West turning blind eye to torture in Uzbekistan, says report

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The Independent Online

The West is turning a blind eye to a worsening human rights situation in one of the world's most repressive dictatorships, according to a report released yesterday.

Human Rights Watch says torture continues to be widespread in the jails of Uzbekistan, but the US and EU have given the brutal regime of Islam Karimov an easy ride, due to the country's strategic location bordering Afghanistan.

The report makes for difficult reading, detailing a litany of torture cases including beatings, electric shocks, asphyxiation and threats of sexual violence. In one case, a detainee had cold water poured over his naked body and was then left with two high-speed fans pointed at him so that he would freeze. In another case, a prisoner was doused in boiling water, reminiscent of the infamous cases in 2002 when an international investigation found that two detainees suspected of terrorism had been boiled alive.

Relations between the West and Uzbekistan deteriorated after the massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians in the city of Andijan in 2005. The Uzbek authorities refused an international investigation and soon became a pariah state.

But as relations between the US and Pakistan deteriorated, Uzbekistan became more important to Nato as a supply route to Afghanistan. In October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country to thank Mr Karimov for his support, and earlier this year Mr Karimov was received by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

Cables released by Wikileaks show that US diplomats urged top officials to sideline issues such as torture and forced child labour in meetings with Uzbek leaders to avoid controversy. In 2004, Britain sacked its ambassador to the country, Craig Murray, after he made a number of outspoken criticisms of the regime. In 2008, Mr Karimov's regime promised to introduce a raft of legal reforms, which were the stimulus for improved relations with the EU and the US, but the report's authors find that in reality, the situation has only worsened.

Most international organisations have been forced to leave Uzbekistan, including Human Rights Watch itself earlier this year, and journalists are rarely admitted.

"Based on the clients I visit in pre-trial detention, I believe torture has increased over the past several years," an Uzbek lawyer who did not want to be identified told Human Rights Watch. "But the fact is there is simply no one left to witness what is happening and communicate it to the world."

The wife of one torture victim gave a particularly harrowing account of the treatment that her husband had received in pre-trial detention. "Officers would hang him from the ceiling by his wrists, and eight or nine people one after the other would beat him," she said. "He told me that several times guards and detainees were brought into the interrogations and were given needles to poke under his nails. Guards handcuffed him to his cell once and burned his penis."

Her husband was so traumatised by the interrogation tactics that he attempted to commit suicide by cutting open his veins with his teeth.

"The West has to wake up to the fact that Uzbekistan is a pariah state with one of the worst human rights records," said Steve Swerdlow, Uzbekistan researcher at Human Rights Watch yesterday. "Being located next to Afghanistan should not give Uzbekistan a pass on its horrendous record of torture and repression."