the Disillusioned kid: Uzbek Prisons - A Survivor’s Guide
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Thursday, December 16, 2004

Uzbek Prisons - A Survivor’s Guide

Via the Institute for War and Peace Reporting 'Reporting Central Asia' email list I would like to draw your attention to an article written by journalist and human rights activist Ruslan Shapirov who formerly lived in Uzbekistan, but now resides in the US where he has been granted political asylum. In it Shapirov recounts what he experienced during the 13 months he spent within Uzbekistan's penal system. I have tried to follow developments in Uzbekistan, but it is easy to forget that away from the broadbrush political developments, there are very real human consequences to what is going on. Shapirov's account is a particularly vivid reminder of that fact.

Shapirov's ordeal began with interrogations in police stations on the country's capital Tashkent. From there he was transferred to the city branch of the Uzbek Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). Here he himself was tortured as were many of his fellow detainees, some apparently to death. During his time at the MVD he encountered Ministry workers more than happy to brag about their participation in torture and competing to see who had killed the most "hizbutchiks" (members of Islamic organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which has been a particular target of the Karimov regime's crackdown on dissent).

Rape was a daily occurence at the Ministry. Shapirov reports that warders would allow male detainees access to female cells in order to rape the inmates in return for a bribe of 15-20 US dollars. Males were also raped, sometimes by warders but often by other prisoners. In scenes reminiscent of torture at Abu Ghraib this would often be photographed. These photos would then be sent onto the prison camps where detainees would go once convicted. This was of considerable significance as it would be regarded as homosexual and relegated to the position of "untouchable". This is the lowest position within the prison hierachy and meant that other prisoners would not shake hands with them or even look at them and meant that they became virtual slaves doing menial tasks such as cleaning toilets. Shapirov notes that the stigma does not end when they are released, instead "as word gets out and such men become the object of insults, especially in a conservative society like Uzbekistan."

Shapirov comments that the prison camp where he was sent later (after a period in Tashkent prison), Colony No. 64/3 at Tavaksay, 70 kilometres north-east of Tashkent, is little different from the Soviet Gulags and describes a brutal regime. Surprisingly the everyday rules at the camp were made by the inmates not the warders because it is a "black camp". This doesn't, however, mean the regime is any more liberal, quite the contrary in fact. Shapirov describes a "reign of terror" under the undisputed boss of the camp Zokir. Under Zokir's auspices taxes were levied and "justice" meeted out in the form of beatings and even rapes (with the resulting relegation to the position of untouchable).

The article does not make for light reading, but there are glimmers of hope. Shapirov suggests that because his was "a high-profile political case and the object of international concern" this made his own time at Tavaksay easier. The significance of this is that it confirms that those of us fortunate enough to be living in relatively free states in the west can make a difference in apparently distant dictatorships like Uzbekistan. The first step towards improving the situation, of course, is to understand what's going on, hence my own focus on Uzbekistan.

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