We lay scattered, everywhere blood, blood. Some had their legs broken, some had their skulls fractured, some were just outright killed. A constant wailing surrounded us. I was hit with a steel pipe and lost consciousness.
(From a letter written by Mamadali Makhmudov and smuggled out of prison.)
In May, Uzbekistan was back in the news as reports around the world marked the first anniversary of the massacre in the eastern city of Andijan. The Uzbek authorities claimed that the demonstrations were instigated by Islamic extremists, and refused to allow an independent press to verify reports of the hundreds killed.
For human rights organisations, however, Uzbekistan continues to be a top priority for their campaigning work. In October 2005 I wrote about the young journalist Sobirjon Yakubov in these pages. He was freed on 4 April, one year after his arrest, when a district court in Tashkent ruled that there was insufficient evidence to convict him. Considering he had spent a year in detention without trial, this hardly heralded a sudden improvement for those detained in denial of their right to freedom of expression or persecuted for their religious beliefs.
Uzbekistan has long been of great concern to the writers’ organisation PEN, which has documented its appalling human rights record for many years. Muslims who do not follow the government line find themselves accused of extremism and imprisoned. Similarly, members of the banned opposition party have been arrested and given heavy prison sentences on dubious charges of terrorism. Erk (Freedom) was Uzbekistan’s first official opposition party, registered just months after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its leader, Muhamed Salih, was forced to flee the country in the mid 1990s. Several members of the party were subsequently arrested and remain in prison.
After a harrowing trip to Uzbekistan, where I had witnessed at first hand the fear and isolation experienced by the friends and families of those suffering persecution, I wrote my first piece for LR in June 2004, focusing on the journalist Muhammad Bekjanov.
Imprisoned at the same time, on the same trumped-up charges, was Bekjanov’s colleague Mamadali Makhmudov.
An eminent author and opposition activist, Makhmudov was arrested on 19 February 1999, after a series of explosions in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, in which a dozen people were killed. He was initially held incommunicado for three months, before being formally charged and sentenced to fourteen years in prison for ‘threatening the president’ and ‘threatening the constitutional order’. There was no evidence to connect the writer with these events and, according to PEN, some commentators go as far as to suggest that the bombings were carried out by government agents provocateurs.
Many believe Makhmudov’s arrest was linked to his association with the exiled opposition leader Salih, as well as to his writings and distribution of Erk, the opposition newspaper banned in Uzbekistan since 1994. During his trial, access to key documents was denied and Makhmudov claimed to have been tortured under interrogation, which included beatings, electric shock, and the threatened rape of female family members.
Makhmudov is a writer of the traditional dastan form of epic verse, commonly used in Central Asia, which typically features a hero with magical qualities. The dastan often commemorates the Turkic people’s struggles for freedom. Under the Soviet Union, the dastan was said to be ‘impregnated with the poison of feudalism’ and Makhmudov, who in his youth lived in Russia for several years, was forced to repudiate his work. After the Soviet Union collapsed, his most famous book, These High Mountains, also known as Immortal Cliffs, published in 1981, was retroactively awarded the Cholpan Prize.
The writer was previously imprisoned between 1994 and 1996. He was first arrested in 1994, when his house was raided and police produced a firearm as evidence that he was guilty of terrorism. The charges were dropped after being met with widespread disbelief. He was then accused of embezzlement and of the abuse of his position as chairman of the Cultural Foundation of Uzbekistan and sentenced to four years in prison. PEN and Amnesty International considered the charges to have been fabricated. An international campaign was mounted and when no evidence was produced Makhmudov was given a presidential amnesty and released.
He was hospitalised in July 2000 for facial and throat surgery. His poor health was a result of his extreme ill-treatment and neglect in the camp where he was previously held – a notorious prison in the northern city of Jaslyk, known among Uzbek human rights activists as ‘the place from which no one returns’.
Makhmudov has survived so far, but fears remain that he will not live to see his freedom. Only in his fifties, he has had three heart attacks, and tuberculosis is rife in Uzbek prisons. He was moved to a medical centre in May 2001, but was returned to prison camp a month later.
PEN and other human rights organisations believe Makhmudov was convicted in violation of his right to freedom of expression and association as guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Uzbekistan has ratified. Readers may like to write appeals calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Makhmudov to:
President Islam Abduganievch Karimov and HE Mr Tukhtapulat Tursunovich Riskiev
Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan
41 Holland Park
London W11 3RP
Fax: 020 7229 7029