A judge in Tashkent completely ignored serious allegations of torture in sentencing a man to death in Tashkent last week, Human Rights Watch said today.

On November 28, Judge Nizamiddin Rustamov sentenced Iskandar Khudoiberganov to death, ignoring the testimony by Khudoiberganov and two witnesses that their confessions and incriminating statements were coerced under torture. Judge Rustamov stated in court that his verdict would rely exclusively on these confessions and statements.

“The death penalty in all cases is wrong, and it is all the more horrifying to see a man condemned to death on the basis of words beaten out of him,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “Torture allegations are all too common in Uzbekistan, and the authorities simply don’t investigate them.”

The verdict came at a time of increased international focus on Uzbekistan, including by the United Nations, whose Special Rapporteur on Torture was conducting a fact-finding mission to the country.

Khudoiberganov, 28, was arrested in 2001 in Tajikistan and extradited to Uzbekistan on February 5, 2002. He was tried together with five other defendants at the Tashkent Municipal Court. The defendants were accused of organizing a criminal group to propagate religious “extremism.” Khudoiberganov was also charged with terrorism and murder and was accused of having been trained in military camps in Chechnya and Tajikistan. The evidence in the trial, however, relied pivotally on written testimonies by defendants and witnesses who later retracted them in court.

Human Rights Watch attended Khudoiberganov’s trial, and heard him testify in court that he was beaten in the basement of the Ministry of Internal Affairs building. Individuals close to the case told Human Rights Watch that in February the police also administered electric shocks to Khudoiberganov and that since February 12 he was held at the National Security Service, where officers beat him, deprived him of sleep, and drugged him with injections, including during the trial. Other defendants testified in court that police had beaten them with batons and suffocated them with plastic bags and gas masks in order to coerce confessions.

Some of the torture claims were supported in court by Khudoiberganov’s wife, sister and father, who witnessed the torture at the Tashkent Municipal Police Department. His father, Erkin Khodoiberganov, said that in 1999 he had been detained, together with another son, Sanjar, in order to compel Iskandar Khudoiberganov’s appearance for questioning. Erkin Khudoiberganov testified in court that police tortured Bekzod Kasimbekov, a co-defendant: “A policeman brought me to Bekzod. They put a gas mask on him and started torturing him. He was shouting, crying. I have never heard such a sound coming from a human being.” Khudoberganov further testified that the police threatened “to do the same thing to me and my son” should he fail to turn in Iskandar.

Two other witnesses who had provided police with incriminating statements retracted them in court, claiming they had been coerced under torture. They are currently serving prison terms.

Throughout the trial, Judge Rustamov dismissed all allegations of torture in the case. In response to the testimony of another defendant, Nosir Khokimov, who described police torture that he witnessed, Judge Rustamov complained, “You are just telling us about torture, and not about your crimes.” In another exchange, when Khudoiberganov was describing torture marks that he saw on one of his co-defendants, the judge said that the Ministry of Internal Affairs, where the torture allegedly occurred, “is not a holiday resort.”

The codefendants were sentenced to between six and 16 years in prison.

Torture in custody is widespread in Uzbekistan. In the past two years, Human Rights Watch has documented 12 deaths arising from suspicious circumstances in custody, and has received numerous credible reports about other torture incidents.

The verdict came at a time when the international community has been seeking to justify its increased engagement with Uzbekistan in the global campaign against terrorism, despite the country’s poor human rights record. The Bush administration has credited Uzbekistan with making progress in accountability for torture, but today’s verdict undermined that claim, Human Rights Watch said.

In August, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell reported to the U.S. Congress that Uzbekistan was making “substantial and continuing progress” in the field of human rights and democracy, allowing the release of additional monetary assistance to the Uzbek government. The report cited convictions of seven officers in two torture-related deaths, but made no mention of the many other deaths and countless cases of torture that remain without remedy. The U.S. State Department also hailed the visit of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture to Uzbekistan as a success of U.S. engagement in Uzbekistan, without waiting to evaluate the level of cooperation on the part of the Uzbek authorities during the visit. The Special Rapporteur began a two-week mission to investigate torture in the country on November 24.

“While the United States is claiming Uzbekistan’s human rights record is improving, the Uzbeks are condemning a man to death on the basis of confessions extracted under torture,” said Andersen. “Convicting a handful of officers isn’t enough to show sustained progress. The failure to investigate these torture claims, even while the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture is in the country, shows that the authorities remain indifferent.”

In what appeared to be an attempt to appease the United States in this case, the verdict, which the judge read in court, makes repeated reference to Osama Bin Laden, claiming that Khudoiberganov met with Bin Laden in Afghanistan and that they discussed the situation in Uzbekistan. No witnesses presented evidence about such a meeting during the trial, nor was Khudoiberganov questioned at trial about such a meeting.

The day before the verdict, Jean Lemierre, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development was in Uzbekistan to discuss the bank’s forthcoming annual meeting, which is to take place in Tashkent in May 2003. This year, 55 nongovernmental organizations challenged the bank to press the Uzbek government for specific human rights improvements as a condition for the 2003 meeting, arguing that failure to do so would grant the Uzbek government undeserved political prestige and financial benefit.

Also this week, the European Union is scheduled to discuss Uzbekistan within the framework of its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the country, which makes respect for human rights a condition for engagement. Human Rights Watch called on the international community to condemn the conduct of the trial, and to ask the Uzbek authorities to thoroughly investigate the torture allegations and to void the judgment on account of evidence coerced under torture.