Uzbek authorities should drop all charges against a human rights defender and opposition activist who faces politically motivated prosecution and immediately release him, Human Rights Watch said today. The trial against Akzam Turgunov resumes on September 16, 2008 in the remote town of Manget. Human Rights Watch also called on the authorities to ensure that Turgunov gets medical care for burns he suffered from ill-treatment in custody.
“The case against Turgunov sends a chilling message to other activists that working for justice is a dangerous business in Uzbekistan,” said Igor Vorontsov, Uzbekistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Despite the recent release of several other activists, new cases like this one show that any government critic will be dealt with harshly.”
Police in Manget arrested Turgunov, 56, on July 11 on suspicion of extortion under circumstances that seemed to have been staged to frame him. He had originally traveled to Manget, in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic 1,100 kilometers west of Tashkent, in response to a request from a woman to help her with a court case to seek child support payments from her former husband. The woman’s former husband agreed to an out-of-court settlement and arranged to meet Turgunov and the woman’s brother to hand over the money. When a plastic bag supposedly containing the money was handed over to Turgunov, the police appeared and arrested him and the woman’s brother, charging that they had extorted money from the former husband. If convicted of extortion, Turgunov faces up to 15 years of imprisonment.
Turgunov is the chairman of Mazlum (“the oppressed”), a Tashkent-based human rights organization. He has served as a public defender in trials throughout Uzbekistan, including many in Karakalpakstan, in cases involving violations of human rights and civic freedoms.
Turgunov’s trial is not the only politically motivated prosecution ongoing in Uzbekistan. Last week, the trial of Salijon Abdurakhmanov, an independent journalist, began in Nukus, on politically motivated drug charges. These cases are the latest in a long line of prosecutions against government critics. At least 18 human rights defenders, dissidents and journalists remain in prison. Numerous others, fearing for their safety, have fled Uzbekistan to seek asylum abroad. In response to international criticism, the government has released several imprisoned human rights defenders, but harassment and arrests of others continue.
Turgunov told his lawyer that he suffered ill-treatment in custody. On July 14, he was taken from a police cell to an investigator’s office to write a statement. He told his lawyer that, while he was in the office, someone poured boiling water down his neck and back, causing severe burns. Turgunov’s lawyer, Rustam Tulyaganov, told Human Rights Watch that he observed burns on Turgunov’s body. On July 22, Tulyaganov filed a request to the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the ill-treatment, but as of this writing had received no reply.
“The abuse of a prisoner is unacceptable,” said Vorontsov. “Uzbekistan’s partners should demand that it brings to justice those who ill-treated Turgunov in custody.”
Turgunov’s trial began on September 4. Serious due process violations during the investigation and proceedings undermine Turgunov’s right to a fair and impartial trial. Prosecutors did not allow Turgunov to confront his “victims” during the investigation phase, as required by Uzbek criminal procedure, although the lawyer of Turgunov’s co-defendant signed the document as if the confrontation had taken place. It is not clear whether the lawyer was coerced. After Turgunov’s trial began, a senior court administrator told observers that “even if BBC would come to this trial, Akzam Turgunov will get a long prison sentence,” suggesting that the outcome of his trial is a foregone conclusion.
Turgunov’s trial comes one month before the European Union is slated to review Uzbekistan’s human rights record to determine whether to continue the sanctions regime adopted in the aftermath of the 2005 Andijan massacre, when government forces shot hundreds of unarmed protesters. Among the assessment criteria established by the European Union for reviewing the sanctions are for the Uzbek government to stop the harassment of civil society, to release imprisoned rights defenders and dissidents and to allow UN experts, including the special rapporteur on torture, to visit Uzbekistan.
“It’s ridiculous to talk about fundamental improvements in human rights in Uzbekistan when the government is bringing new cases against activists,” said Vorontsov. “In evaluating Uzbekistan, the EU should demand evidence of real reform, because Turgunov’s prosecution shows that nothing has changed.”
Human Rights Watch urged the US and EU governments to monitor Turgunov’s trial in Manget closely and to call for Turgunov’s immediate release. Human Rights Watch also called for an impartial and effective investigation into Turgunov’s ill-treatment in custody and to bring those responsible to justice. Torture remains widespread in Uzbekistan. In November last year, the UN Committee Against Torture expressed concern about “numerous, ongoing and consistent allegations concerning routine use of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment committed by law enforcement and investigative officials or with their instigation or consent.” In November, the committee will review Uzbekistan’s progress in tackling torture and ill-treatment.
In July, the Uzbek government banned Human Rights Watch’s researcher from entering Uzbekistan.