HALTING PROGRESS ON TURKMEN REFORMS  In a series of wide-ranging interviews, 
IWPR has learned that people remain sceptical about their new president’s real 
intentions, although they are grateful pensions are being paid and schooling 
improved.  By Maksat Alekperov and IWPR staff in Central Asia, and John MacLeod 
in London.

TORTURE STILL CONDONED IN UZBEK JAILS  Analysts say United Nations must 
pressure Tashkent to hold perpetrators to account.  By IWPR staff in Central 

VIRTUAL UNREALITY IN UZBEKISTAN  Analysts say increased internet obstructions 
are making the news blackout worse in the run-up to the presidential election.  
By IWPR staff in Central Asia


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In a series of wide-ranging interviews, IWPR has learned that people remain 
sceptical about their new president’s real intentions, although they are 
grateful pensions are being paid and schooling improved.   

By Maksat Alekperov and IWPR staff in Central Asia, and John MacLeod in London.

In a new report based on interviews conducted in Turkmenistan, people in the 
country say they are unsure whether President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov is 
genuine about pushing through the reforms he has pledged.

Asked whether they had observed the promised reforms having an impact, 
interviewees said they had seen changes in areas such as education, health, 
pension payments, freedom of movement within the country, but less progress on 
more sensitive areas relating to civil and political rights. 

(To read the full report, please go to 

The president has shaken up the interior ministry and created a police 
complaints commission, but local observers and Turkmen analysts outside the 
country remain divided on whether these are genuine attempts to improve the way 
the law works.

Sources in the education system say the tenth year of schooling – abolished by 
the late Saparmurat Niazov - has been re-introduced this academic year, and new 
university students are embarking on five-year course instead of two.

Doctors and patients said either that they had not noticed any changes to 
healthcare policies and procedures, or that they were insignificant, although 
several acknowledged that a lot of new building work had got under way in the 

According to one radiologist, “The provision [of medical supplies] has got a 
lot better and more importantly, you don’t have to beg the management for it. 
They are now very concerned to ensure that patients shouldn’t complain to the 
health ministry.” 

All observers agreed that Berdymuhammedov’s promises had been fulfilled when it 
came to reinstating pension entitlements abolished by his predecessor 
Saparmurat Niazov. 

In July, the authorities abolished “internal visa” requirements for people 
travelling within the country. 

“The rules are being relaxed, there are fewer checkpoints, fewer checks are 
carried out, and the military on duty there are more polite,” said a local 

However, there are still blacklists of people who are restricted in their 
movements. These are drawn up by the security services and used by border 
officials to stop them leaving Turkmenistan.

“The lists continue to operate, although they are allowing some former 
officials to travel abroad,” said a commentator in Ashgabat. 

While some new internet cafes have opened, access to the web remains controlled 
by the security services. 

According to one journalist, “The internet is completely controlled; it’s 
forbidden to go to opposition, human rights and other sites that the 
authorities block. In the [foreign-funded] resource centres that sometimes have 
internet access, foreign sites won’t open.”

Despite suggestions from Berdymuhammedov that the domestic media are free from 
pressure, there has been no change at all here except a reduction in the 
adulatory airtime given over to the head of state. 

The prospect of prison amnesties raised many hopes, but when 9,000 people were 
released in October, none of the known political prisoners were among them. 
A police complaints commission established by Berdymuhammedov encouraged people 
to write in and report abuses they had suffered, but there is concern that it 
routinely passes letters to whichever office is accused of abuse. 
Since coming to power, Berdymuhammedov has sacked two interior ministers and 
one minister for national security, amid criticism of their work that suggested 
he was serious about reforming the agencies that propped up his predecessor 
through intimidation and arbitrary detention.  

Yet some analysts argue that these personnel changes merely reflect an attempt 
by Berdymuhammedov to surround himself with his own people – including 
relatives - rather than a determination to enshrine the rule of law.

“He is now making numerous appointments of people who are loyal to him and 
won’t let him down,” said an observer inside Turkmenistan.

The findings of IWPR’s survey were more conclusive in some areas than others. 
Evidence of curricular change in education, the payment of pensions, and more 
freedom to move around the country were all practical improvements. All this 
points to a pragmatic recognition of the need to ease people’s lives, even if 
it amounts to little more than reversing Niazov’s most damaging policies.

However, the spirit of Berdymuhammedov’s pledges to open the country to the 
outside world has not been honoured when it comes to access to the internet and 
other forms of media.

In style and substance, Berdymuhammedov’s methods remain uncomfortably similar 
to Niazov's – decreeing top-down change, carpeting officials for real or 
imagined wrongdoing, and making only limited attempts to enlist wide-ranging 
popular support.

This report was compiled by IWPR’s editorial team in Bishkek and London. Many 
of the interviews were conducted by Maksat Alekperov, a journalist from 
Turkmenistan working under a pseudonym. Interviewees in Turkmenistan were not 
named out of concern for their security.


Analysts say United Nations must pressure Tashkent to hold perpetrators to 

By IWPR staff in Central Asia

Human rights activists in Uzbekistan are calling on the international community 
to exert greater pressure on the government to eradicate torture from the 
criminal justice system.

Following damaging reports from the United Nations Committee Against Torture 
and from local and international human rights groups, which concluded that 
torture is still a serious problem in Uzbekistan, activists say the only way to 
bring the government into line is to increase international pressure on it.

Physical abuse remains widespread both in pre-trial detention – often as a way 
of forcing confessions – and in the penal system. Despite being a signatory to 
the UN Convention Against Torture, the Uzbek government has failed to act on 
the problem. 

In 2003, the UN’s special rapporteur on torture published a report following a 
visit to the country and concluded that torture was “widespread and 

A damning review released by the United Nations Committee Against Torture, CAT, 
on November 23 suggests that little has changed. The document expressed concern 
at the “numerous, ongoing and consistent allegations concerning routine use of 
torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment committed 
by law enforcement and investigative personnel or with their instigation or 
consent, often to extract confessions or information to be used in criminal 

The report came out of the CAT’s regular review of Uzbekistan’s record on 
torture, required of signatories of the UN Convention against Torture, which 
took place earlier this month. 

At the hearings in Geneva on November 9-13, the Uzbek government submitted its 
own account of how it is implementing the convention. Introducing the national 
report, Deputy Justice Minister Yesemurat Kanyazov said that since its last 
submission in 2002, Uzbekistan had improved the situation by halving the number 
of people detained and imprisoned, and by amending the criminal code to 
explicitly outlaw “torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or 
punishment” in line with the international convention. 

However, the CAT said it was “disappointed” that the few individuals 
investigated following allegations of abuse “received mainly disciplinary 
penalties”, and sentences passed under the new criminal code provision were 
“not commensurate with the gravity of the offence of torture”. Human-rights 
groups agree that despite the legal amendment, those accused of torture are not 
held accountable for their actions. 

On November 7, the international watchdog Human Rights Watch, HRW, published a 
90-page report in which it found that torture and ill-treatment were ignored 
and overlooked by investigators, prosecutors, and judges, and “generally hushed 
up by the media and the government”.

“Uzbekistan wants to make its multilateral partners believe that it has put an 
end to torture,” said Holly Cartner, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director, in 
a press release. “But official statements simply don’t square with reality.” 

“This is no marginal problem,” said Cartner. “The CAT needs to recognize that 
ill-treatment in Uzbekistan is endemic to the criminal justice system and not 
just a problem caused by a handful of rogues.” 

In its report, HRW documents cases where police beat detainees with truncheons 
and bottles filled with water, administered electric shocks, asphyxiated them 
with plastic bags and gas masks placed over their heads, and subjected them to 
sexual humiliation.

In the cases it documented, HRW said no one was held accountable.

During one trial monitored by the group, a defendant told the court why he had 
not complained until then. “I never had a confidential meeting with a lawyer. I 
know that the pressure would have increased if I had complained. I am a human 
being. I am not made of iron. Even animals scream when you beat them. I was 
scared. That is why I did not complain,” he said. 

Local rights groups are also raising concerns about the prevalence of torture. 
On November 12, the Tashkent-based Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights 
Activists, IGIHRA, reported that Tohir Nurmuhammedov, who had been convicted of 
membership of the banned Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, had died in prison in 
Andijan, in the east of the country. 

A Radio Liberty report from November 24 said Nurmuhammedov and Fitrat 
Salohiddinov, convicted of the same offence, died after being tortured in 
custody. Local rights activists told RFE/RL that both bodies showed marks 
indicating torture when they were released to the families.

IGIHRA also reported allegations that 25 convicts were tortured in a prison 
camp in the northwestern city of Navoi, and of widespread instances of physical 
abuse in another camp at Zeravshan also in the west of the country. 

The group prepared its own report for the CAT as an alternative to the 
government document. It was illustrated with about 200 photos of people who 
have died in custody within the last five years and who IGIHRA says were 

“We have hard facts that the situation is getting worse. The international 
community will be informed about torture, and it will then start pressuring the 
government,” said Surat Ikramov, the head of IGIHRA. “It is very important to 
us for the UN committee should decide what pressure and sanctions need to be 
applied against this repressive government.” 

Although Uzbek legislation on torture conforms to international standards, said 
Ikramov, those responsible are not being held accountable.

“We have incontrovertible evidence. All the cases are confirmed, and so far I 
have not come under pressure from the government [saying] that the information 
is inaccurate,” he said.

At the same time, Ikramov said the Uzbek government was responsive to his 
allegations and had even acted on them, up to a point.

“They read my reports, and based on the findings, a special prosecutor goes to 
the prisons and they remove the butchers from their positions. However, there 
has not been a single case when someone has been held to account for inflicting 

Another Uzbek human rights activist, who declined to be named, told IWPR that 
eliminating torture in the criminal justice system would take political will on 
the part of the authorities. But so far, pressure from the international 
community had failed to produce the required change in mindset.

“It’s hard to believe that UN hearings and reports from human rights activists 
will affect the situation with torture, because despite all the criticism and 
reproaches over many years, the government keeps on condoning the use of such 
methods of punishment,” he said.

Another Tashkent-based observer said the authorities could safely disregard UN 
recommendations because no sanctions would be applicable if it did nothing.

However, Acacia Shields, a human rights expert who worked for a long time in 
Uzbekistan, said the international community had failed to use all the 
instruments at its disposal to improve the situation. 

Last month, activists were left angry and disappointed at the European Union’s 
decision to relax sanctions against the country despite the evidence of 
continuing human rights abuses.

The EU sanctions were first imposed when President Karimov refused to allow an 
independent enquiry into the violence at Andijan in May 2005, when security 
forces fired on demonstrators, leaving hundreds dead.

Shields believes there is a lot more that the CAT could be doing to inform the 
world community of the true situation in Uzbekistan, rebuff the justifications 
the government puts forward, and call for an end to torture.

Vyacheslav Abramov, who runs the website of Voice of Freedom, a network of 
Central Asian human rights activists, believes that while international 
pressure has had little effect on preventing torture so far, the lobbying must 
be sustained.

“Alternative reports from Uzbek human rights activists and statements by 
international organisations create pressure, and the government can do nothing 
but tell lies or admit there is a problem and try to solve it,” said Abramov. 

“The Uzbek government will not be able to ignore those demands infinitely, and 
it is quite possible that it will start taking measures to resolve the problem, 
even if initially these are fairly unsubstantial.”

(Names of some interviewees have been withheld in the interests of their 


Analysts say increased internet obstructions are making the news blackout worse 
in the run-up to the presidential election.

By IWPR staff in Central Asia

With presidential polls only weeks away, internet users in Uzbekistan report 
that access to sites carrying independent news websites and reflecting 
opposition viewpoints is becoming more and more restricted. Even the proxy 
servers through which banned sites can be seen are now blocked.

Observers warn that these internet restrictions mean voters will have even less 
access than before to coverage of the December 23 election.

Media in Uzbekistan are owned and tightly controlled by the state. Although 
censorship is outlawed by the constitution, no news goes out without being 
carefully vetted. There are no domestic sources of independent information, so 
the internet offers a lifeline. 

Few people inside the country have access to the web, though; official figures 
quoted by the BBC say there were just 1.7 million internet users in 2007, out 
of a population of nearly 28 million. Most people go online at work, in 
educational establishments and in internet cafes.

On November 21, the Central Electoral Committee registered four candidates for 
the election – current president Islam Karimov, nominated by the Liberal 
Democratic Party; Diloram Tashmuhammedova of the Adolat party; Akmal Saidov, 
the head of a government human rights agency who is standing as an independent; 
and Asliddin Rustamov from the People’s Democratic Party. 

Campaigning began the following day, and speeches by the candidates are to be 
carried by national radio, television and newspapers. 

Analysts say the president’s four challengers all back him and are standing 
only to create the illusion of choice. Karimov, one of Central Asia’s most 
authoritarian leaders, has stifled all forms of opposition in the country.

Following events in Andijan in May 2005, when foreign media organisations 
reported on the violent suppression of a peaceful demonstration in the eastern 
city by authorities, the Uzbek government launched a crackdown on foreign media 
organisations. The BBC, Internews and IWPR were all forced to close their 
operations in Uzbekistan down, while the correspondent for Germany’s Deutsche 
Welle was refused accreditation early in 2006. 

According to the press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders, RSF, all 
local service providers have been forced to work with the state-controlled 
telecoms operator Uzbektelecom since November 2005, giving the regime greater 

Sites blocked since 2005 include those of banned opposition parties Erk and 
Birlik, those of human rights organisations, and also news sites with a Central 
Asian or specifically Uzbek focus, such as Uznews.net, Arena, Tribuna.uz, 
Fergana.ru and Centrasia.ru.

One journalist, who wished to stay anonymous, told IWPR that the number of 
blocked sites had recently increased substantially.

“The situation couldn’t be worse,” he said. 

The journalist reeled off a list of the sites that were now impossible to 
access in Uzbekistan - “ the sites of [Russian] Kommersant, [Kazakstan’s] 
Delovaya Nedelya and other newspapers which provide serious coverage of Central 
Asian politics, most of the news resources from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, all 
foreign news agency sites, international NGOs, and even online archives on the 
history of the Central Asian nations”.

Until recently, people were able to access many of these banned sites through 
proxy servers – computers that take information from elsewhere on the web and 
make it available at a different URL address. Proxy servers and anonymisers are 
also used to conceal an internet user’s identity. All users accessing sites 
through a proxy appear to have the same IP (internet protocol) address, which 
makes it harder to track which individuals are accessing a given site.

But while internet users have developed ingenious ways to work around the 
restrictions, government controls are becoming wider in scope and increasingly 
sophisticated. In 2002, the government established UzInfoCom, which is formally 
an IT development agency but is widely believed to be devising new ways of 
controlling access to the internet.

Analysts say they suspect the government’s IT specialists are now starting to 
block the proxy-servers that have sprung up since wide-scale blocking started 
in 2005.

Since early November, many internet cafes have begun warning customers not to 
visit prohibited websites such as those which express opposition views or 
foreign sites covering the Central Asian region. 

A journalist in Kashkadarya, a region in southeastern Uzbekistan, said internet 
café staff were exerting tighter control over their customers. 

“I was recently in an internet café and tried to go to the Fergana.ru site via 
a proxy server to read news about the Uzbek election campaign. An administrator 
came up to me immediately and asked why I was doing it, what I was reading and 
who I was,” he said.

A once frequent visitor to internet cafés in the western city of Bukhara said 
he stopped going to public places to surf the web after discovering that staff 
were monitoring him.

“An administrator forgot herself and started reading out my emails to her 
friend,” he said. “I know that these administrators are always instructed to 
watch out for suspect clients.”

Visitors to internet cafés around the country say they have to submit a written 
list of web addresses they have visited, and administrators also demand to see 
any material that a customer plans to write onto a memory stick. Others say the 
USB ports for memory sticks and other storage devices have been removed from 
computers, while word-processing packages have been tampered with to block 
toolbar buttons such as “copy”, “save” and “send”. 

An internet café manager in Bukhara insisted that most websites that are 
blocked contain pornographic material. 

“We do block sites, but not those that carry news,” he explained. “Mostly it’s 
porn sites. If we blocked news sites, we’d lose customers. It wouldn’t be to 
our advantage.”

Other internet café staff said they had received instructions to keep closer 
watch on the internet to prevent the spread of computer viruses. 

One person in the northwestern city of Navoi, for example, said that if 
customers wanted to attach a file to an email, they had to hand over their 
memory stick to staff, who copied the file to their central computer and from 
there made it available to the user’s terminal. 

“We don’t know what they plan to send, so we keep a copy of the file just in 
case,” he said.

However, a internet café manager in the capital Tashkent admitted that staff 
had been ordered to restrict access to certain sites. The authorities send out 
emails to providers instructing them which sites must remain closed to 
visitors, and they have to comply for fear of losing their licenses.

“The most popular method of blocking sites in Uzbek internet cafes is to add 
the site address to a blacklist on the server, and then it becomes 
inaccessible,” said the manager. “It’s also possible to replace the URL address 
so that instead of accessing the particular site the user wants, they will go 
to a completely different one - for instance, to some search engine.” 

A member of a Tashkent-based human rights organisation suspects the authorities 
are also deliberately making general access to the internet more difficult. For 
the last six months, he said, he has finding it increasingly difficult to post 
material on his own site because the network goes down so often. 

“I think the authorities are anxious to limit public awareness of the 
presidential election,” he said. “Our IT specialists are having to acquire new 
software and devise all kinds of IT fixes to speed up access to our site and 
post information on it.” 

(Names of interviewees have been withheld in the interests of their security.)

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REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA provides the international community with a unique 
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REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA: Editor-in-Chief: Anthony Borden; Managing Editor: Yigal 
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