in custody have risen during the government's three-year crackdown against Islamic dissidents, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released.

The 62-page report, based on four years of research, details accounts by victims and their families of brutal and systematic torture at the hands of police and security forces. Police use beatings, suffocation, electric shock, rape and other sexual abuse to coerce victims to confess to crimes. Meanwhile, judicial courts routinely admit coerced confessions into evidence, and torturers are seldom, if ever, brought to justice.

"These are acts of sheer inhumanity," said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. "The Uzbek government doesn't investigate or punish the people responsible for them. This can only mean that it condones the use of torture. The international community should make clear that this has serious consequences." Roth is in Uzbekistan this week to present the report to Uzbek officials.

Torture victims include those arrested for common crimes as well as those accused of political and religious offenses. The mass arrests of those suspected of opposition sentiment based on their religious affiliation, however, have brought to light many instances of torture, often during trials in which defendants have testified about their ill-treatment.

Since 1998, the government has arrested thousands of people in a crackdown against those whose practice of Islam falls outside of state-sanctioned religion, often charging them with ill-defined crimes of "religious extremism." Police routinely torture defendants in these cases, not only to obtain confessions but to force them to incriminate others with whom they have prayed or studied the Koran.

Government officials have publicly announced a policy of holding families accountable for the actions of any of their members suspected of illegal religious activity. Consequently, the relatives of those accused or sought are often detained, held as hostages, threatened with torture, or are tortured themselves.

The crackdown intensified after the February 1999 bombings of several government buildings in Tashkent, which the government quickly blamed on "Islamic terrorists." Last summer's armed incursions by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan heightened fears about the region's security.

"The international community is interested in human rights, and in the region's stability, but doesn't necessarily see the link between the two," said Roth. "Human rights are a fundamental aspect of stability and of Uzbekistan's international commitments. Governments and intergovernmental organizations should make it a top priority to end impunity for torture in Uzbekistan."

The Human Rights Watch report includes detailed recommendations to the government of Uzbekistan, to the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations, the United States, the European Union, and to international financial institutions. The group called on the Clinton administration, which in 2000 certified Uzbekistan as "committed to observing internationally recognized human rights," to suspend all security assistance pending serious efforts by the government of Uzbekistan to halt the practice of torture. It urged the European Union to consider suspending its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Uzbekistan, should the government fail to take specific steps to improve its human rights record.

The report also describes the shortcomings of the Uzbek criminal justice system, which lacks procedural safeguards against police abuse. Detainees do not have the right to appeal the lawfulness of their detention or to protest ill-treatment before a judge until their case goes to court, an egregious violation of international law. They are often held incommunicado. Attorneys must request case investigators for access to their clients or to forensic doctors, who could document evidence of torture; such requests are routinely denied. Custody during investigation and prior to trial is the rule, rather than the exception.

"The international community should pressure the Uzbek government for legal reform that would prevent torture," said Roth. "But it can't just be reform on paper. There has to be fundamental political change to make it meaningful."