A protest by inmates at the Jaslik prison in northwest Uzbekistan should prompt renewed pressure for penal reform by international organisations, local rights activists believe.
Surat Ikramov, head of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan, says a mass hunger strike has been under way at the prison since late October. The protesters are men convicted on charges of participation in or links to Islamic radical groups, thousands of whom have been jailed over the last decade in a government campaign to isolate dissent.
The hunger strikers say inmates at Jaslik are tortured and a number of prisoners have disappeared without trace. (See IWPR’s report on torture in the penal system: Uzbek Prison Abuses Cause Psychological Damage.)
The prison, officially known as Jaslyk 64/74 Colony, is considered the worst of its kind and is sometimes referred to as “the place of no return”.
Rights groups say more than half the 500 inmates were convicted on political charges or accused of Islamic extremism. The former include poet Yusuf Juma, businessman Rustam Usmanov, and rights activist Azimjon Farmonov.
According to Ikramov, these categories – the political and religious convicts – suffer more than most from tortures and other forms of physical abuse. Relatives of Juma, Usmanov and Farmonov have frequently reported the use of torture to his group.
“Our own observations and conversations with relatives of prisoners in this facility show that these two groups are more commonly tortured by warders,” Ikramov said.
Klara Olimova was among 30 relatives of religious prisoners who spent two weeks at the prison trying to get permission to visit.
Her son, 31-year-old Mirkarim Saidkarimov, was sentenced to 15 years in 1999 for “anti-constitutional actions”.
After managing to see him, she said he was in poor health.
“They broke my son’s skull and back and injured his buttocks,” she said. “He has lost all hope. I want the international community to know how our children are being tortured.”
He told her that the prisoners launched the hunger strike after they noticed that those who had prayed regularly and observed the Ramadan fast had begun disappearing.
The protesters demanded that the prison authorities return eight missing men. Instead, they themselves were placed in solitary confinement.
Another mother, Muhayo Khojieva fears her son is being tortured as a reprisal for taking part in the protest. She spent three weeks trying to secure a visit, without success.
“The prison administration prison told me my son was in solitary confinement. I’m very worried about him,” she said. “The prison staff told me to go away, but I’m going to stay until I see him. I am afraid they are mistreating him.”
Yelena Urlaeva of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan says torture is getting worse in the penal system, especially with regard to those convicted on religious charges.
“Torture of religious prisoners gets worse during religious holidays and in the holy month of Ramadan,” Urlaeva said.
Saidkarimov told his mother that Muslim clerics recently visited the prison but threatened inmates instead of offering help. The mainstream Islamic clergy is tightly controlled by the Uzbek government.
“They told our boys, “The world hates you Hizb ut-Tahrir members, and you and your families should be completely exterminated,” his mother Olimova reported.
According to Urlaeva, protests over inhumane treatment take place in Uzbek prisons every year. Inmates slash their veins and stomachs. The authorities suppress information about such protests.
The Jaslik facility has long been a focus of concern among international human rights groups, and the latest hunger strike should intensify the attention paid to it, she said.