In the desert steppe of northwestern Uzbekistan, great dust storms lift toxic pesticides into the air, and a powdery, desiccated brine known as the “dry tears of the Aral Sea” contaminates the soil. Amid this bleak Central Asian landscape, one can find an instrument of terror that rivals any rebel attack in Uzbekistan’s history: the Jaslyk detention complex, a vast vault of human misery that has earned its reputation as the country’s worst political prison.
Anyone who wishes to understand better the spate of violence that recently tore through Uzbekistan–the suicide bomb blasts and gunfights that resulted in nearly fifty deaths–must consider the dark drama that regularly unfolds at Jaslyk, and institutions like it. These prisons form the backbone of President Islam Karimov’s decade-long campaign to crush all forms of independent political and religious expression in Uzbekistan.
No roads lead to Jaslyk. But one can find a way into its horrific interiors by reading Human Rights Watch’s latest report on Uzbekistan. It documents how inmates are housed sixteen to a room, and how they are often forced to spend their days crouching on their heels, with their hands held behind their heads. Prisoners must offer thanks to President Karimov with every request to stretch a muscle. Inmates are forbidden to speak to one another.
This setting is where the Uzbek government, a key US ally in Central Asia, tries to “break” its opponents. In the report, Jaslyk’s director boasts that he coerced as many as 80 percent of his inmates to “write letters of repentance”–a statistic achieved by systematic torture. Sometimes the brutality extends beyond human endurance. Between 1998 and 2003, at least six inmates died from abuse; one was boiled to death.
Seven thousand political prisoners inhabit Uzbekistan’s gulag. Karimov, who ran Uzbekistan when it was part of the Soviet Union–and who has continued to do so throughout its independence–is a firm believer in governing with an iron fist. “A leadership that abandons order and discipline can never return to power,” he said in 1991, speaking out against Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to reform Communist rule.
Uzbekistan is a predominantly Muslim country, but the government is staunchly secular. Since Karimov’s crackdown first began, in the early 1990s, it has targeted a network of militant Muslim insurgents, most notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan–a group of several hundred fighters who vowed to overthrow the government by force, and who have since joined with Al Qaeda forces.
But instead of concentrating just on the IMU, the Uzbek government has sought to root out all independent forms of piety. Uzbeks can go to prison for possessing unsanctioned Islamic literature, for praying at the wrong mosque or for praying at the right mosque but at the wrong time. They can go to prison for having a beard, or for being related to someone in prison because he had a beard. They can go to prison for no real reason at all.
This atmosphere of oppressiveness is compounded by Karimov’s other policies. Freedom of association is curtailed (civic groups must be registered), the media are state-controlled (the 9/11 attacks were not broadcast until 9/12), electoral politics are a farce (in the last election, Karimov’s sole opponent voted for Karimov), corruption is pervasive (bribes for college degrees can go as high as $10,000), unemployment is rampant.