Following the violent death of a prominent opposition figure in police custody and international demands for an honest investigation of the case, the government of Uzbekistan faces a test of its credibility. The victim, Shovrug Ruzimuradov, 44 years old and the father of seven, was detained in his native Kashkadaria Region on June 15, taken into the Internal Affairs Ministry’s custody in Tashkent and held incommunicado there until July 7, when ministry officers delivered Ruzimuradov’s remains to his family in the native village. The severely bruised body had some internal organs removed–apparently to conceal internal lesions from the torture. The authorities claim that the victim had committed suicide while in custody. The police stopped Ruzimuradov’s Tashkent supporters from attending the funeral.
Ruzimuradov, an advocate of Uzbekistan’s national independence before 1991, was elected on that platform to the last Uzbek SSR Supreme Soviet in 1990 and became the head for Kashkadaria of the Birlik [Unity] movement, a secular, Western-oriented group. Birlik soon fell afoul of President Islam Karimov and was banned by him. The parliamentary immunity notwithstanding, Ruzimuradov in 1992 served six months out of a four-year prison sentence for organizing unauthorized demonstrations. That conviction followed his critical remarks in parliament about Karimov, who ultimately relented and had Ruzimuradov released. From 1996 on, Ruzimuradov headed the Kashkadaria branch of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU). Detained again in 1998, he was released after the personal intervention of Bronislaw Geremek, then chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Both in 1998 and last month when arresting him, the authorities claimed to have found Islamist propaganda literature, cartridges and drugs on Ruzimuradov and in his office. Uzbek authorities are, however, widely suspected in the country and abroad of planting incriminating evidence on moderate and peaceful oppositionists. Ruzimuradov–in common with most supporters of the banned Birlik and of tolerated human rights groups–was a practicing Muslim but not an adherent of political Islam, and advocated the democratization of the political system along modern secular lines.
Most recently, HRSU and especially Ruzimuradov irritated the authorities by reporting on the criminal trial of seventy-three villagers from the Surkhandaria Region, who were convicted last month as supporters of the terrorist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). That armed group had temporarily seized last year several Surkhandaria villages, the entire population of which was afterward transferred into the interior of the country and investigated for collaboration with the IMU by the authorities. The HRSU, as well as the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan (IHROU) maintained that the convicted villagers were innocent of the criminal charges, even if they may have supplied or sheltered the guerrillas.
Ruzimuradov’s extensive reporting drew international attention to that case. His death has triggered an international outcry. The U.S. and other Western governments, as well as all the major international organizations for human rights, are demanding that the government of Uzbekistan investigate the case and hold those responsible for Ruzimuradov’s violent death legally accountable. The U.S. State Department’s statement warns that “incidents such as this present a serious obstacle to relations between the United States and Uzbekistan.”
The outcry has helped bring to the fore the case of the jailed writer Mamadali Mahmudov, a prominent supporter of the banned opposition Erk [Freedom] Party. He and five others were sentenced in 1999–Mahmudov to fourteen years–on terrorism-related charges. International human rights groups–as well as the Helsinki Commission of the U.S. Congress in its most recent statement on Uzbekistan–consider those charges fabricated. Erk, banned since 1993, is a secular and moderately pan-Turkic party with no ties to political Islam. Erk’s emigre leaders, however, have in the last two years flirted with the IMU and let themselves be used by Iranian propaganda.
Mahmudov’s and Ruzimuradov’s are only the best known of many reported cases of brutal treatment, death while in custody and political misuse of justice in Uzbekistan. Overreacting to the threats of terrorism and of fundamentalist Islam, the authorities often tend to lump together peaceful and violence-prone opposition groups. The indiscriminate crackdown risks radicalizing some of the moderate groups and adding to the social base of irreconcilable groups.
Brutal repression and misuse of justice, furthermore, make it politically difficult for Western goverments to provide the necessary level of security assistance to Uzbekistan. That in turn could play into Moscow’s hands, forcing Tashkent to increase its reliance on Russia for military and security assistance, although the Uzbek leadership definitely does not want that to happen (Institute for War and Peace Research (London), Central Asia report no. 60, July 13; HRSU, IHROU, U.S. State Department and U.S. Congress Helsinki Commission releases, July 7, 9, 12, 16, respectively; Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Mashhad), July 12-13; see the Monitor, May 29, July 10).
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