In Uzbekistan, it is claimed, political prisoners are being tortured to death with boiling water. thrown out of windows to spend the rest of their days as invalids, or forced into mental asylums. There are over 7,500 prisoners known to be suffering the abuse of their human rights. Apparently, gangs of prisoners on criminal charges are sometimes paid to carry out the torture, ensuring the authorities’ hands stay clean. A dissident writer, if not imprisoned, lives outside society with no hope of work or means to sustain his family. Neighbours are made to turn against those in their community who openly practise their religion or write pieces against the government.
Uzbekistan is a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, and declared independence on 1 September 1991. This was endorsed in a popular referendum on 29 December 1991, in which the former First Secretary of the Communist Party, Islam Karimov, was also confirmed as President, with 86 per cent of the vote. Fearing an Islamic revival, Karirnov has limited real democratic development, and genuine opposition parties are not tolerated.
I was recently in Tashkent, attempting to visit writers in prison and their families. My trip was on behalf of the English branch of PEN, the international association of writers, and was funded by the Human Rights Policy Department of the Foreign Office. While I was there, Alisher Ilkhamov, the head of the Uzbek Soros foundation, had a warrant out for his arrest. On 16 April 2004 the foundation, known as the Open Society Institute, was officially closed down and banned: it was blamed for last year’s revolution in Georgia and President Karimov is fearful that something similar may occur in Uzbekistan.
The British Ambassador, Craig Murray, is well known amongst Uzbek dissidents for his outspokenness and criticism of President Karimov. Diplomats from other countries seem to prefer to keep their distance, steering clear of all controversy.
Journalist Muhammad Bekjanov was arrested in March 1999 and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He had fled to the Ukraine some years earlier but was deported, accused of involvement in a series of explosions in Tashkent. International human rights organisations are convinced that he was arrested partly because his brother is the exiled opposition leader and writer Muhammad Salih, and that the charges were fabricated because of his work on Erk, the opposition party’s newspaper, banned in Uzbekstan since 1994.
The Uzbek Government has hounded Salih, his family and the Erk party ever since Salih stood against Karimov in the 1991 presidential election. He was forced to flee Uzbekistan in 1994 and currently lives in Norway. In 1999 Salih was sentenced in absentia, together with his three brothers, to fifteen years in prison.
In the early 1990s, Bekjanov worked alongside Salih, publishing Erk. By the time of the Tashkent bombings in 1999, he was living in the Ukraine and was no longer involved with the opposition. Although Bekjanov was aware that the Erk party had been accused of organising the explosions, he did not expect to be arrested. He told the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR): ‘If I had been responsible, I would have left Kiev, but I stayed there, and on March 15 I was arrested and later extradited to Uzbekistan.’
Held in appalling conditions, Bekjanov contracted tuberculosis and is currently detained in one of the worst prisons in Uzbekistan. TB is endemic in Uzbek prisons and, in an attempt to stop it spreading further, the authorities have herded all infected detainees into Kagan prison, in the Bukhara region.
On 18 June 2003 representatives from IWPR were permitted to visit Bekjanov in a prison hospital in Tashkent, and he gave his first interview since his detention. He told them that as a result of torture in prison he was now deaf in his right ear and that his leg had been broken. In spite of his ill health, Bekjanov was defiant. tellinng IWPR that he intends to continue his work fir the political opposition when he is released.
Further evidence of Bekjanov’s innocence came to light in December 2003 when Zayniddin Asqarov, a political leader in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the lead witness in the prosecution of Bekjanov, told a press conference that he had given evidence after torture. He had been told that if he testified against Salih and his brothers he would spare others from arrest and an Islamic religious leader would be released. Despite Asqarov’s retracting his allegations and the international appeals that followed this extraordinary turnaround, Bekjanov remains in prison.
Bekjanov’s Ukrainian wife, Nina, has now been in the United States for four years, thanks to the help of the United Nations humaitarian &airs office in MOSCOW. She called me last week and is hoping to return to Uzbekistan to visit her husband, but-has-no idea if she will be allowed into the prison. The authorities reduced Bekjanov’s sentence by two years but the fifty-year-old still has another eight years left to serve. Given the harsh conditions and torture he has to suffer, one can only continue to lobby in the hope that this courageous writer comes out dive.
Uzbekistan is keen to develop relations with the EU and its government is sensitive to international opinion and bad press. Readers can send appeals asking for the immediate and unconditional release of Muhammad Bekjanov to:
President Islam Karimov
C/O HE Tukhtapulat Tursunovich Riskiev
Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan
41 Holland Park Road
London W11 3RP
Fax: 020 7229 7029