Time to shine the light on Uzbek sadism

Par Lauryn Oates le 11 février 2010

In the vast emptiness of the Kyzyl Kum desert that covers western Uzbekistan, there is a dark prison called Jaslyk. The very name causes local people to shudder. There, inmates are jammed into cells, 16 in each, sometimes forced to stand for days on end, forbidden to speak out loud.
One day in 2002, two men were being tortured in Jaslyk. Their names were Muzafar Avazov and Khusnuddin Olimov. Submerged in boiling water, they were literally boiled alive, a form of torture otherwise unknown since the likes of 14th-century Scotland or the Roman Inquisition.
No tabloids seized upon the gruesome photos of the bodies. There were no angry demonstrations in the streets of western cities. Unlike H1N1 or the 2010 Olympic Games, the story failed to make its way into water cooler conversations. It was almost like it had never happened at all.
The Uzbek government manages a wildly successful public relations effort for itself. A couple of years ago, I attended a government-hosted conference in the capital, Tashkent, on the topic of elections. There, I was asked to give an interview on the state news station. All of the questions were designed to lead me into praising Uzbekistan, to show how foreigners heap approval on the dictatorship. After refusing to go along, I was handed a booklet with page after page of quotations from foreign diplomats, journalists, and past conference delegates who had participated in this ruse, complimenting Uzbekistan for its “gradual and therefore stable reform efforts.” It was a farce. But judging by the blank stares you’ll get from most Canadians when you mention Uzbekistan, it’s the sort of public relations that works. The truth has been safely muffled and Uzbekistan’s torturers carry on unimpeded.
But evidence of the regime’s sadism exists outside Uzbekistan, buried in the pages of the reports of human rights watchdogs and Uzbek groups in exile. On the last page of a 2003 report by Human Rights Watch, there is a photo of Fatima Mukhadirova, the mother of Muzafar Avazov. She sits at a table surrounded by dozens of photos of her son’s brutalized body. One hand is on her forehead, her eyes closed. In addition to the injuries from the scalding water, her son’s teeth were smashed in and his fingernails missing. Today, unable to seek justice for her son’s murder, she also sits in prison, reportedly for her possession of anti-government pamphlets.
The few Uzbek opposition leaders who have survived have been forced into exile. There is no viable opposition movement left in the country. Civil society activists routinely flee the country, too, waging an uphill battle from exile, with few enthusiastic allies. If they stay, they can carry on their work knowing that the risk of imprisonment, torture, or death is very real. The threat also hangs over their family members and associates – in 2004, at a meeting of women’s rights activists from Central and South Asia I attended, the Uzbek delegates rushed home suddenly in a panic. One had learned her daughter had been fired from a government job. Another’s husband was threatened with kidnapping.
The only other option is to remain in country, stifled, disarmed, and passive. Dissidents can join officially state-sanctioned (and effectively, state-run) “civil society organizations,” or they can take up politically neutral activities, painstakingly avoiding any topic that might risk upsetting those at the top. It is a form of enforced acquiescence that erodes the spirit of artists, writers, activists, and intellectuals – the very people who could be carving out a bold new democracy from the ruins of the post-Soviet state.
Last month, the celebrated Uzbek photographer Umida Ahmedova was charged with “slander and insult of the Uzbek nation.” Her book of photographs of the daily life of Uzbeks and a documentary film about Uzbek customs and rituals had apparently earned her the wrath of Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov, a holdover from the Soviet days. She now faces up to six months in prison.
The tribulations of Umida, Muzafar, Mirzakomil, Khusnuddin and countless others take their toll, their stories a haunting echo of the treatment of dissidents in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, or Amin’s Uganda. Meanwhile, the world’s rich, liberal democracies behave as though the tyranny of closed societies is none of our business.
In 2005, after Karimov’s troops massacred hundreds of unarmed protesters in the city of Andijan, Western governments moved to isolate the regime but backed off when Karimov closed a U.S. air base in retaliation. The publics of those countries held no one to account for this dereliction.
Perhaps it’s an irrational fear of becoming embroiled in another Iraq or Afghanistan, but somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost our insistence upon freedom. We are turning smug and inward. Our complaints and preoccupations are becoming increasingly parochial, just as our lives and economies are becoming increasingly integrated into a global community. One would think that this is precisely the time to confront human rights atrocities of the sort so commonplace in Uzbekistan. Instead, we are silent, and by our silence we are complicit.
We could still turn ourselves around and, as Leonard Cohen sings, “ring the bells that still can ring.” Canada could forge a global solidarity movement with the people of Uzbekistan, and with all the other peoples still living under authoritarian rule. We might return to old tools like boycotts, vigils, protests. Or we could simply write letters to our MPs, demanding sanctions, investigations, action. We could demand that our government, and the multilateral institutions to which it belongs, do something.
It won’t be our governments who first show care. It is up to us. Ordinary citizens in free countries are the great threat to authoritarian regimes, totalitarianism, and tyrants. But we have to speak up. And we have to take heart in knowing, as Cohen reminds us, “there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Until then, to our great shame, totalitarianism still thrives in 2010.


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