Bahodyr Abdullayev, a devout Muslim, was arrested here in February after police found six bullets stuffed in a hole in the wall of his home. Relatives say the police had no problem finding the bullets because the officers themselves put them there--borrowing a screwdriver from Abdullayev’s son to make the hole.
Abdullayev was tortured in jail until he falsely confessed to belonging to a banned Islamic party, family members say. In May, after a brief trial, he and 13 other defendants were found guilty of anti-government crimes. Abdullayev, a 40-year-old engineer, was sentenced on the spot to 19 years in prison.
“They told us it was going to be an open and fair trial, but nothing like that happened,” said his wife, Mamura, weeping outside the courtroom.
In the name of fighting Islamic terrorism, this former Soviet republic carved out of the plains and deserts of Central Asia has imprisoned at least 5,000 people, Uzbek human rights advocates say. Dozens of prisoners arrested for their political or religious beliefs have been executed, and more than a dozen more have been tortured to death, activists say.
Uzbekistan--a landlocked nation roughly the size of California--has emerged as one of the most authoritarian and brutal of the 15 countries that gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
President Islam Karimov has rolled back even the modest democratic gains achieved in the late 1980s under Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Few dare to criticize Karimov, who was also Uzbekistan’s top official during Soviet times. Indeed, “offending the honor and dignity of the president” is a criminal offense.
Human rights activists liken the current wave of repression to the Stalinist purges. All opposition parties have been banned. The government controls the country’s television, radio and press and can monitor all Internet traffic. The secret police tap telephones, trail suspected dissidents, falsify evidence and conduct searches with impunity, critics say. Judges, who are appointed directly by the president, rubber-stamp the findings of prosecutors and hand out long prison sentences.
In keeping with the tradition of the Soviet gulag, a harsh new prison has been built in the remote desert of northwestern Uzbekistan to house the flood of political prisoners. The high-security penitentiary, located on a military base in the closed city of Zhaslyk, has become known as “the place from which no one returns.”
“You can be arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time or for being related to the wrong person,” said Acacia Shields, a representative in Tashkent of New York-based Human Rights Watch. “If you display suspicious signs of piety, that is enough to get you arrested. Wearing a beard is enough.”
During an April visit to Central Asia, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright personally appealed to Karimov to release leading human rights activists and allow representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit prisons. So far, he has not acted on her requests.
Karimov, Uzbekistan’s first and only president, contends that tough action is needed to combat Islamic extremists who threaten the stability of the region.
“Such people must be shot in the head,” he told parliament in 1998. “If necessary, I’ll shoot them myself.”
According to critics at home and officials in Washington, such ruthlessness is only fueling religious zealotry and opposition to Karimov’s regime.
Certainly, Uzbekistan sits at the center of a volatile region. On its southern border, the extremist Islamic Taliban has seized power in much of Afghanistan. In neighboring Tajikistan, Muslim rebels waged a costly civil war with the government during much of the 1990s. In Kyrgyzstan, another neighboring country, Muslim fundamentalists seized civilian hostages and fought government troops near the Uzbek border last year.
Both Russia and the United States fear that the extremists’ goal is to form an Islamic state extending from the Caucasus to China and encompassing much of what was once the southern territory of the Soviet Union.
“It is common knowledge that attempts are underway to carve up post-Soviet lands along criminal lines with the aid of religious extremism and international terrorism,” Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said during a visit to Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, in May. “An arc of instability has emerged in the republics on Russia’s doorstep. Speaking bluntly and practically, if we do not stop international terrorism here, we will face it at home.”
It is a rare area of foreign policy where Moscow and Washington have found common ground.
U.S. Sees Country as Potential Foothold
U.S. officials claim that Afghanistan provides alleged terrorism mastermind Osama bin Laden with a haven for camps where zealots are trained to carry out violence against the United States, such as the deadly bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998. Russian officials contend that the same bases are used to train militants to fight alongside separatist Islamic rebels battling Russian troops in the republic of Chechnya. The U.S. and Russia both worry that if Islamic extremism gains a foothold in Uzbekistan, terrorism could spread more easily to other parts of the world.
In Tashkent, Putin pledged support for Uzbekistan’s efforts to fight extremism and promised that Russia will take “preventive steps” if necessary. Subsequently, top Kremlin aides have talked openly about the possibility of launching airstrikes against terrorist bases in Afghanistan.
In April, Albright pledged nearly $10 million in new military assistance to Uzbekistan and other Central Asian governments to fight international terrorism and the narcotics trafficking that often accompanies it.
At the same time, Albright made the case that the best way to defeat terrorism is to combine police action with greater respect for human rights and political opposition.
“We believe, with the government of Uzbekistan and the other governments, that there are genuine terrorist threats in this region,” she told reporters here. “But they can best be dealt with by the rule of law, by some very specific actions to fight terrorists, but mostly, I think, by allowing there to be a greater expression of freedom.”
Totalitarianism is nothing new in this part of the world. People in what is now Uzbekistan have lived in fear of their rulers for centuries. The emirs who governed ancient city-states such as Samarkand and Bukhara were often capricious and brutal, lopping off the heads or gouging out the eyes of those who gave offense or committed crimes. The Communists who came after the emirs continued that tradition, executing opponents and sending suspected enemies to the gulag.
Karimov, 62, a mechanical engineer by training, began his career as a shop foreman at the Tashkent Farm Machinery Plant before becoming a designer of cargo planes.
As a Communist apparatchik, he steadily rose to become a top official of the state planning committee and Uzbek finance minister. In 1989, he was named first secretary of the Uzbekistan Communist Party--an achievement made easier by an embezzlement scandal that had eliminated much of the republic’s party leadership.
After winning election as president in 1991--a victory he aided by barring his strongest opponent from running--Karimov quickly put a stop to the flowering of democracy, banning opposition parties and locking up his critics.
To build a national identity for the fledgling country, Karimov also created his own personality cult. Today, images of a smiling Karimov surrounded by adoring supporters beam out at the public from billboards across the country. State-controlled television and newspapers unashamedly promote him. Signs posted in prominent places bear the sayings of Karimov, such as “Uzbekistan is a state with a great future.”
Karimov--who had already extended his initial five-year term by three years--was reelected in January, winning more than 91% of the vote in balloting condemned by international observers as undemocratic.
With the demise of communism, it had become legal to practice religion in Uzbekistan for the first time in 70 years, and Islam rapidly regained popularity in this traditionally Muslim region. Officials say more than 85% of the population adheres to one form of Islam or another.
The result was that, with democratic parties and free speech banned, Islam became the only outlet for opposition to the government. Islamic fundamentalists found growing support for their dream of a Muslim state.
In 1998, the government, alarmed by the trend, adopted a measure restricting religion. Among other things, the law requires religious groups to register with authorities.
Crackdown Launched After Car Bombings
In February 1999, six car bombs rocked Tashkent, killing 16 people and damaging the main federal building. Karimov denounced the blasts as an attempt to assassinate him and pledged to stamp out the “dark forces” behind the explosions.
The president initiated a crackdown that continues today. Some human rights activists estimate that tens of thousands of Uzbeks have been imprisoned, although that figure is impossible to document because the names of arrestees are rarely made public.
Many of those arrested have reportedly been tortured to get them to confess or implicate others. The State Department’s most recent report on human rights called Uzbekistan “an authoritarian state” and said methods used by the police to torture prisoners include electric shocks, near-suffocation and beatings with rubber sticks and plastic bottles filled with water. Relatives of arrested men say one common form of torture is burning the penis.
The nation’s top police official warned last year that fathers would be held accountable for the crimes of their sons. When unable to find suspects they are seeking, police have arrested family members and locked them up instead.
One notable case is that of Imam Obidhon Nazarov. A revered Muslim cleric, he refused government demands that he praise the president during religious services. Fearing his arrest was imminent, he fled the country in 1998. The government imprisoned two of his brothers, his uncle and his brother-in-law.
“The state must have thought that since my son was so popular, he posed a threat to the authorities,” said the imam’s mother, Muhoromhon, 62. “This was a big mistake on their part, because my son has never wanted anything but to pray and be a true Muslim.”
Prosecutors have great leverage in the Uzbek legal system. If a judge does not follow the prosecutor’s recommendation, the prosecutor can appeal to a higher court. A judge who has decisions overturned twice can be removed from office. Consequently, judges rarely look closely at falsified evidence or defendants’ arguments, critics say. Trials are usually brief and sometimes held behind closed doors.
Family members and activists say many prisoners have been told by prosecutors that they will be set free if they ask for forgiveness. When they do, their pleas are considered admissions of guilt, and they are given sentences of as much as 20 years in prison.
The worst reports of treatment come from the prison in Zhaslyk. According to Vasilia Inoyatova, a human rights activist who gained access to the facility last year in the guise of visiting a relative, prisoners suffer a wide range of abuses.
Inmates have been forced to remain squatting with their hands behind their heads for much of the day, Inoyatova said. To stretch their arms or legs, they were compelled to get permission from a guard and then thank President Karimov for allowing them to move, she said. The prisoners were also required to sing the Uzbek national anthem 50 times a day, she said.
Rights activists and U.S. officials say the evidence is clear that the repression in Uzbekistan is backfiring, creating a stronger and more extreme Islamic resistance.
“Indiscriminate government censorship and repression can cause moderate and peaceful opponents of a regime to resort to violence,” Albright said in Tashkent. “It can turn civilians who have never been interested in politics into extremists.”
Albright Appeals for Release of Activist
In particular, Albright appealed to Karimov to release Mahbuba Kasymova, a leading human rights activist who was accused of “harboring a criminal"--a fellow activist who was arrested while visiting her home. Last year, Kasymova met with the judge in her case only to discover that she was to be tried immediately. She was denied permission to present witnesses or have her own attorney in the courtroom. After a three-hour trial, she was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
“The ability of Uzbekistan to jail human rights activists with impunity is a shocking reminder of how little U.S. agencies are using their influence here,” said Shields, the Human Rights Watch representative.
Outside the courthouse in Tashkent, Mamura Abdullayev held her 2-year-old daughter in her arms and contemplated the bleak future she faces without her husband for the next 19 years.
Her clothing--a tightly wrapped head scarf that left only her face exposed and a loose-fitting dress that covered her wrists and ankles--denoted a devotion to Allah that the government associates with dangerous fundamentalism.
Her husband, she said, turned to Islam 12 years ago and found that reading the Koran aloud helped cure him of a longtime stutter.
“He’s never been involved in a terrorist group,” she said. “He’s a good man. We can’t even say anything. If you open your mouth, you get yourself in trouble.”