ALMATY - Western governments have muted criticism of torture and rights abuses in Uzbekistan to preserve relations with the Central Asian state pivotal to supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan, a prominent human rights watchdog said on Tuesday.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic of 28 million people, had failed to keep promises to stop the use of torture, including electric shocks and simulated asphyxiation, in its criminal justice system.
"The West has to wake up to the fact that Uzbekistan is a pariah state with one of the worst human rights records," Steve Swerdlow, Uzbekistan researcher at HRW, said in a statement accompanying a 107-page report citing numerous cases of torture.
"Being located next to Afghanistan should not give Uzbekistan a pass on its horrendous record of torture and repression."
Uzbekistan’s relations with the United States and European Union soured in 2005 after a severe government crackdown on an uprising in the eastern city of Andizhan. Witnesses say hundreds were killed when troops opened fire on crowds.
Following harsh Western criticism of the bloodshed and systematic human rights violations in the mainly Muslim nation, Uzbekistan evicted U.S. forces from a key local air base.
But Washington and its major allies have since warmed up to the landlocked nation, a vital link in the supply line to NATO troops fighting the radical Taliban movement in Afghanistan.
President Islam Karimov, 73, has ruled his resource-rich nation with an iron fist for more than 20 years. He brooks no dissent and defends his authoritarian methods by saying he needs to be tough to forestall any rise of Taliban-style Islam.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Uzbekistan in October, in part to thank Karimov for Uzbekistan’s role in a supply route that is becoming increasingly important as U.S. ties with Pakistan have deteriorated.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in March Uzbek authorities had forced it to close its local office after earlier obstructing the work of its staff.
The group said its latest report was based on more than 100 interviews conducted in Uzbekistan between 2009 and 2011.
"The governments traditionally viewed as champions of the cause of human rights in Uzbekistan — the U.S., EU and its key members — have muted their criticism of the government’s worsening human rights record, including its continuing and widespread use of torture," HRW said.
Uzbek officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
HRW said the use of torture appeared to be designed to break a detainee’s will to the point where he or she would sign a prepared confession or refrain from asserting his or her rights.
It said it had heard several stories of detainees being subject to abuses to force them to confess to offences like theft or to implicate others.
Citing one example, HRW quoted a criminal lawyer as saying his client — "perfectly healthy" 10 days before — had been tortured and forced to drop the services of independent counsel.
"I noticed he couldn’t walk," HRW quoted the lawyer as saying. "He quietly recounted that all his ribs were broken … He had lost hearing in one ear."
The lawyer said he wanted to publicize the matter but the detainee refused, fearing for the safety of his family.
In 2008, Uzbekistan introduced habeas corpus, a legal action through which a court is obliged to determine the lawfulness of a person’s detention. Karimov said the move showed the justice system was being liberalised.
But HRW said it had seen no improvement in Uzbekistan’s human rights record since then. Arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment remained rife, it said.