Human Rights Watch today welcomed the conviction of four Uzbek police officers who tortured a man to death in detention. On January 30, a Tashkent court sentenced each of the officers to 20 years of imprisonment.
"Finally, police in Uzbekistan have been held accountable for a case of torture and death in detention," said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "It's a good first step. But there are many other police and security officers in Uzbekistan whose actions need the same kind of scrutiny."
The victim in Wednesday's decision, 32-year old Ravshan Haitov, died from torture just hours after police took him into custody on October 17, 2001 for alleged membership in the banned Muslim group, Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation). Authorities returned his bruised and battered corpse to his family the next day. The official cause of death was then given as a heart attack.
Ravshan Haitov's younger brother, Rasul, testified in court about how the officers had detained and tortured him as well. Rasul Haitov, 25, was hospitalized and placed in intensive care after being beaten by the policemen, and still faces charges based on his religious affiliation.
"President Karimov should use Wednesday's court ruling as an opportunity to articulate a new policy of bringing torturers to justice," said Andersen. "He should deliver the message to law enforcement-and the entire country-that torture and extrajudicial execution are impermissible and will be punished."
In a December 2000 report on torture in Uzbekistan, "AND IT WAS HELL ALL OVER AGAIN...": TORTURE IN UZBEKISTAN, Human Rights Watch called on the Uzbek government to institute judicial review of detentions, or habeas corpus, in order to protect detainees during their first days in custody, when they are in gravest danger of police abuse. It also called for all detainees to have unimpeded access to attorneys during the investigation and trial periods, and for courts to reject coerced testimony.
"Had he been brought before a judge and given access to a lawyer, Ravshan Haitov's life might have been saved," said Andersen.
Observers at the trial told Human Rights Watch that although the prosecutor called for two of the policemen to be found guilty of murder, the judge instead convicted all four of "inflicting bodily harm that caused death," article 104 of the Uzbek Criminal Code. People sentenced under article 104 qualified for release under a presidential amnesty declared in August 2001. The application of article 104 in the Haitov case raised concern that the officers might qualify for amnesty in the
Local rights groups in Uzbekistan similarly welcomed Tuesday's conviction, but expressed anger that no action had been taken on other apparent cases in which police tortured detainees to death. In particular, the authorities have failed to bring to justice those responsible for the deaths in detention of poet Emin Usmon in February 2001 and human rights defender Shovruk Ruzimuradov, five months later. Both men appeared to have died as a result of torture.
"Torture is a systemic problem in Uzbekistan," said Andersen. "It should not take a death in custody to stir Uzbek courts to action."
Human Rights Watch's December 2000 report on torture in Uzbekistan documented seven deaths in custody as a result of torture. The report, based on more than four years of research, detailed the routine use of electric shock, beatings, asphyxiation, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and sleep deprivation to compel detainees to give self-incriminating statements. The group also found that police used torture as a form of punishment, especially against religious detainees.