Tashkent, Uzbekistan – Days before their trial ended, the six Uzbek asylum seekers deported from Norway were presented on a television show as “traitors” and “religious extremists”.
Titled Treason, or a New Way to Stand Against the Motherland, the pseudo-documentary broadcast on Uzbek television in early December showed the men aged between 28 and 37 rail-thin, their heads cleanly shaven, faces bewildered.
An insinuating voice-over accused them of joining a “terrorist group” – the Islamic Movement of Turkestan – that hatched plans to overthrow President Islam Karimov’s secular government and introduce Islamic law in the ex-Soviet nation.
Two weeks later they were sentenced to 12-13 years in jail.
What was not mentioned was the men were severely tortured while in detention, according to a report by the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, or AHRCA.
They were beaten with rubber clubs, electrocuted, and starved for up to six days, said the report citing information from the defendants’ families. They had state-appointed lawyers who ignored their pleas, knew about the torture, but never requested medical expertise.
Torture is a very widespread practise in Uzbekistan ... Cruel treatment is simply standard.
The men had insisted they were innocent and said they had lied to Norwegian authorities to trick them into believing they faced danger back home – but were deported to Uzbekistan regardless.
Their case was based on the testimony of several witnesses who sometimes could not tell one defendant from another. The witnesses said they’d seen the defendants watching Islamist videos on YouTube – but could not remember any details.
Norwegian officials said in mid-December that they would stop deporting Uzbek asylum seekers.
To those who follow the political developments in Central Asia’s most populous and repressive state, the trial and torture of the six men were not surprising at all.
“This case is typical for Uzbek courts,” Nadejda Atayeva, AHRCA’s head who lives in France after fleeing Uzbekistan in 2000, told Al Jazeera. “And see how government propagandists use such trials – they created a documentary before the trial – they ignored the principle of presumption of innocence.”
And what happened to the six before the verdict wasn’t, perhaps, the worst part of their ordeal.
About 12,500 political prisoners in Uzbekistan – more than in the Soviet gulags at the height of the Cold War – are subjected to systematic torture: asphyxiation, electrocution, and beatings, human rights groups, former inmates, and researchers say.
“Torture is a very widespread practise in Uzbekistan,” said Atayeva. “Cruel treatment is simply standard.”
Some of the political prisoners are opposition activists, human rights advocates and independent reporters – a handful are hard-line Islamists and aspiring jihadists. But most are average Muslims convicted for alleged violent plans.
Karimov, a former communist and iron-fisted autocrat ranked next to such leaders as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, has for years been persecuting alleged Islamists, seeing them as the biggest threat to his rule, which started even before the 1991 Soviet collapse.
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“[Karimov’s] Islam is stagnant, official, dead. It pours from TV screens, from the mouths of government-fed imams,” Daniil Kislov, a Moscow-based analyst on Central Asia, told Al Jazeera.
“The other Islam that is alive and social is a terrible threat to him and is impossible to tame,” Kislov, who runs the Ferghana.ru news website, added.
“This Islam is close to civil activism that undermines his power, and that is why Karimov wants to destroy it.”
A request for comment from the Uzbek government was refused on Wednesday. Despite international concerns long raised over torture allegations, Karimov has never addressed the issue.
“I’m prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people … in order to save peace and calm in the Republic,” Karimov said shortly after a series of attacks in Uzbekistan in March 1999. “If my child chose such a path, I myself would rip off his head.”
Prison hit squad
A video confession of a self-described prison killer was posted on Kislov’s website in 2011. A 49-year-old man – who identified himself as Alexander Rakhmanov – said he headed a squad of former criminals who tortured and killed political and religious prisoners.
The squad “stifled, tortured, raped and almost quartered” the inmates, Rakhmanov said in a low-resolution video. Apart from torture, they were responsible for extrajudicial killings of suspected Islamists, he said.
“We buried them in the ground, poured lime and water on them. Hundreds of deaths are on me,” Rakhmanov said, adding he wanted to confess because he disobeyed his superiors by refusing to kill women – and expected to be killed in return.
“I can’t live under such heavy weight – can’t eat, can’t breathe.”
Every year, Uzbek authorities detain, sentence and jail hundreds of Muslims. Some 150 religious Uzbeks, including 14 women, were sentenced to jail last year, according to a report by the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan (IGNPU).
One conviction triggers a cluster of arrests, interrogations, and convictions of family members, neighbours, friends and business partners. Suspected Islamists are routinely extradited from Russia and other ex-Soviet states, and sometimes Uzbek security officers abduct those who changed their citizenship or became asylum seekers.
Once in jail, they are severely punished for praying, are often kept in solitary confinement, and have their terms arbitrarily extended for the slightest “violations of prison rules”, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, an international rights watchdog.
At least 23 jailed Muslims were tortured to death in 2014, the IGNPU report said. The actual number could be much higher, but other cases remain unreported because the victims’ families are too scared to contact human rights groups, or the handful of independent reporters, it said.
Seven decades of communist rule could not root out Islam in Uzbekistan, although Bolsheviks purged Muslim clergy and replaced an Arabic alphabet with a Cyrillic one, cutting Uzbeks off from the rich Islamic traditions of their pre-Soviet past.
After the 1991 Soviet collapse, mosques and madrassas mushroomed throughout Uzbekistan. Prayer calls were heard in every city and town, and foreign preachers and teachers of all kinds flocked to Uzbekistan.
|Major crackdowns against Muslims began after the 2005 popular revolt in the city of Andijan [AP]|
Unsurprisingly, some Uzbeks chose radical ideology. Some formed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – later rebranded as the Islamic Movement of Turkestan.
The group relocated to Afghanistan and threatened to topple Karimov, organising several armed incursions into Uzbekistan in the late 1990s.
Pressure on Uzbek Muslims intensified after a series of bombings of government buildings in 1999, but a massive crackdown began after the 2005 popular revolt in the eastern city of Andijan.
The life and death of one of the revolt’s leaders provides a rare detailed insight into the confrontation of popular Islam and President Karimov.
From protest to coffin
Addressing several thousand men, women and teenagers that roared and cheered at Andijan’s main square on May 13, 2005, Tavakkalbek Khodjiev urged them to keep rallying against oppression and injustice.
“To establish a just state, we need to hold here for two or three days,” the moon-faced, dark-haired furniture factory owner said, according to amateur videos shot by two protesters.
He was part of a group of Muslim businessmen who gathered outside government-sanctioned mosques. Just hours earlier, his group stormed the Andijan jail where 23 of its members were held awaiting trial for allegedly planning violence.
The group and hundreds of its supporters seized a city hall and several other government buildings. Thousands turned up to rally – and demand direct talks with Karimov.
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Khodjiev, who had just turned 28, yelled in a bullhorn urging the crowd not to disperse. The crowd yelled back, “Allah akbar!” To them, the phrase was an affirmation of their faith.
But to Karimov’s government, it was a red flag.
Several hours later, government troops armed with assault rifles mowed down the crowd, killing hundreds, according to survivors and rights groups. Hundreds more fled to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, including Khodjiev and his three brothers.
Within weeks, Kyrgyz authorities extradited him to Uzbekistan, where Khodjiev was arrested – and barely survived severe torture, his family said.
He was among dozens of people who were tried and given lengthy jail terms for their participation in the Andijan revolt.
At one such trial this reporter attended for six weeks, Khodjiev called himself a jihadist who “herded” people to the city square at gunpoint, while his brothers-in-arms allegedly received cash from the US embassy.
|Tavakkalbek Khodjiev, one of the Andijan protest organisers, died in jail [AP]|
His speech was monotonous and unnatural, and he kept looking up like a child who forgot a poem he had to memorise.
He received 17 years in jail, his brothers Ikrom and Ilkhom 19 and 20 years, respectively. The fourth brother, Dilshod, fled and found asylum in Sweden.
In 2013, Tavvakalbek Khodjiev managed to send a letter describing the daily horrors of his prison life to his family.
Later that year, a group of security officers delivered his body in sealed coffin to his house in Andijan – and did not let the family wash and bury him according to Muslim rites.
But his mother managed to take a snapshot of her son’s pallid face that lost any resemblance to the live wire of the Anidjan revolt.
The official cause of death was a heart attack. But Khodiev’s fourth brother insists Tavakkalbek was killed after prison authorities found out about the letter.
“They kept telling him, ‘Only your dead body will come out of here,'” Dilshod Khodjiev told the Uzbek branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in November 2013.
“In the end, they tortured him to death.”