'Uzbeks tortured me,' says British Embassy man

Former Foreign Office employee says he has been abandoned, despite refusing to spy on UK

Britain has been accused of abandoning a Foreign Office employee who says he was tortured by the Uzbek authorities and accused of spying for London.

Kayum Ortikov, 44, a married father of four who worked for the British government as a security guard, ended up in a dungeon in Tashkent after being arrested on charges of "human trafficking". It appears the extent of his "crime" was trying to help arrange visas for some relatives to work in Russia.

Mr Ortikov claims that his refusal to become an informant for Uzbekistan's secret police led to torture sessions in which he was accused of spying for the British.

In the months after his arrest in December 2008, he says he was hung from the ceiling and beaten, left naked in a freezing room, and burnt on his genitals with a newspaper which had been set alight. He remained in prison for another two years, during which time, he says, he did not receive a single visit from British officials.

He said: "Military intelligence and the SNB [National Security Service] tried hard to get employees of the British embassy to work for them as spies... I said, 'I'm not going to do this'." He recalls being warned that he would "pay" for his refusal.

In October 2009, his wife, Mohira, 40, was finally allowed to visit him. Shocked, and barely recognising the shell of the man who was her husband, she spoke to human rights campaigners. She claims it was only then that British embassy staff agreed to meet her – a year after her husband's arrest. "They were very warm and really seemed like they wanted to help, but then I didn't hear from them for a year and a half," she said.

In 2011, The Independent on Sunday interviewed Mr Ortikov's wife in Uzbekistan. Several weeks later, in May, the Uzbek authorities released her husband. The family managed to flee Uzbekistan last year and are living in a three-room flat in Ukraine. Their case is being dealt with by the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR.

Fears for the safety of his family and concern that going public could affect their chances of resettling in Britain have prevented Mr Ortikov from speaking out until now.

"I was not a British spy – they should have proven this to the Uzbek government. Why did they wait so long? Why were they silent so long?"

He accuses embassy officials of washing their hands of him. "They didn't want to damage their relations with the Uzbek government because of me and my case. On 2 February [2009] they sent in the mail a letter to my home informing my family and I that I was no longer an employee and after that I think they just didn't care what happened to me. They threw me away."

The autocratic republic, which has a border with Afghanistan and is considered by the West a bulwark against Islamic extremism, is logistically valuable but its human rights record makes it an embarrassing ally. It was condemned after government forces killed hundreds of protesters – most unarmed – in 2005.

Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, described the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's treatment of Mr Ortikov as "absolutely appalling" and accused the Government of "overlooking and ignoring" human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, a country on which it is reliant to get billions of pounds worth of military equipment out of Afghanistan. An FCO spokeswoman insisted that embassy staff "repeatedly intervened" on behalf of the former security guard.

The Ortikovs are now appealing directly to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to allow the family to come to Britain. In a letter seen by the IoS, Mr Ortikov's wife outlines the "humiliations and inhumane treatment" her husband endured but the family has yet to receive a response.

In a statement, a spokesperson for No 10 said: "We were deeply concerned at reports that Kayum Ortikov was subject to torture while in detention. The British embassy in Tashkent repeatedly intervened with the Uzbek authorities on behalf of Mr Ortikov. Embassy staff were in contact with his family during and after the detention period, and subsequently with Mr Ortikov."

The Uzbek embassy in London said in a statement: "Mr Ortikov was arrested on purely criminal charges of human trafficking. Attempts to present him as 'a torture victim' or relate his case to political issues are totally false and may represent another example of abuse of the British immigration system to obtain a status of 'political refugee' and subsequent benefits paid by the British taxpayer."

Human Rights Watch has investigated the case and says Mr Ortikov's account is credible and consistent with patterns of torture in Uzbekistan. People associated with Western embassies "are treated as saboteurs, spies, and enemies of the state", according to Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher with the organisation.

A Human Rights Watch case worker speaks

Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch

I vividly remember the day I first met Mohira, three years ago. She had been waiting patiently for several hours to speak with me at the home of a human rights activist in a neighborhood on the outer reaches of Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital. I was there to interview relatives of the victims of police torture - a phenomenon that United Nations bodies have determined is “systematic” and “widespread” in that Central Asian nation.

Our meeting might have never happened. On the morning of the day we were to meet agents from Uzbekistan’s notorious security services – known by their acronym, the “SNB” – called the human rights activist just before I was to arrive, threatening consequences if a meeting was arranged with Human Rights Watch. When the activist called to say I shouldn’t come over, I understood immediately what had happened.

A few days later we tried again. We took extra precautions, avoiding all phone communication.  I took three taxis to the activist’s house to avoid being followed. By the time I got there, eight families were waiting to tell their stories. Mohira was second to last.

Soft-spoken, but with a steady voice, Mohira recounted the horror her family had endured, Her husband, Kayum, a security guard for the British embassy from 2004 until 2008, was arrested on false charges and accused of spying for the British government. The SNB held him in a jail cell for nine months, subjecting him to gruesome torture.

The British government stayed largely silent during the ordeal, she told me, as it deepened its military cooperation with Uzbekistan’s authoritarian president, Islam Karimov, because of the country’s geo-strategic importance as a transit route to Afghanistan. While Mohira’s husband was brutally beaten and rotted in SNB custody, she said, no British diplomats even tried to visit him.

What made meeting Mohira and the other seven families unusual, however, wasn’t the brutal treatment they described. It was their courage to speak out, fully aware that the SNB could have been – and probably was — listening to our every word. What Mohira and the others did was far from common in a country that in 2005 witnessed a brutal massacre in which government forces killed hundreds of mainly unarmed protesters. It was a courage rarely seen in a society where all forms of dissent are immediately crushed and dozens of civil society activists who did dare to speak out languish behind bars. 

Indeed, it was Mohira’s determination to speak out — the impulse that sits deep inside every human rights defender - that made all the difference, and  led to her husband’s release the next year.

But the British government, along with the United States and the European Union, has continued to sit largely silent as an atrocious situation in Uzbekistan gets worse. Rather than publicly discussing accountability, including potential sanctions, for Uzbek officials who engage in torture and other abuses, London has preferred to seek a conciliatory tone, raising human rights in quarterly reports to Parliament and in private with a president who has become only more defiant over the course of his 23 years in power.

Two months ago, the Uzbek government succeeded in interfering with the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to the extent that it felt compelled to terminate its visits to prisons. The director-general of the ICRC said visits under Uzbek government terms would be “pointless” and so the government has prevented the last truly independent observer in the country from monitoring treatment of prisoners, lest they witness more torture.

London, Washington, Brussels, and other key actors could use a little more of the courage Mohira exhibited in their policies toward Uzbekistan. They should have the courage, like she did, to speak out publicly, and to articulate that absent demonstrable progress on issues such as ending torture Uzbek officials will have to face real policy consequences.

Mohira’s courage should inspire all of us to act. After all, if Mohira can come forward, why can’t we?

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