Há 25 anos que o Uzbequistão é governado por Islam Karimov. Neste quarto de século, os abusos de poder, violações de direitos humanos e repressão sobre opositores e jornalistas tem sido constantes. Agora, no momento em que divulgou um relatório sobre os principais presos políticos do país, a Human Rights Watch conta a história de um deles: Sanjar Umarov.
By Amy Braunschweiger
Sanjar Umarov lifted his pants legs and rolled down his socks to show the scars that criss-crossed his ankles. Umarov, a former political prisoner from Uzbekistan, said the scars served as a permanent reminder of his time in the “monkey cage,” a cell that left prisoners exposed to the outdoors. His first time in that cell, the frigid winter almost killed him. He and the other prisoners, wearing only lightweight shirts and pants, rocked back and forth to keep warm and stay alive.
The second time, it was his fellow prisoners who almost did him in. Guards threw him in the cage after Umarov refused to sign a confession saying the United States gave him $20 million to overthrow Uzbekistan’s government. Other prisoners in the cell were ordered to make him sign. They beat him, broke his thumb, and choked him, damaging his vocal chords and leaving him with a permanently gravely voice. Once they had him on the ground, they repeatedly jumped on his ankles, which were shackled in metal cuffs.
Before he was imprisoned on trumped up charges, Umarov was a leading businessman in Uzbekistan, helping found the country’s main telecom network. He had entered politics gradually, quietly supporting a political party that hoped to help poor farmers in the country’s almost feudal cotton sector. But he grew impatient with the slow pace of change and formed his own opposition party.
Within the year, Umarov was arrested and charged with economic crimes he didn’t commit.
This is par for the course for Uzbekistan’s political prisoners. The country has been ruled for 25 years by Islam Karimov, the Communist Party boss under the former Soviet Union. Under his autocratic rule, a wide-array of Uzbek citizens – including journalists, political opposition activists and religious figures – have been imprisoned in terrible conditions, including beatings and torture, a new Human Rights Watch report shows. Uzbek officials have a particularly cruel practice of extending prison sentences shortly before a prisoner expects to be freed, for reasons as ridiculous as “peeling carrots the wrong way” or “failing to lift a heavy object.”
Umarov in large part credits international pressure for his release from prison. But in general international pressure on Uzbekistan has been sorely lacking. The United States and European Union have consistently appeared reticent to push Uzbekistan to release political prisoners, as the country provides an essential supply route to reach US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. The withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan this year may change this equation, and the world should not keep turning a blind eye to Uzbekistan’s rights abuses.
It’s easy to see why Uzbekistan’s government could fear Umarov’s influence. Even now, with his torture scars and gravelly voice, he speaks with assurance, exuding the charisma and warmth of someone people naturally want to follow. His black hair is fading to gray in the front, and when he smiles or laughs, which is frequently, the tanned skin around his eyes wrinkles pleasantly.
Umarov had studied physics, but when the cold war ended, he saw opportunity in the need to modernize his country. He helped found Uzbekistan’s leading communications company, developed venture capital projects in its energy and transport sectors, and founded an international business school in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital.
When he began dabbling in politics, around 2003, Umarov secretly helped fund the Free Peasant opposition party. Profits from growing cotton dominate Uzbekistan’s economy and fund the government. Farmers are forced to grow cotton and sell it to the government dirt-cheap. Each year the government forces about 2 million people – including doctors, teachers and children – to pick the crop, without pay.”