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In dialogue with Uzbekistan, Committee against Torture experts urge effective implementation of legislation and further investigations into rights violations

Committee against Torture 

13 November 2019

Committee Experts also Flag Situation of Human Rights Defenders

The Committee against Torture this afternoon concluded its consideration of the fifth periodic report of Uzbekistan on measures taken to implement the provisions of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.  Committee Members, while highlighting positive changes in legislation in Uzbekistan, urged their effective implementation.  They raised concerns regarding investigations into complaints and the situation of human rights defenders.

Felice Gaer, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Uzbekistan, noted that there had been significant changes since the new President had taken office: the Government had signalled its intent to comply with its obligations under international law.  There were positive legal developments, but the Committee had yet to receive data reflecting their implementation.  It was disappointing that the State party's report seemed to downplay the number of complaints of torture.  Despite the increase in complaints by a factor of 10, the number of related investigations remained low.  Had there been investigations into the allegations that people were detained on politically motivated charges?  Regarding the cases of Ilhom Ibodov and Rahim Ibodov, had the perpetrators been prosecuted under article 235 of the Criminal Code?

Akmal Saidov, Director of the National Human Rights Centre of Uzbekistan, said considerable work had been done to implement the Convention.  Uzbekistan had adopted the national indicators related to the Sustainable Development Goals, which were integrated into the Government's Strategy for Action, which notably focused on the reform of the judiciary.  On complaints of torture and ill-treatment, delegates explained that disciplinary and administrative measures had been taken to address offences committed.  For instances, 41 State officials had been investigated in relation to problematic behaviour in penitentiary institutions.  A mechanism for the internal investigation of such matters was in place.  For each case of physical violence leading to an infringement of someone's rights, the Ministry of the Interior carried out assessments; perpetrators of torture were subsequently dismissed from their positions if found guilty.  Regarding human rights defenders, the Government would provide written responses on all the individual cases mentioned by the Committee.

In his concluding remarks, Mr. Saidov thanked the members of the Committee who had shown interest in Uzbekistan.  A national plan of action or roadmap would be developed to implement the Committee's recommendations.

Jens Modvig, Committee Chairperson, recalled that the Committee would request that Uzbekistan submit a follow-up report on the implementation of three urgent recommendations.  The Committee looked forward to maintaining a dialogue with the State party.

The delegation of Uzbekistan was comprised of representatives of the National Human Rights Centre, the Prosecutor General's Office, the Ministry of the Interior, the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Permanent Mission of Uzbekistan to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will next meet in public on Thursday, 14 November at 3 p.m. to continue its consideration of the second periodic report of Burkina Faso (CAT/C/BFA/2).

Report

The Committee has before it the fifth periodic report of Uzbekistan (CAT/C/UZB/5).

Presentation of the Report

AKMAL SAIDOV, Director of the National Human Rights Centre of Uzbekistan, said more than 30 State agencies and 20 non-governmental organizations had participated in the preparation of the report.  The drafting process had been carried out in line with the comments of the Committee and relevant comments put forward by other treaty bodies.  The report had also been discussed by both chambers of Uzbekistan's parliament. 

Considerable work had been done to implement the Convention against Torture.  Uzbekistan had adopted national indicators related to the Sustainable Development Goals, which were integrated into the Government's Strategy for Action, which notably focused on the reform of the judiciary.  Parliamentarians had been apprised of the outcome of the review process of Uzbekistan's fourth report, including the Committee's recommendations, about 80 per cent of which had been subsequently implemented through a specific plan of action. 

While there was a limit to improvement, significant steps had been taken to align legislation with article 1 of the Convention.  The role of the Ombudsman had been strengthened to allow for a better monitoring of detention conditions.  The Law on Gender Parity as well as the legislation on domestic violence had been improved, and measures had been taken to eradicate child labour. 

Furthermore, Uzbekistan had ratified four International Labour Organization conventions this year.  As regarded institutional measures, Mr. Saidov noted that bodies and positions had been created to address concerns raised by the Committee, notably those related to trafficking and gender parity.  The Ombudsman could now address the Constitutional Court.

On human rights education, the Ministry of Interior and the General Prosecutor's Office now had an academy that raised the awareness of law enforcement agents on international norms, including those enshrined in the Convention.  The Government had also adopted a special law on parliamentary oversight so both chambers could review the implementation of the Convention in penitentiary centres.  There were now two ombudspersons conducting oversight duties and visiting detention centres to that end.

Mr. Saidov remarked that the Government had held conferences to discuss the implementation of the Convention in the international cooperation sphere.  Civil society organizations were a dynamic force in the country: there were more than 1,000 of them, some of which played a role in the monitoring of places of detention.  Over the last few years, Uzbekistan had renewed its invitation to Special Rapporteurs, including those working on the independence of the judiciary and torture.

Mr. Saidov said there were areas that required further work.  There was still no system for the training of public officials on international standards of human rights in Uzbekistan.  Measures to that end would be implemented next year.  There were no special mechanisms to implement treaty bodies decisions related to individual complaints.  Judges also still had to be trained on how to apply norms set out by international treaties.

Questions by the Committee Experts

FELICE GAER, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Uzbekistan, recalled that the Committee had noted numerous and consistent reports of the arbitrary detention of human rights defenders and journalists, and the failure to conduct adequate investigations into allegations of ill-treatment.  These were severe conclusions, which the State party had contested, both at the time of the review and in the fifth periodic report.  This was a serious source of concern.

There had been significant changes in 2016 after a new President had taken office.  Since then, there had been a change in the way in which Uzbekistan received the recommendations stemming from the Universal Periodic Review.  The Government had signalled its intent to comply with its obligations under international law.  There were other positive developments, such as the several instances where the President had publicly condemned the use of torture and assured that those who committed this crime would be prosecuted.  Also positive was the signature of a decree banning the use in court of evidence obtained through torture. 

However, the Committee had yet to receive data reflecting the implementation of these legal changes and other related legal amendments and measures.  Were they implemented in practice?  When would the State party be in a position to track cases in which torture allegations had been raised, and for which courts had taken action to ensure evidence obtained through torture was indeed not admitted?

It was disappointing that the State party's report seemed to downplay the number of complaints of torture.  Despite the increase in complaints by a factor of 10, the number of related investigations remained low.  The number of prosecutions had decreased in 2018 and 2019.  Only one person had been prosecuted in 2019, and it was November now.  Could the State party provide information on the terms of imprisonment to which persons convicted of torture were sentenced?  Why were the judicial proceedings applying article 235 of the Criminal Code not public?  The Co-Rapporteur also sought clarification about the number of acquittals. 

Had the Government considered creating a special division that was a truly independent investigative body to look into instances of misconduct by State officials?  She asked if the Government was considering reviewing the promotion process so as not to encourage officials to elicit confessions expeditiously.

Going back to the number of complaints on torture and ill-treatment, Ms. Gaer noted that, according to the State party, the Ombudsman had not received a single complaint of sexual violence against persons held in detention.  This was not an acceptable answer.  There had been media coverage of high-profile cases contradicting the State party's statement.  For instance, a woman had been forced to strip by law enforcement officials who threatened to rape her. 

Could the State party provide additional information on the allegations of torture and ill-treatment of individuals cited in the List of Issues, such as Elena Urlaeva, and the related investigations undertaken by the Government?  Regarding the cases of Ilhom Ibodov and Rahim Ibodov, had the perpetrators been prosecuted under article 235 of the Criminal Code?  Had there been investigations into the allegations that people were detained on politically motivated charges?

The Committee had previously raised concerns regarding the situation of arbitrarily detained human rights defenders, requesting that the State party provide 19 individuals with redress.  The news that a number of them had been released was most welcome.  However, none of these 19 human rights defenders had been exonerated nor been able to receive compensation for torture and ill-treatment they had been subjected to while in detention.  Could the State party provide information on cases where former political prisoners had been exonerated and provided redress?

The Co-Rapporteur requested information about the allegations made by freelance journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev, including his detention naked in a freezing jail cell for three days and his being forced to stand for six days and nights.  Citing the case of blogger Nafosat Olloshukurova – who had been forcibly put in a mental institution after having published a video on the police's handling of a protest – was the State party considering reviewing its laws on forced psychiatric treatment? 

Was the Government considering relaxing the requirements for the registration of new non-governmental organizations? The Co-Rapporteur also sought clarification about the closing of Jaslyk Prison, in line with the Committee's recommendations.  There were reports that it was now being used for pretrial detention.  Could the State party provide information on the whereabouts of individuals that were previously detained in this institution?

The Co-Rapporteur requested additional information on deaths in custody and forced labour in detention centres, including in Prison 64/4, where a brick factory was reportedly operating.  While there had been positive developments in addressing forced labour, there were still reports of State-organized forced labour in the cotton industry.  What measures had been taken to curb this practice?  Forced labour was deemed a form of ill-treatment by Uzbekistani law and the Committee, she recalled.

Turning to the alleged failure to address allegations of torture, she reiterated the request that the Government conduct a thorough investigation into the 2005 Andijan events.  In this new phase in the country's history, did the Government intend to provide a path to redress for victims?

On the situation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, the Co-Rapporteur inquired about allegations of ill treatment and said that they lived in constant fear, due to a lack of investigation of acts of violence targeting them.  Was the State party considering adopting hate crime legislation to protect such persons from abuse?  Would it accept and implement recommendations included in paragraph 102 of the Universal Periodic Review and repeal article 120 of the Criminal Code, which criminalized same sex conduct?

DIEGO RODRÍGUEZ-PINZÓN, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Uzbekistan, asked what steps would the State party take to amend article 235 of the Criminal Code so that the definition of torture stipulated therein was fully in line with article 1 of the Convention.

The Committee had requested that the 48-hour limit to pretrial detention be effective from the very beginning of the detention.  The State party had responded that the detention could be extended for 48 additional hours.  The Committee would like to know if that extension was only allowed once. 

The Committee had requested that the State party provide information on cases of State officials who had not guaranteed fundamental legal safeguards against torture to individuals being held in detention.  The State party response had been that there had been three such cases in 2006.  And yet, over 1,000 complaints of ill-treatment had been filed with the Prosecutor General's Office in 2018, a significant increase from previous years.  The Committee was troubled by the piecemeal information provided by the State party in the face on an increasingly complex situation.  Could the delegation provide data on relevant cases from 2014 to now?  The Committee would also like to be apprised of sanctions that had been handed down for each case.

The Committee had requested the State party to provide information on habeas corpus provisions.  In particular, the Committee had requested the State party to inform whether the Code of Criminal Procedure had been amended to allow judges to assess the legality of detention, to ensure that all habeas corpus hearings were public, and to provide for the mandatory participation of defence lawyers in the proceedings.  The State party did not provide timely information responding to this request, but rather gave information on habeas corpus and the collection of evidence procedures in general.  The Committee was concerned that, in practice, habeas corpus only referred to determining the measure of restriction of liberty and not the legality of detention itself.  The Co-Rapporteur therefore reiterated the original request. 

On the independence of justice, the Committee understood that there had been progress regarding the permanence of judges and their training.  Nevertheless, the Committee was concerned there was still some interference on the part of the executive branch.  In particular, the political authorities still named high-ranking judicial officials, like Court presidents, who had broad powers regarding the selection, promotion, evaluation and sanctioning of judges.  Could the State party comment on these concerns and indicate if it was considering measures to address them?

Turning to the inspection of detention centres, the Co-Rapporteur noted that the State party had indicated that the chambers of Parliament were monitoring prisons; that the various authorities had independent monitoring capacity; and that the Human Rights Ombudsman and the Commissioner for the Protection of Legal Rights and Interests of Entrepreneurs visited prisons without impediment.  It was a positive development that the 14 March 2019 law had modified the Law of the Human Rights Defender, authorizing this institution to make visits to places of deprivation of liberty.  However, the 15 members of the Group of Experts from civil society who were to take part in the visits' mechanism had not yet been integrated into the mechanism.  It was not clear whether the selection process could guarantee the independence of these Experts.  Could Uzbekistan provide more information about the formation of this Group of Experts?  How did the State party plan to ensure transparency in the selection process, which was an important part of ensuring the independence of the visits' mechanism?  

This and other aspects of the mechanism, as well as its complete independence and autonomy, were crucial elements that must be present in what would become a National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture once the State party considered ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention.  In that regard, was the State party considering adopting the Optional Protocol?

The Committee was very concerned about reports that complaints and visits' mechanisms were not operating properly.  During visits, detainees were reportedly grouped; such a practice did not meet privacy requirements.  Furthermore, the Human Rights Ombudsman had determined that all complaints of torture received since 2013 were unfounded, as reported by the State party in its responses to the List of Issues.  How did the State party explain that not one of these cases had been found to amount to torture or ill-treatment?  In the Committee's opinion, such an outcome was beyond worrying.

The Co-Rapporteur asked what measures the State party planned to take to ensure that independent organizations could receive official recognition and visit prisons without prior notice, for inspection purposes, or to perform other tasks related to the prevention of torture and ill-treatment.

Could the State party indicate the reasons why some Special Procedure mechanisms had been able to visit the country, but the Special Rapporteur against Torture had not?  What kind of guarantees did the State party offer so that people who reported abuse to these experts were not subjected to pressure and reprisals?

On non-refoulement, the Committee had information to the effect that Afghan, Chinese and Syrian nationals had been prevented from seeking international protection in the State party.  What steps were being taken to ensure that individuals were not expelled, returned or extradited to countries where they might be subjected to torture, ill-treatment or forced disappearance?  What procedure was followed in such cases?  Were individuals informed of their rights to seek asylum?  Could they appeal decisions?  Diplomatic guarantees should not be used to circumvent the implementation of the non-refoulement principle, the Co-Rapporteur recalled.

On the training offered to civil servants on the Convention and the Istanbul Protocol, the Co-Rapporteur said that despite the Committee's requests to that effect, the State party had not provided detailed information on courses.  This information was necessary to assess the implementation of article 10 of the Convention.  Could the State party apprise the Committee of the number of courses, the number of participants and their professional profile? 

The Co-Rapporteur asked if there was universal jurisdiction regarding the crime of torture in Uzbekistan.  Did the bilateral extraditions treaties that had been recently signed with Turkey, Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates deal with extradition of individuals accused of torture?

Other Committee members requested additional information about marital rape; the appointment of judges; the inclusion of torture issues in the justice reforms; the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, including indicator 16.10.1; the legal implications of the abolition of the death penalty by the President, and guarantees that the abolition would not be quashed by his successor; and non-governmental organizations' access to prisons to conduct monitoring activities and the conditions and restrictions imposed on them by the Government.

Replies by the Delegation

AKMAL SAIDOV, Director of the National Human Rights Centre of Uzbekistan, said that the Committee had asked 120 questions.  Such a high number reflected the Experts' professionalism.

Uzbekistan had changed: today, the country was characterized by the fundamental transformations it had undergone over the past three years.  That was why Special Procedures and the High Commissioner for Human Rights had been invited to the country.  Uzbekistan had submitted 12 periodic reports to six treaty bodies and other United Nations bodies, Mr. Saidov recalled.

Addressing the Committee's concerns regarding the effective implementation of legal changes, he said that the adoption of laws only reflected half of the work that needed to be done.  Nevertheless, it should be noted that 96 pieces of legislation had been adopted on torture and related matters.  A distinction had to be made between "laws in books" and their implementation, and the Government was striving to reduce the gap separating these realities. 

Uzbekistan was now open to the world and adopting adequate legislation.  Training and human rights education was also a priority.  Furthermore, significant changes had been made to the judicial system, in line with the 2017-2021 Action Strategy. 

Uzbekistan was maintaining a dialogue with all United Nations human rights bodies.  While the Government had accepted the majority of recommendations stemming from the Universal Periodic Review, it had rejected some, notably on issues related to lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans persons. 

Efforts were being deployed to ensure the transparency of State authorities.  A law had been adopted to that end which provided for the right of every citizen, including journalists, to contact and address public officials.

Many of the legislative reforms aiming to protect human rights and combat torture had been spurred by the President.  This did not mean that all of the President's initiatives had been reflected in the country's legislation.

In the last three years, there had been an increase in the number of acquittals.  This illustrated judges' increasing independence, a new trend in the development of Uzbekistan.  In the past, there were cases where judges simply granted prosecutors' requests; it was no longer the case.

On amnesty, Mr. Saidov indicated that he did not agree with the Committee.  It was not logical to refuse amnesty to authors of torture.  If it could be granted for people who had perpetrated murders, why should it be excluded for individuals who had engaged in torture?

The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief had been invited twice to Uzbekistan, and yet another invitation would be extended to him.  Conducting a visit in the country would provide him with the opportunity to see how recommendations by United Nations bodies were being implemented. 

Mr. Saidov stressed that the notion of "systematic use of torture" had no legal basis; it did not exist in international law.  Therefore, prior references to this concept with regard to the situation in Uzbekistan, notably by a former Special Rapporteur on torture, were unwarranted.

Delegates explained that acquittals were granted when judges deemed that investigations did not provide enough or acceptable evidence.  Some of these acquittals concerned persons against whom torture, or ill-treatment had been used during the preliminary investigation.

The Constitution prohibited torture and other forms of ill-treatment, delegates recalled.  Changes had been introduced to article 235 of the Criminal Code, and the Government supported all efforts to combat torture.  If the Committee deemed it necessary to further modify article 235, the Government was willing to consider it. 

On complaints of torture and ill-treatment, disciplinary and administrative measures had been taken to address offences committed.  For instances, 41 State officials had been investigated in relation to problematic behaviour in penitentiary institutions.  A mechanism for internal investigation of such matters was in place.  For each case of physical violence leading to an infringement of someone's rights, the Ministry of the Interior carried out assessments; perpetrators of torture were subsequently dismissed from their positions if found guilty. 

A law had been adopted that required judges and other officials to conduct mandatory checks to ensure that evidence obtained through illegal means, such as torture, was not admitted in court.  Similar preventive measures were provided by a March 2019 law which created safeguards related to punishment in detention.

AKMAL SAIDOV, Director of the National Human Rights Centre of Uzbekistan, encouraged Committee members to put forward concrete proposals regarding article 235 of the Criminal Code.  Recalling that Uzbekistan had a civil law system, he said the Government had tried to incorporate international experts' recommendations.  It should be noted that, ultimately, it was Parliament that could adopt changes.  He asked the Committee members to temper their criticisms and elaborate specific proposals.

On the Jaslyk Prison, delegates explained that the President had signed a decree to close it.  Within one month, its 395 convicts had been transferred to other institutions of the penitentiary system.  The Jaslyk Prison was now empty, and the building would not be used for pretrial detention.

Concerning medical support in places of detentions, delegates said it was provided round the clock and fully funded by the Government.  Services offered included preventive care.  Every individual arriving at a detention facility underwent a medical test.  Medical staff also conducted medical checks on every convict twice a year.

Responding to the question about the number of inmates, which was classified, delegates said a draft decree had been prepared to make that information public.

AKMAL SAIDOV, Director of the National Human Rights Centre of Uzbekistan, remarked that the criminal justice code was being prepared and this reflected positive trends with regard to issues that had led to pointed criticisms in the past.

Uzbekistan was considering accession to the 1951 Convention on Refugees, the delegation said.  The Government had met with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to discuss cooperation avenues.  Uzbekistan had also recently joined the International Organization for Migration, the head of which had met with the Uzbek Prime Minister.

AKMAL SAIDOV, Director of the National Human Rights Centre of Uzbekistan, said marital rape was now qualified as a criminal offence. 

Follow-Up Questions by Committee Members

FELICE GAER, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Uzbekistan, acknowledged that the Uzbekistan of today was not the Uzbekistan of the past.  Non-governmental organizations, who were now present in the room, used to refrain from participating in dialogues with the Committee, out of fear. 

The Committee was pleased that the State party had hosted Special Procedure mandate holders and hoped the outstanding visit requests would be granted.

She recalled that she had raised specific individual cases, and requested information on how they had been processed.  In particular, information on sentences handed down would be appreciated. 

The Co-Rapporteur asked for data illustrating the implementation of the prohibition of the use of evidence obtained through torture and article 235.  What sentences were handed down against people found guilty of violating article 235?  Specific statistics on this matter would be helpful, as would be assurances that those fired from their jobs were not rehired by other detention institutions.

The investigative body tasked with looking into complaints related to torture and ill-treatment was part of the Ministry of the Interior.  It was hard to see how it was truly independent. 

DIEGO RODRÍGUEZ-PINZÓN, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Uzbekistan, requested further information on human rights education.

It was vitally important to assess the impact of training sessions on torture offered to Government officials.  Could the delegation provide information showing that this training had yielded results?

It was important that judges were no longer following what prosecutors were saying.  He drew attention to the predominant role still played by the Prosecutor's Office.

On amnesty, the Co-Rapporteur said it was important for it not to undermine legislation on torture.  He requested information on access to legal assistance.

Follow-Up Replies by the Delegation

AKMAL SAIDOV, Director of the National Human Rights Centre of Uzbekistan, said perhaps the rules of the Committee should be reviewed: there was more space for Committee members to ask questions than for the delegation to reply.  The Government was ready to reply to all the Committee's questions.

The Ombudsman published an annual report which was available in three languages.  The delegation could send it to the Committee.

Mr. Saidov acknowledged that there were too few lawyers in the country.  The law on free legal aid had been repeatedly discussed.  It would be examined by Parliament in coming months.  It was very much needed.

Yesterday, the Ombudsman had held a press conference on the case of the blogger.  Regarding human rights defenders, the Government would provide written responses on all the individual cases mentioned by the Committee.

On sexual violence complaints, the Ombudsman had not received any, Mr. Saidov reiterated, emphasizing that it was not the Ombudsman's fault nor the Government's.  The Committee's questions and expectations on this matter were not clear.

The Government had invited both international organizations and national non-governmental organization to conduct prison visits.

The Government was very mindful of the Sustainable Development Goals, and had established a national plan of action to implement them.

On the Government's relationship with the International Committee of the Red Cross, he said cooperation should not be limited to prison visits.  The International Committee agreed with the Government in meetings and then said bad things about it in public.

On article 235, Mr. Saidov requested that Committee members put forward specific proposals on wording.  The final decision on implementing the Committee's and other human rights bodies' decisions lay with the Uzbek Parliament, not members of the delegation or the Government, he recalled.

Mr. Saidov reiterated that he disagreed with the Committee on amnesty.  Why was it considered humane to grant amnesty for some crimes but not others?  There needed to be consistency.  The Committee's proposals were not justified.

On the effectiveness of training on human rights, could the Committee members tell the delegation which indicators could be used to measure it? 

Concluding Remarks

AKMAL SAIDOV, Director of the National Human Rights Centre of Uzbekistan, thanked the members of the Committee who had shown interest in Uzbekistan.  A national plan of action or roadmap would be developed to implement the Committee's recommendations.

JENS MODVIG, Committee Chairperson, recalled that the Committee would request that Uzbekistan submit a follow-up report on the implementation of three urgent recommendations.  The Committee looked forward to maintaining a dialogue with the State party.

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