(Bishkek) – One of the world’s longest imprisoned peaceful political activists, Murod Juraev, was finally released from a jail in Uzbekistan on November 12, 2015, after 21 unjustified years behind bars, nine human rights groups said today. Juraev, a 63-year-old former member of parliament, had been imprisoned since September 18, 1994. His original nine-year sentence was extended by 12 years for alleged violations of prison rules; during this time, he was repeatedly tortured and became seriously ill.
The Uzbek authorities should thoroughly and meaningfully investigate credible allegations that Juraev was tortured; that his sentence was arbitrarily extended, which was approved by judges in hearings that violated fair trial principles; and that he was denied appropriate medical care in prison, the groups said. The government should allow him to resume his peaceful political activism. The Uzbek government should also immediately and unconditionally release the numerous other peaceful activists and human rights defenders who remain in prison following politically motivated, unfair trials.
“The last 21 years have been a living hell that Murod Juraev and his family should never have had to experience,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Uzbek authorities should see to it that those who are alleged to have tortured Juraev and arbitrarily extended his prison sentence are promptly investigated and brought to justice.”
The human rights groups are Amnesty International, Christians’ Action for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT-France), the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (AHRCA), Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
In November 2013, the United Nations Committee Against Torture – a body of 10 independent experts that monitors governments’ implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – found that Juraev and numerous other peaceful activists and human rights defenders were arbitrarily imprisoned in retaliation for their work and criticism of the government. The committee expressed concern that many wrongfully held activists have been subjected to torture or other forms of ill-treatment.
Juraev was a member of parliament from 1991 to 1992, a prominent member of the Erk opposition party, and served as the mayor of Mubarak, in Kashkadarya province. Juraev drew President Islam Karimov’s personal ire by being the first official to dissolve a city committee of the Communist Party after the fall of the Soviet Union.
On September 18, 1994, he was detained in Kazakhstan and forcibly returned to Uzbekistan. He was beaten during his arrest. He suffered multiple concussions and a broken rib, but it is unclear whether these injuries were from the beating or from a car accident following his arrest. On May 31, 1995, Juraev was convicted in a case in which a number of members of the banned Erk party were accused of plotting to overthrow the government. A court sentenced him on various charges to 12 years in prison, later reduced to nine years on appeal. He was held in prison 64/45 in Almalyk, Tashkent province.
Prison authorities arbitrarily extended Juraev’s sentence in 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2012 for “violations of prison rules.” On each occasion the extension came just before the end of his sentence. Juraev’s alleged violations of prison rules included “incorrectly peeling carrots” in the prison kitchen and “non-removal of shoes when entering the barracks.”
“Uzbek authorities repeatedly punish a wide variety of prisoners they see as potential government critics by arbitrarily extending their prison terms on often absurd grounds,” said Brigitte Dufour, director of International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR). “This leads to the intolerable situation where prisoners are sentenced to de facto life imprisonment for political reasons.”
Juraev is badly in need of medical attention. In 2011, ACAT-France reported that he had been severely tortured in prison, that he had become extremely thin, and that he had contracted tuberculosis. Juraev’s wife met with him in October 2013 and told a rights activist that he had lost all of his teeth, had trouble eating, suffered from constant headaches and stomach pain, and was experiencing periodic numbness in his right arm. During a November 2014 meeting with Human Rights Watch, she said Juraev had become a “skeleton.”
In spite of his poor health and severe back pain, prison authorities subjected Juraev to daily heavy labor, forcing him to work in a brick factory. The prison warden repeatedly told him that his was a “special case,” that he had been marked as a repeat offender, and that it was dangerous for other inmates even to communicate with him.
“Juraev’s treatment at the hands of the Uzbek authorities violates core human rights standards, and he deserves justice,” Maisy Weicherding, Amnesty International researcher on Central Asia, said. “The Uzbek government regularly points to its progress in reforming its criminal justice system, but these claims ring hollow unless the allegations in this case are effectively investigated.”
Among its other recommendations, the UN Committee Against Torture called on Uzbekistan as a matter of urgency to carry out “prompt, impartial, and effective investigations into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment and prosecute and punish all those responsible” and to “ensure that high-level officials in the executive branch publicly and unambiguously condemn torture in all its forms, directing this especially to police and prison staff.”
Uzbekistan’s international partners, including the United States and the European Union, should use every means of influence at their disposal and reiterate their calls to Tashkent to address its human rights record, including by releasing all those whose detention is unlawful and arbitrary under international standards, the rights groups said. One place to begin is at the UN Human Rights Council, where members can express serious concern with Uzbekistan’s systematic refusal to cooperate with UN experts on human rights and its continuous flouting of its human rights obligations.
Members of the UN Human Rights Council should underscore their concern about human rights violations in Uzbekistan and the government’s continued refusal to allow visits from 13 of these UN monitors, including the special rapporteur on torture. The council should establish a dedicated, country-specific position to ensure sustained scrutiny and reporting on the human rights situation in Uzbekistan.
“Juraev’s family and local activists had the courage to campaign for his freedom for many years at great personal risk,” said Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. “It is now of the utmost importance for Uzbekistan’s international partners to be willing to do the same to prevent the ongoing arbitrary detention of many people who have been punished simply for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.”
Among prisoners whose sentences have been extended on politically motivated grounds for alleged violations of prison rules are: Muhammad Bekjanov, former editor-in-chief of the banned Erk political opposition party newspaper, who has spent 16 years in prison and whose sentence has been extended twice for disobeying prison rules; Yusuf Ruzimurodov, a journalist who was tried alongside Muhammad Bekjanov in 1999 and received an additional sentence in May 2014, though it was not clear for how long; and Azam Farmonov, a human rights activist arrested in 2006 and convicted of extortion after an unfair trial without a lawyer present. He was repeatedly tortured and ill-treated in Jaslyk prison 64/71. His prison term ended in April, but a former detainee told Farmonov’s wife on May 21, 2015, that her husband’s term had been extended by an additional five years.
“Uzbekistan should immediately and unconditionally release and ensure the rehabilitation of all those who are detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression,” said Jeremie Beja, Asia-Central Asia-Russia desk manager at ACAT.