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Today, 26 June, is the United Nations (UN) International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. On this day, the Coalitions against Torture in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (AHRCA, Uzbekistan, based in exile in France), the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR, Turkmenistan, based in exile in Austria), International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) call on the governments of Central Asia to take concrete measures to end torture and ill-treatment. 

Torture and ill-treatment remain a widespread problem in Central Asia, and it is of particular concern when used against detainees who have been arrested on politically motivated grounds. Despite some positive legal steps taken across the region, which, on paper at least, improve the legislation addressing torture, the Central Asian states nonetheless fail to implement these measures effectively and consistently. 

Kazakhstan

In Kazakhstan, torture and ill-treatment remain a serious problem, and impunity for perpetrators persists. In 2023, the NGO Coalition Against Torture in Kazakhstan received a total of 283 complaints concerning torture (165 appeals) and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment (118 appeals). Appeals were submitted on behalf of 19 women and 264 men. However, during the year, only 31 people were recognised as torture survivors by court, and 23 law enforcement representatives were convicted of torture, in three court sentences on the basis of Article 146 of Kazakhstan’s Criminal Code, which prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, while the other convictions were issued under provisions which do not specifically concern torture. In 2024 so far, the Coalition has received a total of 55 complaints concerning torture (27) and ill-treatment (28).

On paper, the penalties for torture became slightly stricter following the adoption of a set of amendments to the Criminal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code and the Criminal Executive Code in 2023. In particular, in accordance with these amendments, convicted perpetrators of torture are ineligible for parole. However, the Coalition’s monitoring shows that despite the Kazakhstani authorities’ stated commitment to discontinue the use of release on parole and other alternatives to imprisonment for perpetrators of torture, the 2023 amendments have yet to be implemented in practice. Recently, it became known that of five law enforcement officers who were convicted of torture (Article 146) on 10 February 2023 by the Specialised Interdistrict Criminal Court of Zhetysu Oblast in relation to their actions during the Bloody January events in 2022, four have since had their sentences commuted to a fine. The five officers were accused of using torture methods which included burning with iron, pulling out teeth with pliers, beating on different parts of the body, as well as sticking needles under fingernails.

During the Bloody January events of 2022, there were widespread reports of torture and ill-treatment against people detained at the time. As highlighted in a joint report published by IPHR, KIBHR, the NGO Coalition against Torture, and the World Organisation against Torture (OMCT), the authorities conducted investigations into several hundred complaints received about torture and ill-treatment, but these investigations did not meet international standards, and many were prematurely closed due to the alleged lack of elements of a crime. Moreover, victims have often not been granted adequate protection. According to figures from the General Prosecutor’s Office, as of January 2024, a total of 34 law enforcement officials had been convicted on charges relating to torture and other violations committed during the January 2022 events. In close to 50 other cases, legal proceedings were still under way. These figures show that the number of officials prosecuted for abuses remains low compared to the reported scope of the violations during the January events. 

Kyrgyzstan

In Kyrgyzstan, the practice of torture and ill-treatment against people in detention also persists. The UN Human Rights Committee has expressed concerns regarding the high level of impunity existing in cases of torture and ill-treatment in Kyrgyzstan as well as inadequate compensation provided to victims. The Committee has also called on the authorities to provide the National Centre for the Prevention of Torture (NPCT) with sufficient financial resources to carry out its mandate effectively and independently.

There are particular concerns regarding the detention conditions and treatment of those arrested in politically motivated cases, of which there has been an increasing number in the context of the government’s widening campaign against civil society and critical voices. A major concern is that defendants have been held for extended periods of time in inadequate conditions. For example, people arrested in the so-called Kempir-Abad case because of their peaceful criticism and civic engagement regarding a border deal with Uzbekistan were held for up to 19 months in pre-trial detention, where conditions reportedly were unsanitary and they had limited access to medical treatment and visits with family. In a ruling welcomed by human rights groups, on 14 June 2024, 22 of the defendants were acquitted by Pervomaisky District Court of Bishkek. Five other defendants in the case are being tried separately.

In another case, the NPCT raised concerns that journalists associated with the independent Temirov Live outlet, who were arrested in mid-January 2024, were initially held for two weeks in a temporary detention facility, only intended for short-term detention of up to 48 hours. The NCPT concluded that the journalists’ continued detention in this facility would qualify as “torture.” 

In late January 2024, the journalists were transferred to a pre-trial detention facility in the capital, and later some of them were moved to house arrest or released with a travel ban. However, four of them remained in custody when the trial began in June 2024. It is of further concern that one of them, Makhabat Tajibek kyzy, reported being beaten by a prison officer in April 2024. Representatives of the Ombudsperson’s Office confirmed the injuries she sustained as a result of the beating (bruises on her face and arms). However, the Penitentiary Service denied the allegations of ill-treatment, claiming that Tajibek kyzy’s injuries had been inflicted by fellow detainees at her request, and prosecutors refrained from opening any criminal case.

Tajikistan

In 2023 in Tajikistan, the NGO Coalition Against Torture and Impunity received 16 complaints of torture and ill-treatment, with five of them coming from women, two from minors. During the same period, criminal cases were initiated against five law enforcement officers under Article 143 part 1 of the Criminal Code (which penalises torture). All the law enforcement officials charged were found guilty and sentenced to prison sentences to be served in maximum security prison colonies.

The situation in the country remains tense following the crackdown in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) in response to protests and unrest in the region in November 2021 and May 2022. The authorities’ crackdown was marked by allegations of the excessive use of force, arbitrary detentions, torture and ill-treatment and numerous trials labelled unfair by the international community. There has still been no accountability for the violations perpetrated by authorities during the crackdown. On 28 May 2024, it was two years since the arrest of lawyer and human rights defender Manuchehr Kholiqnazarov, the Director of the Lawyers Association of Pamir (LAP), one of the few human rights organisations in GBAO. First arrested in May 2022, Kholiqnazarov was convicted on trumped-up charges by Tajikistan’s Supreme Court in December 2022 and sentenced to 16 years in prison - a sentence he is serving in a maximum security colony. There are concerns that he may have been subjected to torture or ill-treatment in prison. While his health has deteriorated significantly behind bars, the authorities have failed to ensure proper medical care for him. IPHR, the Tajikistan Civil Society Coalition against Torture and Impunity and their partners have repeatedly called for Kholiqnazarov’s release. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor also raised concerns about his imprisonment and called for his immediate release

There are ongoing concerns about the forcible return of government critics and political opposition members to Tajikistan despite the risk that they may be subjected to torture. The extradition of activists from the countries of the European Union such as Germany are particularly worrying. In multiple cases, EU member states have complied with Tajikistan’s extradition requests for the return of individuals critical of the authorities despite the real risk of them being subjected to torture, ill-treatment, unfair trial and lengthy prison sentences upon their extradition, in direct violation of their human rights obligations.

On another note, as a recent IPHR report revealed, the authorities in Tajikistan have also disregarded treaty body recommendations to publicly condemn and respond to allegations of torture and other ill-treatment against LGBTIQ people, and have not investigated and prosecuted alleged perpetrators.

Turkmenistan 

In Turkmenistan, amendments to the Criminal Code adopted in 2022 strengthened the prohibition on torture included in the Code (article 201). However, despite this welcome legal revision, serious concerns persist regarding the lack of effective measures in practice to combat torture and ill-treatment. 

The closed nature of the country’s prison system and the lack of access for independent, international monitors create a fertile environment for torture and ill-treatment. For the same reasons, combined with the government’s lack of transparency, it is very difficult to obtain information about torture and ill-treatment in the country. However, available information, in particular reports from former detainees indicate that torture and ill-treatment remain widespread, with those imprisoned on politically motivated grounds being at particular risk of abuse.

According to World Prison Brief, it was estimated that around 35,000 individuals were imprisoned in Turkmenistan in 2021. Based on a combination of analysis of satellite imagery, witness accounts, and research, a report published by Crude Accountability in 2023 concluded that prison conditions remain cruel and inhumane. The report documented the frequent use of incommunicado detention, inadequate access to sanitation, food, and medical treatment, as well as beatings and other ill-treatment of detainees. 

When reviewing the situation in Turkmenistan in 2023, the UN Human Rights Committee raised concerns regarding the lack of effective investigations into allegations of torture and ill-treatment and widespread impunity for perpetrators. The Committee highlighted, in particular, numerous allegations of torture, inhumane treatment, degrading detention conditions, and the denial of medical assistance at the Ovadan Depe prison, known to accommodate individuals convicted on politically motivated grounds. The Committee also expressed its deep concern regarding the ongoing practices of secret detention and enforced disappearances and the authorities’ failure to investigate such cases. 

Human rights activist Mansur Mingelov has been imprisoned for more than a decade on charges considered politically motivated. While serving his sentence, Mingelov has reportedly suffered from serious health problems, believed to be related to beatings to which he allegedly was subjected when first detained. According to the organisation Turkmen News, Mingelov has not been granted adequate medical assistance and denied release, although those diagnosed with his condition (bone tuberculosis) are eligible for release for medical reasons. Prison doctors have reportedly prescribed amputation, which he has refused. Both the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) have raised concerns about Mingelov’s case and called for his release.

Uzbekistan

The practice of torture and ill-treatment persists in many detention facilities in Uzbekistan despite official rhetoric suggesting that legal reforms have been effective in addressing this problem. There is a high degree of impunity for perpetrators of torture. The reasons for this include the lack of opportunities for victims held in pre-trial detention to report torture allegations and incommunicado detention of victims until the physical evidence of torture disappears. There is also a lack of access to independent medical examinations for victims of torture: a medical examination can only be ordered by the investigator when a criminal case on torture already has been opened. At the same time, investigators are often reportedly implicated in torture themselves. Moreover, the allegations of torture by victims are often ignored by law enforcement authorities and courts, even when the victims have obvious signs of torture on their bodies. Victims of torture who report their experiences also risk being accused of libel and slander. 

Due to ongoing pressure, independent human rights activists in Uzbekistan are unable to effectively monitor the situation concerning torture and ill-treatment.

On 18 June 2024, Dmitry Ivanus (a disabled prisoner) was summoned by the head of Prison Colony Settlement No. 51, and allegedly beaten and ill-treated by him and the deputy head of the colony.  Allegedly, the reason for the ill-treatment was that Ivanus had informed another prisoner about being forced to testify against him. Dmitry Ivanus is currently being held in a punishment cell for 10 days. Attempts by human rights activists to lodge a complaint have been unsuccessful. 

In another recent case of alleged torture, in May 2024, 30-year-old Denis Nikolaev reportedly lost sight in one eye after being severely beaten by law enforcement officials at Chilanzar District Police Station in Tashkent. While handcuffed, he was hit on the head with a mop several times, damaging his eye. Nikolaev reportedly did not receive medical care for his injuries, and the judge ordering him to serve ten days in detention for an administrative offence did not inquire about the injuries at the trial. Only after Nikolaev’s release, did the man undergo a medical examination which diagnosed a severe eye injury, requiring an urgent and expensive operation, which he could not afford. An investigator took steps to identify the alleged perpetrator, but it is not clear whether any criminal case has been opened.

Aleksandr Trofimov was reportedly tortured at the same Tashkent police station in 2021. Trofimov, who is disabled, was beaten, ill-treated and kicked in the head. A subsequent medical examination, carried out only after his lawyer repeatedly filed complaints with the Prosecutor’s Office, confirmed a rib fracture. However, t a criminal case under Criminal Code Article 235 (which penalises torture and ill-treatment) has yet to be opened. 

Over the past five years, the use of punitive psychiatry against critics of the authorities has increased. There is a striking case of such ill-treatment involving Shahida Salomova, a female lawyer and blogger defending victims of forced evictions, who was arrested and subjected to compulsory psychiatric treatment in December 2022 after making allegations about the president and his family. In January 2024, she was transferred from an open to a closed psychiatric hospital, where she is forbidden contact with her relatives and lawyer. A petition to review the decision of the Medical Commission regarding her treatment was rejected. 

We call on the authorities of Central Asian countries to put an immediate stop to torture by:

  • acknowledging the scale of the problem of torture;
  • publishing comprehensive statistics on cases and investigations;
  • allowing independent monitors full access to detention facilities;
  • ensuring constructive cooperation with relevant UN mechanisms and addressing entrenched systemic problems related to the use of torture in a transparent manner;
  • continuing training for law enforcement personnel and prison staff in cooperation with UN bodies and international partners.

The Central Asian authorities must now immediately end the widespread impunity for torture and ill-treatment and cease degrading treatment of individuals.