BERLIN — Human rights officials expressed concern this week over the widespread use of torture in Uzbek prisons and called on Western governments to impose sanctions on and end dealings with the former Soviet republic’s autocratic regime.
“Uzbekistan really has very few rivals in the world as a country where torture exists,” said Steve Swerdlow, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who wrote a report on Uzbekistan’s abuses. “It’s one of the classic totalitarian police states left in the world today.”
Mr. Swerdlow said he spent two years compiling first-hand accounts of torture in pretrial detention that included electric shocks, asphyxiation, beatings with rubber batons and sexual violence.
His report was presented to German lawmakers in Berlin on Tuesday. Uzbek officials were not available to comment on the report.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has ruled the country with autocratic fervor since 1991, having come to power after the demise of the Soviet Union. His country’s location in Central Asia has made it a valuable transit point in the war on terror.
Uzbekistan’s relationship with the European Union and the United States soured in 2005 after government troops opened fire on protesters in the southern city of Andijan, killing hundreds of civilians.
The West strongly criticized the Uzbek government and imposed travel bans on government officials believed to have been responsible for the massacre. In retaliation, Mr. Karimov evicted U.S. forces from a key air base close to the border with Afghanistan.
In 2008, Uzbekistan announced reforms such as the introduction of habeas corpus, which Western governments commended.
The EU lifted its sanctions in 2009. Today, Germany pays the Karimov government of $33.8 million a year to lease an air base.
In addition, the U.S. decided in September to restart military assistance to Uzbekistan.
“The West has to wake up to the fact that Uzbekistan is a pariah state with one of the world’s worst human rights records,” Mr. Swerdlow said. “Being located next to Afghanistan should not give Uzbekistan a pass on its horrendous record of torture and repression.”
He noted that independent Uzbek lawyers who had been involved in challenging cases of torture by police have had their licenses revoked.
“Some of the most experienced lawyers in the country that had for years been the ones taking on the torture cases, representing political prisoners and those accused on terrorism charges, have been silenced and were effectively disbarred,” he said. “This has had a chilling effect on the entire legal profession in Uzbekistan.”
Activist Umida Niyazova, founder of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, spent four months in an Uzbek prison in 2007. She said she was not tortured because of the international attention on her case — attention now missing for those currently in Uzbek prisons.
“I am very surprised to hear some European officials claim that progress on human rights is being made,” Ms. Niyazova said.
“They respond to the criticisms of human rights defenders by telling them about the strategic partnerships between the European Union and Uzbekistan, funding on human rights programs and that they have established a dialogue on human rights,” she said. “[But] the Uzbek authorities are masters of bluffing.
“It seems like there are positive actions being taken, but to this day, there is no sign that the government has started to improve the situation with regard to torture.”
Catherine Cosman is a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, based in Washington, D.C., and specializes in Europe and the former Soviet Union. She said Uzbekistan’s place in the war on terror makes it expedient for the West to overlook its torture of prisoners.
“Most people in the U.S. Defense Department feel that because of Northern Distribution Network [transport routes for troops and supplies into Afghanistan], we are in a weaker position vis-a-vis the Uzbek government on human rights issues and, therefore, human rights issues should not be raised,” Ms. Cosman said in Berlin.
Human Rights Watch will present its findings to lawmakers in Paris, London, Brussels and Washington early next year.
In response to questions from the Washington Times about whether they would reconsider dealings with Uzbekistan, German officials referred to a general statement by human rights representative Markus Loening: “The human rights situation in Uzbekistan is cause for concern. I call on the government to stop immediately all forms of torture, to free all political prisoners and to finally fulfill all their human rights commitments.”
Human Rights Watch hopes the report will, at least, end the idea that any progress is being made on human rights in Uzbekistan.
“The big lesson from 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, is that it is never, ever a good idea to go to bed with dictators,” said Jan Egeland, deputy executive director of Human Rights Watch in Europe and former U.N. undersecretary for humanitarian affairs. “You can never turn your back on human rights. It will come back to haunt you.”