The Uzbek government threatened an independent human rights group after it reported on possible government abuse of a prisoner who died in custody, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Uzbek Ministry of Justice issued an official warning to Ezgulik, an independent human rights group, for reporting on the January 2 death of Samandar Umarov, and calling for an investigation.

“The government must stop harassing and intimidating activists and relatives of victims who make allegations of possible abuse,” said Rachel Denber, acting Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “A vibrant civil society that conducts independent reporting is essential for promoting government accountability.”

On Wednesday, February 2, the Ministry of Justice summoned Vasila Inoiatova, chair of Ezgulik (“Goodness”), which is one of only two independent human rights organizations registered in Uzbekistan. The deputy minister of justice who oversees nongovernmental organizations reprimanded Inoiatova for Ezgulik’s activities and issued an official warning letter against the group. The letter alleges that Ezgulik violated the terms of its charter and the law on the freedom of information by reporting on the death in prison of Samandar Umarov.

The Ministry’s letter further states that in the event of a second offense, the Ministry of Justice will “take all measures” against Ezgulik. The letter does not specify which measures are contemplated, and the deputy minister did not elaborate.

Ezgulik—as well as several other human rights groups and journalists—reported that Umarov died while in prison. According to the reports, authorities who brought the body home pressured Umarov’s relatives not to unwrap the body and to bury him quickly, without washing the body in accordance with Muslim custom. On January 5, Ezgulik wrote to the Prosecutor General requesting that the authorities undertake an independent investigation to determine the cause and circumstances of Umarov’s death.

According to official reports, Umarov died of a brain hemorrhage. However, allegations that Umarov’s body showed marks that could have resulted from abuse and that the authorities had pressured the family to quickly bury the body sparked calls for an independent investigation. Umarov’s family had also made a written complaint to prison officials that Umarov was hospitalized for injuries caused by ill-treatment in November.

International standards—including the standards set forth in the United Nations Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions—deem any custodial death automatically suspicious and require the government to provide credible evidence to confirm or rebut that presumption. A U.N. expert on torture who visited Uzbekistan in 2002 found that the use of torture in Uzbekistan is “systematic.”

The Uzbek government agreed to conduct an investigation into Umarov’s death and to allow experts provided by the U.S. organization Freedom House to observe all aspects of it. Because the family did not consent to exhuming the body for a second autopsy, the investigation was based on interviews and the examination of tissue samples and documents provided by the Uzbek government. It is unclear how the authenticity of these materials was established. The first autopsy was performed before Umarov’s body was returned to his relatives.

At a press conference in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, the Freedom House observers on January 17 stated that they accepted the authorities’ conclusion that Umarov died of natural causes even though a second autopsy was not conducted. In a statement issued three days later, Freedom House qualified this conclusion, stating that “the inability to conduct a second autopsy precluded definitively and independently ruling out any evidence of antecedent trauma.” It is unclear whether the investigation looked into reports of pressure exerted against Umarov’s relatives.

The government is now using the conclusions of the investigation to threaten human rights activists who reported on Umarov’s death.

“Criticism of the government is a fundamental component of a free society,” said Denber. “It’s only due to the work of independent human rights groups like Ezgulik that Samandar Umarov’s death was reported publicly and an investigation allowed to take place.”

“The fact that the government is now using the results of the investigation to silence activists suggests its true purpose was not to uncover the truth but to continue its attack on civil society,” said Denber.

The Ministry of Justice’s warning letter also states that Ezgulik members exceeded their authority by collecting signatures for the Birlik (Unity) party and alleges that in one case an Ezgulik member collected false signatures. Uzbek law does not prohibit members of nongovernmental organizations from independently engaging in political activities.