Uzbekistan’s Interior Minister Zokirjon Almatov’s stay in Germany for medical treatment has presented Uzbek victims of abuse with a historic opportunity: to pursue justice for the serious crimes of torture and mass killings perpetrated against them and implicating Minister Almatov’s criminal responsibility.
The case filed on December 12, 2005, by Uzbek victims of torture and survivors of the May 13 massacre in the Uzbek city of Andijan, with the assistance of Human Rights Watch, requests the German federal prosecutor to open a criminal investigation into Almatov’s liability on three counts: individual crimes of torture, torture as a crime against humanity, and the Andijan massacre as a crime against humanity.
As a former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, who carried out a fact-finding mission to Uzbekistan in late 2002 and who has since then closely monitored the human rights situation in that country, I feel compelled to offer some insights and experiences based on the work I did on torture issues there.
First, it is clear that torture is an endemic problem in Uzbekistan—so much so that I concluded it constituted a systematic practice in the country. I found the numerous accounts of torture I gathered from victims and their relatives so consistent in their gruesome description of torture techniques and the places and circumstances in which the abuse was perpetrated that there was no way to deny the pervasive and persistent nature of torture throughout the investigative process.
Second, I concluded that senior officials, including those responsible for political oversight of prisons and law enforcement authorities—falling under the authority of the Ministry of Internal Affairs—had to be aware of the extent to which torture was a problem in the country. As I put it in my report, if they did not know, it could only be because of a lack of desire to know.
The result of this denial—and this brings me to my third point—was my finding of a culture of impunity that prevented any meaningful action toward ending torture and bringing to justice its perpetrators.
The report I prepared following my visit contained twenty-two specific recommendations to the Uzbek government for measures it needed to take to address these very serious concerns. Three years later, despite repeated commitments from Uzbek authorities and significant international attention and pressure, I regret to say that not much has changed. If anything, the situation with torture and ill-treatment may in fact have further deteriorated.
The Uzbek government has taken no meaningful steps to implement my recommendations. It has persisted in its refusal to acknowledge my main finding about torture being systematic, and has failed to take any real steps towards fulfilling two of my key recommendations—making a clear public statement by the highest authorities condemning torture and declaring an end to the culture of impunity, and enacting legislation providing for and implementing habeas corpus (judicial review of detention). Meanwhile, torture in custody, both pre-trial and post-conviction, remains rampant while its perpetrators continue to go unpunished.
The fact that there is no accountability for torture in Uzbekistan makes the case filed against Minister Almatov in Germany all the more significant. It also raises the stakes high for Germany, which stands out as a principled leader on behalf of universal jurisdiction.
I cannot forget the many victims of torture who I interviewed in Uzbekistan and the horrific and highly credible accounts of their suffering at the hands of police and prison officials. These persons deserve to see the day that perpetrators are held accountable for the dreadful crimes committed against them.
It is my most sincere hope that Germany will stand up to this test. A failure to do so would signal a tacit tolerance of the Uzbek government’s abusive practices. It would also send a devastating message of lack of concern for the suffering of these brave individuals, who not only survived torture or escaped the massacre in Andijan perpetrated by their own government, but took the courageous step to expose themselves by seeking redress for the crimes committed against them, and indeed justice for the Uzbek population as a whole. I hold these individuals in the highest regard and respect. For these reasons, should the case go forward, I stand ready to testify as a witness in support of the plaintiffs’ claims.