'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?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power