“I want justice. A sniper bullet damaged my optic nerve. Later – in pretrial detention, I was beaten so severely over the head that I lost my eyesight – I live in the dark now”.
Yermek, torture survivor, Almaty, Kazakhstan
Today, 26 June, is the United Nations (UN) International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. And on this day the Coalitions against Torture in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan 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), the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (Poland) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) call on the governments of Central Asia to take immediate action to put a stop to torture.
Across the world, this day provides an opportunity to support victims of torture and their families, to stand together in solidarity and to demand justice.
Despite numerous promises of zero-tolerance and reform, torture and ill-treatment continue to be widely used in all five Central Asian countries. Hundreds of individuals are charged and convicted based on confessions extracted under duress; and, fearful of suffering from reprisals, many more victims of torture and their relatives never dare to lodge complaints at all.
The bloody consequences of excessive police violence and serious allegations of torture in several countries of the region last year have been felt throughout 2023. In 2022 the governments of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan responded to predominantly peaceful protests with excessive force often amounting to extra-custodial torture and leading to numerous civilian deaths, arbitrary arrests, widespread torture in detention, persecution of human rights defenders and journalists. To date they have failed to effectively and impartially investigate the actions of state representatives and hold the perpetrators accountable. The governments weaponized internet by deliberately shutting it down in the regions where protests took place, thus preventing people from communicating, reporting on violations and obtaining updates about the security situation.
In Kazakhstan, nearly a year and a half after the ‘Bloody January’ events of 2022, the government has failed to take effective steps to impartially and thoroughly investigate the events and to hold accountable those responsible for serious human rights violations which occurred when authorities forcibly put down mass protests for social and political change and evolving unrest. Reported human rights violations include the excessive use of force and related killings of protesters and passers-by, the arbitrary detentions of thousands of protesters, and widespread torture and ill-treatment of protesters in detention. Many investigations opened into killings and torture allegations were prematurely closed due to the alleged lack of evidence of crimes in the actions of law enforcement and security officials involved. The High Commissioner of Human Rights of Kazakhstan (Ombudsperson) stated that 80 per cent of all cases have been closed. Only 1-2 per cent of complaints of torture have reached court, and in only a handful of cases have perpetrators of abuses been convicted. Thus, unfortunately, very few victims of torture and their families who have been brave enough to lodge complaints will see justice.
The Kazakhstani government has not recognized that systematic human rights violations took place in January 2022, has failed to initiate an effective and transparent investigation and provide adequate compensation for the victims and their families. On the contrary, victims, and those protecting their rights such as human rights defenders and lawyers continue to face harassment and persecution in retribution for carrying out their professional duties.
In May 2023 the UN Committee against Torture expressed its deep concern at ‘’many consistent reports indicating various forms of torture, ill-treatment, including excessive use of force’’ related to the January 2022 protests in Kazakhstan, as well as the ‘’high rate of closed cases’’. It called on the Kazakhstani authorities to promptly, independently and impartially investigate all acts of torture, ill-treatment and excessive use of force and punish the perpetrators in a manner commensurate with the gravity of their acts.
In Tajikistan, there has to date been no accountability for serious human rights violations perpetrated in connection with the authorities’ response to mass protests that took place in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) in November 2021 and May 2022. Reported violations include the excessive use of force, arbitrary detentions, torture and ill-treatment, extrajudicial killings, and unfair trials of dozens of people.
Following the events in GBAO, the authorities launched a widening crackdown on dissenting voices and civil society, targeting in particular those who criticised the authorities’ actions in the region. About 20 civil society activists, human rights defenders and journalists were detained, tortured, criminally prosecuted and convicted following non-transparent trials held in violation of international standards. In a case of particular concern, in December 2022, the Supreme Court sentenced Manuchehr Kholiknazarov, Director of the Lawyers’ Association of Pamir (LAP) and member of Tajikistan’s Anti-Torture Coalition, to 16 years in prison on fabricated charges of participation in a criminal and banned organisation which were initiated in retaliation for his efforts to assist victims of human rights violations and promote access to justice and the rule of law in GBAO.
In a similar pattern, there are ongoing concerns about torture and ill-treatment and the disregard of victims’ rights in Uzbekistan. Analysis of torture complaints there over the past years shows that collusion between perpetrators of torturer and doctors is an ongoing problem, making it more difficult to document and investigate torture cases. Victims’ lawyers are often threatened with disbarment if they actively raise torture concerns. Victims and journalists who speak out in public are at risk being prosecuted. There is still no efficient national mechanism for a rapid response to reports of torture.
The authorities have yet to ensure an independent investigation into the July 2022 events in Karakalpakstan in western Uzbekistan when mass protests broke out against proposed constitutional amendments which would have deprived the republic of its current constitutionally protected status and its right to secede from Uzbekistan. There are multiple, credible reports that authorities resorted to excessive use of force, arbitrary detentions, and torture and ill-treatment when putting down the protests. According to official figures, at least 21 people died and 270 were injured, although the real figures could be much higher.
The investigative efforts undertaken into the Karakalpakstan events have been shrouded in secrecy and to date no one is known to have been held accountable for the killings or violations of the rights of protesters, although a few law enforcement officials were reportedly charged with wrongdoing. At the same time, as the authorities have presented the events as an attempt to seize power in Karakalpakstan, several dozen protest participants have been charged with and convicted of various crimes following legal proceedings falling short of international fair trial standards. Among them are well-known journalists, bloggers and activists, who publicly criticised the proposed constitutional amendments, including lawyer and blogger Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov who has been depicted as a protest leader. In January 2023, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison on charges of encroaching on the constitutional order, organising mass riots and other crimes. In court, he was the only defendant who dared to speak out about having been tortured in detention, but his allegations were not referred for an independent investigation before the verdict was issued. The live broadcast of the court proceedings was stopped after Tazhimuratov told the court he had been tortured. In June 2023, the Supreme Court upheld his sentence on appeal. Civil society sources reported that other defendants were also tortured but did not speak out in court for fear of reprisals.
In Kyrgyzstan, torture and ill-treatment also remains a serious problem, especially in pre-trial detention, where conditions often amount to degrading treatment. Those detained in politically motivated cases are at particular risk of abusive treatment, including activists who were arrested in October 2022 and charged with preparing riots, although they are only known to have peacefully engaged against the government-negotiated border deal with Uzbekistan concerning the strategically important Kempir-Abad water reservoir.
In this respect, the important role of Kyrgyzstan’s National Prevention Mechanism (NPM) in torture prevention should be emphasized–because its members can carry out unscheduled visits to detention facilities and meet detainees.
There are ongoing concerns about torture and enforced disappearances in politically motivated cases in Turkmenistan. We are worried about the fate of blogger Farhat Meimankulyiev (aka Durdyiev) who was recently forcibly returned from Turkey to Turkmenistan where he is at serious risk of torture because of his criticism of the authorities. The blogger has also previously been subjected to harassment, including by being arbitrarily detained in Turkmenistan’s consulate in Istanbul in connection with a planned protest in August 2021. While there, he was reportedly ill-treated and pressured to apologise for posting videos critical of the regime. Other outspoken activists based in Turkey or other countries with friendly relations with Turkmenistan’s government are also at risk of being returned to torture.
We call on the authorities of Central Asian countries to put a 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; initiating immediate independent
- investigations into widespread allegations of torture related to mass protests of 2022 with the participation of international experts and local civil society representatives;
- ensuring genuine cooperation with relevant UN mechanisms and addressing entrenched systemic problems in a transparent manner.
The Central Asian authorities must now turn words into action by ending impunity for torture and guaranteeing victims the protection and compensation to which they are entitled.
 For more information on human rights violations related to the January events and the measures taken to investigate and prosecute violations, see briefing paper prepared by IPHR and Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) for the EU-Kazakhstan Human Rights Dialogue in March 2023: https://www.iphronline.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/IPHR-KIBHR-briefing-paper-for-EU-Kazakhstan-HR-dialogue-2023.pdf; report issued by IPHR, KIBHR, the Coalition against Torture and the World Organisation against Torture (OMCT) in January 2023 on torture, ill-treatment and impunity related to the January 2022 events: https://www.iphronline.org/we-don-t-even-cry-anymore.html; as well as joint CAT submission by the Coalition against Torture, IPHR and OMCT from March 2023: https://www.iphronline.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/CAT-submission-final-22-March-1.pdf
 The Committee’s concluding observations are available at: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CAT%2FC%2FKAZ%2FCO%2F4&Lang=en
 For more information, see briefing paper from October 2022: https://www.iphronline.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Briefing-paper-on-key-concerns-in-Central-Asia-October-2022.pdf
 For more information on this trend, see update prepared by IPHR as part of its cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor, published in March 2023: https://www.iphronline.org/tajikistan-continuous-crackdown-on-civil-society.html
 For more information on his case, see joint statement by IPHR, the OMCT, Human Rights Watch, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Frontline Defenders, International Federation for Human Rights and Freedom Now issued on 3 April 2023: https://www.iphronline.org/tajikistan-manuchehr-kholiqnazarov-must-be-immediately-released.html
 For more information about the Karakalpakstan events and related violations, see submission for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Uzbekistan by Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (AHRCA) and IPHR from April 2023: https://www.iphronline.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/UPR-Uzbekistan-2023.pdf
 See more in the following news report: https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2023/02/09/gp/?utm_source=push&utm_medium=telegram