Torture of political prisoners is widespread in Uzbekistan, a Central Asian country courted by the West as a transit point for forces fighting in Afghanistan, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) says.

In a report entitled Until the Very End: Politically Motivated Imprisonment in Uzbekistan published on Friday, HRW cited the cases of 34 prominent political prisoners as evidence that torture, kidnapping, incommunicado detention, solitary confinement and extension of sentences were all widespread. The watchdog group also added that local human rights bodies believed the number of political prisoners in Uzbekistan was in the thousands.

President Islam Karimov, 76, tolerates no dissent in the ex-Soviet state of 30 million people, which he has ruled since 1989.

HRW, whose Uzbek office was shut down in 2011, said its findings were based on more than 150 interviews with detainees' relatives, former prisoners, human rights activists and a former prison official.

"Whether behind bars for 20 years or a shorter time, these people have been wrongfully imprisoned and shouldn't spend even one more day behind bars," said Steve Swerdlow, HRW’s Central Asia researcher and the former head of its Uzbek branch.

People & Power: The Long Arm of the Dictator

The report cited the case of Kayum Ortikov, a former employee of the British embassy in the capital Tashkent, who said he had been tortured for nine months in 2009 after being convicted on what he said were fabricated charges of human trafficking.

He said his torturers in the Tashkent city jail had burned his genitalia with flaming newspapers, pushed needles under his fingernails, and threatened to have allegedly HIV-positive prisoners rape him if he did not confess to being a spy.

After a public campaign by his wife, rights groups and British journalists, Ortikov was released in May 2011. He and his family fled Uzbekistan and finally resettled as refugees in the US this year.

Uzbek officials could not be reached or declined to comment, but Karimov has in the past said his tough methods were needed to keep Islamist militancy in check. Karimov's relations with the West worsened when his troops notably crushed popular protests in 2005 in the eastern city of Andijan during which 187 people died according to the government and 700 according to rights groups.

With no political opposition to speak of and a state media that is highly supportive, Karimov looks likely to win a new term as president next March.

Source: Reuters