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10 Ways To Fall Foul Of Uzbekistan's Kafkaesque Justice System

"Incorrectly peeling carrots."

Posted on September 25, 2014, at 9:00 p.m. ET

Private / Via Human Rights Watch

A poster in Nukus, Uzbekistan, of people wanted on charges of “threatening the constitutional order."

The shadowy intrigue cloaking Uzbekistan, a former Soviet state in Central Asia that is almost completely closed off to scrutiny from outside, is matched only by the shocking brutality of its criminal justice system, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch on Friday. The report, shared with BuzzFeed News prior to publication, documents the cases of 34 Uzbeks who suffered shocking abuse on a scale almost unheard of outside of North Korea.

"What makes Uzbekistan unique isn't just the number of politically motivated cases — which is more than all the other former Soviet states combined — but also their particular cruelty," Steve Swerdlow, the author of the report, told BuzzFeed News. "The government uses it against anyone they perceive to be an opponent. It's an extremely broad attempt to control the populace."

Despite being a key ally for NATO operations in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, ruled since 1989 by strongman Islam Karimov, essentially shut itself off from the rest of the world in 2005, when government forces massacred hundreds of protesters in the city of Andijon. No independent media or rights groups operate inside the country. The Red Cross ceased operations there in 2013. The United Nations says torture is "widespread." The government, meanwhile, denies that there are any human rights violations in Uzbekistan at all, and says the U.N. has been misled by "politically biased" NGOs. Most of the over 150 interviews used in the report were conducted by phone or outside Uzbekistan; a few date to a trip in 2010, a year before the government expelled Human Rights Watch.

The scope of the abuses detailed in the report is so broad, and their scale so horrifying, as to make summarizing them difficult. One particularly Kafkaesque aspect of the abuses specific to Uzbekistan is the concept of "violation of prison rules," which can see years added to a prisoner's sentence. According to the report, the practice is systematically used to ensure that political prisoners do not fall under early release or amnesty laws — sometimes just days before they are meant to be released, which Human Rights Watch says is a form of psychological torture.

But the abuses do not stop there. All the people in the report are in jail on politically motivated charges aimed at restricting essentially all activity not under control of the state and Uzbekistan's all-pervasive KGB successor, the SNB. Most are said to have suffered unspeakable torture. Some have been in prison for well over a decade, with no prospect of release, including two of the world's longest-imprisoned journalists.

BuzzFeed News selected 10 harrowing examples of ways Uzbeks have fallen foul of their country's justice system.

1. "Incorrectly peeling carrots."

Association for Human Rights in Central Asia

Murod Juraev, a former member of parliament, was abducted from neighboring Kazakhstan in 1994 and sentenced to 12 years in prison on charges of trying to overthrow the government. He's still there. Authorities have extended his sentence on four separate occasions — each shortly before he was due to be released or before the government announced an amnesty. His alleged offenses include "incorrectly peeling carrots" and "non-removal of shoes when entering the barracks."

Despite a litany of health problems including tuberculosis, high blood pressure that causes him to lose consciousness, severe back pain, and the loss of all his teeth, officials still force Juarev to undergo heavy labor daily at a prison brick factory. His wife says that prison officials, who told her he was a "special case," routinely torture him.

2. Studying English in the U.S.

Human Rights Watch

After studying English on an exchange program in San Antonio, Texas, in the early 1990s, Erkin Musaev worked as an Uzbek liason to NATO in Brussels and then joined a U.N. border protection program in his homeland. He was arrested in 2006 during a crackdown on Uzbeks who had studied abroad, apparently in the belief they could have been recruited by Western spy agencies to plot against the government in Tashkent, the country's capital. Meanwhile, Kayum Ortikov, a former political prisoner whom BuzzFeed News wrote about in February and who briefly studied with Musaev on the same course, began his own ordeal in the Uzbek justice system when he refused to testify against him.

3. "Going to the bathroom without permission."

Abdujalil Boymatov/Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan

Ganikhon Mamatkhanov has been in prison since his 2009 arrest for fraud, which appears to have actually been motivated by calls to Uzbek-language Radio Free Europe and BBC radio to complain about Uzbek agricultural policy in his native region of Ferghana. Shortly before he was due to be released in March, his family attempted to visit him 700 miles away in Navoi, where he had been transferred in 2010 for unspecified "violations of prison rules." Prison officials told them they could not meet him because he was in solitary confinement for "going to the bathroom without permission," and said it was a foregone conclusion that his sentence would be extended.

After his family returned home to Ferghana, they received a letter informing them that his sentence had been extended for unspecified "violations of prison rules" just two days before their visit. When they called the prison to ask why, officials said that they could not tell them over the phone and that they would have to visit in person.

4. Failing to sweep a cell — despite not being given a broom.


Solijon Abdurakhmanov, a journalist who wrote critical articles about the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, was arrested in 2008 for possessing narcotics he claims the SNB planted. Most of the interrogations focused on his journalistic work rather than the drugs charges, and he is serving his 10-year sentence more than 700 miles from his home.

Prison officials have made him ineligible for amnesty or early release by charging him with "violations of prison rules" such as not sweeping up his cell, despite never being given a broom, and "not marching correctly." In 2012, they attempted to pass off another prisoner as Abdurakhmanov to fool visiting Red Cross officials.

5. Having no relationship whatsoever with the star witnesses at your trial.

Association for Human Rights in Central Asia

Human rights activist Fahruddin Tillaev was sentenced to eight years and three months in January after a two-hour human trafficking trial at which the only two witnesses said they had never so much as laid eyes on him. His lawyer claims prison officials tortured him by driving needles between his fingers and toes and making him stand under a dripping faucet, giving him a severe headache.

6. Being part of an organization that "does not appear to exist."

Private / Via Human Rights Watch

Hayrullo Hamidov, a popular underground preacher and soccer commentator, was one of 19 Uzbeks were jailed in 2010 for their membership of Jihodchilar ("Jihadists"), a banned religious organization. Rights groups believe that the Uzbek government invented the group and then banned it to make it easier to convict dissenters.

7. Not coming up with a $100,000 bribe after being in prison for 11 years.

Human Rights Watch

Rustam Usmanov, a banker who supported the liberal opposition party Erk in the early 1990s, has been in prison on apparently politically motivated extortion and fraud charges since 1998. In 2009, prison officials demanded he pay them $100,000 to stop them harming his son. When he failed to do so, they beat him savagely. In 2012, he smuggled a handkerchief to his son, written in his own blood, that read, "SOS! Been waiting for the court for 15 [years]! Try me or kill me!"

8. Asking to see a dentist.

Private / Via Human Rights Watch

Chuyan Mamatkulov, a plucky rights activist famous for his willingness to criticize Karimov in public, is another person serving time for alleged membership of Jihodchilar. When he asked to see a dentist in April, a prison official beat him on the head with a rubber truncheon so viciously that he lost most of his teeth. He now also struggles with his vision.

9. "Failure to lift a heavy object."

Association for Human Rights in Central Asia

Isroiljon Khoidlorov led the Andijon branch of Uzbekistan's only registered human rights organization until 2005, when he fled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan after being threatened for showing mass graves for the massacre victims to foreign media. Security service officers kidnapped him a year later and forcibly returned him to Uzbekistan, where a court convicted him of "threatening the public order." In 2012, less than a year before he was due to be released, prison officials sentenced him to an additional three years for refusing to pick up a heavy object — despite the severe spinal hernia he suffers from.

10. Nothing.


Akram Yuldashev led a popular Islamic business association in the city of Andijon until 1999, when police arrested him for allegedly planning a series of bombings in Tashkent that killed 12 people. A court sentenced Yuldashev to 17 years in prison after a hearing that lasted less than an hour at which no evidence was presented. After the Andijon massacre in 2005, authorities claimed Yuldashev had admitted to starting the riots by asking his followers to break him out of jail. His family have not been able to find out where he is, or even whether he is alive or dead, since 2009.

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    Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71

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A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.