Uzbekistan’s Release Of Former UN Worker A Small Victory In Fight Against State’s Abuses

Uzbekistan has allowed the release of Erkin Musaev after 11 years of imprisonment. Having been charged with high treason in 2006, Musaev is reported to have been the victim of torture and a corrupt judicial system. The release is the latest of some modest concessions enacted by new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has loosened the Uzbek government’s authoritarian grip on the country. However, the state is yet to take account for the myriad accusations of torture, illegal detention, and muzzling of free speech that have arisen in the three decades since independence.

Musaev, 50, is a former Uzbek government official who spent much of his career abroad in western countries as part of his role in the Defence Ministry. Having been based in Brussels, Musaev became project manager of the United Nations Development Project ‘Border Management in Central Asia’ task force.

It is his experience in Uzbekistan’s foreign relations that made Musaev a perceived enemy of the state: detained at Tashkent airport in January 2006, authorities reported finding a disc containing “state secrets” in his bag. By June, he had been charged with high treason and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The validity of these charges is, however, shrouded in doubt, as the state of Uzbekistan’s criminal justice system is internationally recognized as lacking transparency. It is known to systematically detain political prisoners. Musaev’s arrest had been branded an arbitrary imprisonment by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

A US State Department report declared in 2007 that there had been clear evidence of torture in relation to this case. In reports echoed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Musaev is said to have suffered “beatings to the head, chest, and feet,” as well as being ‘held for two months without access to a lawyer or any visitors at the start of his detention.

The case of Erkin Musaev is but one example of the systematic abuses of the Uzbek government since its independence in 1991. Under the authoritarian rule of Islam Karimov, whose presidency lasted from independence to his death in 2016, the Uzbek state employed tactics of systematic abduction, detainment, and torture against political opponents, journalists, human rights activists, religious leaders and believers, and cultural figures. Karimov’s successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has proposed encouraging reforms since coming to office: indeed, Musaev is the 5th political prisoner to be released during his short presidency. However, these steps have been limited and many questions of human rights abuses in the country remain unanswered. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Human Rights Committee has declared the Uzbek government guilty of torture, ill treatment, and violations of rights to liberty, security, and fair trial. Much of these abuses have been carried out by the National Security Service (SNB), a body that is feared in the country to this day.

An in-depth report carried out by Human Rights Watch, published in 2014, sheds light on the extent of Uzbekistan’s abuses and serves to show that the case of Erkin Musaev is not unique. Widespread examples were found of torture, sexual humiliation, poor prison conditions, denial of access to counsel during trials, ignoring health problems caused by abuse, and arbitrary extensions to sentences that are often absurd and nonsensical, to begin with.

Notable abuses include the Andijan massacre of 2005, in which government forces shot and killed an unknown number of largely peaceful protesters, thought to be hundreds. The longest ever detention of a single journalist is also currently taking place in Uzbekistan. Muhammad Bekjanov, a nonviolent opposition figure, has been incarcerated since 1999 after being kidnapped in Kiev and is also reported to have suffered physical and psychological torture.

Despite pressure from the UN Human Rights Council, Human Rights Committee, and the Committee Against Torture, Uzbekistan has faced virtually no consequences for its illegal behaviour.

Though the release of Erkin Musaev is a victory, the Uzbek state must take account for the huge number of historic and current abuses of human rights.