Uzbekistan: Free Human Rights Activist

For Immediate Release

Uzbekistan: Free Human Rights Activist

Government Critic Held on Fabricated Charges, Ill-Treated in Custody

MOSCOW - Uzbek authorities should drop all charges against a human rights
defender and opposition activist who faces politically motivated
prosecution and immediately release him, Human Rights Watch said today.
The trial against Akzam Turgunov resumes on September 16, 2008 in the
remote town of Manget. Human Rights Watch also called on the
authorities to ensure that Turgunov gets medical care for burns he
suffered from ill-treatment in custody.

"The case against Turgunov sends a chilling message to other activists
that working for justice is a dangerous business in Uzbekistan," said
Igor Vorontsov, Uzbekistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Despite
the recent release of several other activists, new cases like this one
show that any government critic will be dealt with harshly."  
 

Police in Manget arrested Turgunov, 56, on July 11 on
suspicion of extortion under circumstances that seemed to have been
staged to frame him. He had originally traveled to Manget, in
Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic 1,100 kilometers west of
Tashkent, in response to a request from a woman to help her with a
court case to seek child support payments from her former husband. The
woman's former husband agreed to an out-of-court settlement and
arranged to meet Turgunov and the woman's brother to hand over the
money. When a plastic bag supposedly containing the money was handed
over to Turgunov, the police appeared and arrested him and the woman's
brother, charging that they had extorted money from the former husband.
If convicted of extortion, Turgunov faces up to 15 years of
imprisonment.
 
 

Turgunov is the chairman of Mazlum ("the oppressed"), a
Tashkent-based human rights organization. He has served as a public
defender in trials throughout Uzbekistan, including many in
Karakalpakstan, in cases involving violations of human rights and civic
freedoms.  
  Turgunov's trial is not the only politically motivated
prosecution ongoing in Uzbekistan. Last week, the trial of Salijon
Abdurakhmanov, an independent journalist, began in Nukus, on politically motivated drug charges.
These cases are the latest in a long line of prosecutions against
government critics. At least 18 human rights defenders, dissidents and
journalists remain in prison. Numerous others, fearing for their
safety, have fled Uzbekistan to seek asylum abroad. In response to
international criticism, the government has released several imprisoned
human rights defenders, but harassment and arrests of others continue.
 
 

Turgunov told his lawyer that he suffered ill-treatment
in custody. On July 14, he was taken from a police cell to an
investigator's office to write a statement. He told his lawyer that,
while he was in the office, someone poured boiling water down his neck
and back, causing severe burns. Turgunov's lawyer, Rustam Tulyaganov,
told Human Rights Watch that he observed burns on Turgunov's body. On
July 22, Tulyaganov filed a request to the Prosecutor's Office to
investigate the ill-treatment, but as of this writing had received no
reply.  
 

"The abuse of a prisoner is unacceptable," said Vorontsov.
"Uzbekistan's partners should demand that it brings to justice those
who ill-treated Turgunov in custody."
 
 

Turgunov's trial began on September 4. Serious due process
violations during the investigation and proceedings undermine
Turgunov's right to a fair and impartial trial. Prosecutors did not
allow Turgunov to confront his "victims" during the investigation
phase, as required by Uzbek criminal procedure, although the lawyer of
Turgunov's co-defendant signed the document as if the confrontation had
taken place. It is not clear whether the lawyer was coerced. After
Turgunov's trial began, a senior court administrator told observers
that "even if BBC would come to this trial, Akzam Turgunov will get a
long prison sentence," suggesting that the outcome of his trial is a
foregone conclusion.  
 

Turgunov's trial comes one month before the European Union
is slated to review Uzbekistan's human rights record to determine
whether to continue the sanctions regime adopted in the aftermath of
the 2005 Andijan massacre, when government forces shot hundreds of unarmed protesters.
Among the assessment criteria established by the European Union for
reviewing the sanctions are for the Uzbek government to stop the
harassment of civil society, to release imprisoned rights defenders and
dissidents and to allow UN experts, including the special rapporteur on
torture, to visit Uzbekistan.
  

"It's ridiculous to talk about fundamental improvements in
human rights in Uzbekistan when the government is bringing new cases
against activists," said Vorontsov. "In evaluating Uzbekistan, the EU
should demand evidence of real reform, because Turgunov's prosecution
shows that nothing has changed."
 
 

Human Rights Watch urged the US and EU governments to
monitor Turgunov's trial in Manget closely and to call for Turgunov's
immediate release. Human Rights Watch also called for an impartial and
effective investigation into Turgunov's ill-treatment in custody and to
bring those responsible to justice. Torture remains widespread in
Uzbekistan. In November last year, the UN Committee Against Torture
expressed concern about "numerous, ongoing and consistent allegations
concerning routine use of torture and other cruel, inhuman and
degrading treatment or punishment committed by law enforcement and
investigative officials or with their instigation or consent." In
November, the committee will review Uzbekistan's progress in tackling
torture and ill-treatment.   

In July, the Uzbek government banned Human Rights Watch's researcher from entering Uzbekistan. 

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