Today marks the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, a day to speak out against the crime of torture and to honor and support victims and survivors throughout the world. On this occasion Freedom Now would like to draw attention to torture in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the need to rehabilitate victims of torture, and the lack of accountability which remains endemic when authorities commit these abuses.
Although torture is prohibited by domestic law in Kazakhstan, the definition enshrined in the criminal code does not comply with international standards. Moreover, a culture of impunity prevails as prison officials who have used torture are rarely punished and those that are receive relatively light sentences.
One prominent example is that of Erzhan Elshibayev, who was arrested in 2019 after organizing a series of peaceful rallies against unemployment. In March 2020, Elshibayev’s wife and a friend observed severe bruising on Elshibayev’s body from beatings received in prison. However, after photos of his injuries were shared on the internet and news of the beatings spread, prison officials forced Elshibayev to sign a statement denying that the beatings took place. In August 2020, after Elshibayev submitted an official complaint regarding his mistreatment, officials placed Elshibayev in solitary confinement for two weeks. In September 2022, Elshibayev was sentenced to seven additional years in prison for allegedly disobeying prison authorities.
During the nationwide protests in January 2022 in Kazakhstan, torture was more severe and widespread than ever previously seen in the country. These abuses have not been effectively investigated, and the only official who has been convicted was for a lesser crime. Reports indicate that 329 investigations of torture and abuse are taking place, the real question is how many convictions will be secured of those responsible for the abuse.
Torture remains endemic and widespread in Uzbekistan, despite a ban under domestic law. In 2020 the UN Committee Against Torture concluded “that torture and ill-treatment continue to be routinely committed by, at the instigation of and with the consent of the State party’s law enforcement, investigative and prison officials, principally for the purpose of extracting confessions or information to be used in criminal proceedings.”
Gaybullo Jalilov is a practicing Muslim and prominent human rights defender who was wrongly detained in Uzbekistan between 2009 and 2018 on national security-related charges. Jalilov has been a member of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan since 2003. Jalilov was tortured and suffered deplorable treatment while in detention, including being kept in an animal cage. In November 2010, prison guards beat him repeatedly with truncheons leaving him nearly deaf in both ears.
Azamjon Farmonov is a prominent human rights defender who was wrongly detained in Uzbekistan between 2006 and 2018. Following his arrest, Farmonov was held incommunicado for over a week and held in isolation without access to his family for approximately a month. During this time, authorities tortured him to force him to make a confession. As the end of Farmonov’s sentence approached he was accused of a series of minor prison infractions, such as retorting to other prisoners and failing to wear a distinguishing badge. The prison authorities again tortured Farmonov to obtain his confession for these infractions. They suffocated him with a rubber mask until he passed out and forced him to listen to the screams of others being tortured as a threat of similar treatment.
Despite being released, often victims of torture in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are unable to receive restitution that is in-line with these countries’ human rights obligations. As we detailed in our report,Duty to Rehabilitate: Assessing Reparations of Former Political Prisoners in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, most former political prisoners do not receive any kind of rehabilitation, and those that do often do not receive enough to pay for their medical bills.
While Kazakhstani and Uzbekistani law have provisions that require the state to provide rehabilitation to victims of torture, in practice, it is nearly impossible for victims to receive. Only one legal case in Kazakhstan has resulted in restitution for torture, and in many other cases, authorities refuse to do anything to right these grievous wrongs.
Farmonov is one prisoner who attempted to receive rehabilitation from the government after his release. However, as he told Central Asia researcher Steve Swerdlow, “It is extremely difficult to get the medical care payment that is supposed to be provided by the government for former prisoners. Obtaining the monetary stipend provided by the government for medical is so difficult, I simply gave up.”
The Uzbekistani and Kazakhstani governments should acknowledge these abuses and hold those responsible accountable. They should guarantee a right to rehabilitation to former prisoners and implement safeguards against forced confessions. Barring these developments, the international community should pressure these governments to uphold their international human rights obligations. They must speak up for those whose voices have been silenced.