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Uzbekistan Torture Ignored by the West, say Human Rights Group

US and EU accused of turning blind eye to preserve relations with nation that provides key supply link to Afghanistan troops

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Uzbek president Islam Karimov was thanked by Hillary Clinton for maintaining a vital supply link to Nato troops. (Photograph: AFP/Getty Images)

Western governments have turned a blind eye to criticism of torture and rights abuses in Uzbekistan to preserve relations with the state pivotal to supplying Nato forces in Afghanistan, according to a human rights watchdog.

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, HRW's Uzbekistan researcher, said. "Being located next to Afghanistan should not give Uzbekistan a pass on its horrendous record of torture and repression."

Uzbekistan's relations with the US and EU soured in 2005 after a 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 US forces from a key air base.

But Washington and its major allies have since reconciled with the country, which is a vital link in the supply line to Nato troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

President Islam Karimov, 73, has ruled his resource-rich nation with an iron fist for more than 20 years. He defends his authoritarian methods by saying he needs to forestall any rise of Taliban-style Islam.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited Uzbekistan in October to thank Karimov for maintaining Uzbekistan's role in a supply route that is becoming increasingly important since US ties with Pakistan deteriorated.

HRW said in March that Uzbek authorities had forced it to close its local office after obstructing its work. The group said its latest report, which cited numerous cases of torture, was based on more than 100 interviews conducted in Uzbekistan between 2009 and 2011.

An HRW spokesperson said: "The governments traditionally viewed as champions of the cause of human rights in Uzbekistan – the US, 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."

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 they would sign a prepared confession or refrain from asserting their rights. It said it had heard several stories of detainees subjected to abuses to force them to confess to offences such as theft or to implicate others.

Citing one example, HRW quoted a criminal lawyer as saying his client who was "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 publicise 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. Arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment remained rife, it added.

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