TAVAKSAY, UZBEKISTAN — “You know where I suffered most? In freedom,” says Rustam, looking deeply into my eyes as I start my interview with this 24-year-old Uzbek prisoner. We are sitting in the medical ward of Colony Number 7 in Tavaksay, about 1½ hours from Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent.
Recently, VOA won unprecedented access to this prison, one that has imprisoned inmates since 1936 when Joseph Stalin ran the Soviet Union. Tavaksay’s prison population peaked at between 4,000 and 5,000 under independent Uzbekistan’s late leader Islam Karimov, but has since been reduced to about 1,000.
Out of Uzbekistan’s ‘place of no return’
It’s a cold December afternoon. Rustam wears dark prison pajamas and a robe. He sits on clean white sheets that reflect the snow, gently floating like butterflies, outside the ward. We are without a minder; the guards are outside.
It is just Rustam and me, opposite each other on ward beds. I was not permitted to bring my own recording equipment, so Rustam speaks into a prison camera, provided to me by the Internal Affairs Ministry, although I persuaded them to let me use my tripod, memory card and microphone.
Rustam tells me he grew up poor in a broken family, longing for love and care.
“Life at home, brutal. Then Russia, brutal,” he said.
Rustam describes his time as a teenage migrant worker, doing hard work.
“I was young and helpless," he said. "I thought I had died several times in Russia but was wrong. I just suffered. Nobody in this world seemed to care for me.”
He explains that he went to Syria in 2014 because he wanted to die “for some serious cause.”
But “once there, I hated it. I tried to escape but was caught. They punished me. The Islamic State was merciless but I again somehow survived. It was too late to regret, I know.”
Caught and sent to Jaslik
Eventually, Rustam was able to leave. He returned first to Russia, “that brutal place.” His relatives begged him to come home, but the Uzbek security services were already looking for him when he did. He was immediately arrested, swiftly prosecuted, and sentenced to 16 years for extremism, terrorism and other crimes.
He was sent to the notorious Jaslik prison in the mostly desert region of Karakalpakstan. Jaslik was Uzbekistan’s worst prison until it was closed by Karimov’s reform-minded successor last fall. Amid continuous reports of torture and inhumane treatment, the international community had pressed the Uzbek government to shut Jaslik for a long time.
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who succeeded Karimov in late 2016, promised a better record on human rights and justice, and the closure decree was issued in the summer of 2019. Leading international human rights groups had described Jaslik as Uzbekistan’s torture chamber, a place of no return. The world had last received access to it in 2001.
Torture still routine?
In a recent interview in Tashkent, Minister of Internal Affairs Pulat Babajanov confirmed to VOA that all 361 inmates at Jaslik have been relocated to other colonies across Uzbekistan, based on their home addresses.
Babajanov agreed that Jaslik was infamous — and that closing it was the right decision. So did other officials, such as Minister of Justice Ruslanbek Davletov, Chief Prosecutor Nigmatilla Yuldashev, and Chief Justice Komiljon Kozimov.
With more than 3,000 prisoners pardoned under Mirziyoyev, the government maintains that the overall prison population is now low compared to other countries. It is, they claim, less than 40,000 in a nation of nearly 34 million people, a little more than 0.1% of the population.
Rustam, who spent three years in Jaslik, says he has never been tortured behind bars.
“Others may have experienced it, but since I accepted all the charges, they didn’t do anything to me.”
But he adds, detention is detention, prison is prison.
“You obviously suffer behind bars, but Tavaksay is way better than Jaslik in terms of conditions, air, water. ... We can see family. I can study, work. I want to show everyone I’m not the enemy of the state or nation. What I did was wrong. I’ve learned lessons. I’m still learning them the hardest way.”
Uzbekistan’s Ombudsman Ulugbek Muhammadiyev, Parliament’s representative for human rights, told VOA that Tavaksay is a good example of reform in prison zones. Relatives can visit up to six times a year, staying for up to three days, depending on a prisoner’s record.
“One of the main changes in my work is that I can visit any prison or detention center anytime I want to. I just show up at their door, show my ID and get in. This is why I can confidently tell you that we know more about what’s happening behind bars in Uzbekistan than ever,” the ombudsman said.
Mirziyoyev has banned torture and no court is now permitted to consider evidence collected through inhumane methods. Yet a November 2019 report issued by the U.N. Committee Against Torture found that torture in Uzbekistan is still routine.
“This shows that the burden is still very much on the Uzbek government to take steps to finally end this practice,” said Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer and Central Asia expert.
The ombudsman conceded that reforms seem slow. His office looks at dozens of cases of prisoner abuse each month and keeps parliament and the leadership informed about what has changed and what has not.
“I can tell you that most prisons and detention centers are now renovated. Inmates live in much better conditions than before. But substantial changes take time. We have a huge amount of work ahead.”
Swerdlow visited two of Uzbekistan’s strict-regime colonies in 2018, becoming the first international observer invited by the ombudsman to examine prisons since the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stopped doing so in 2013 after years of government interference.
“The ICRC should be able to restart its prison monitoring. More than 50 human rights defenders, journalists and activists have been released since Mirziyoyev came to power, but this still leaves significant numbers of political prisoners,” Swerdlow said.
Life behind bars
Tavaksay’s chief doctor gave VOA a tour (see photo gallery) of the prison’s health center — its pharmacy, examination rooms, dentist’s office, toilets, and bathrooms. As in the clean and tidy dormitories, where more than 100 beds are lined up side-by-side in each section, these facilities looked well-kept and relatively up-to-date.
VOA spent several hours chatting with inmates, including both off- and on-the-record conversations. The prison school offers foreign language classes with inmates as teachers. VOA watched a group take psychology tests with a doctor. Each inmate must attend this course and be evaluated. Progress can lead to an early release.
Tohir Komilov, 37, from Tashkent, is serving 15 years for extremism, terrorism, threatening the constitutional order, and several related crimes. He too was in Jaslik until late August 2019, when he, Rustam and several others were brought to Tavaksay.
“Yes, I’d heard that Jaslik was known as a place of no return — but we returned, all of us,” Komilov said.
“They gave us time to say our farewells. I know you will find it hard to understand but we feel free now. Still behind bars but free,” Komilov said. “Much better air here.”
“How will you remember Jaslik?” I ask.
“Jaslik — I will never forget that desert.”
“Were you ever tortured?” I ask.
“I can’t say I was treated well,” Komilov said pensively. His eyes say it all. He spent nine months in the jail following his arrest in 2015. Torture was systemic at that time.
I talked to Komilov in the colony’s polling station, where 37 of 1,000 inmates were listed as voters in December 2019 parliamentary and local council elections. But Komilov and Rustam, both convicted of threatening the constitutional order, couldn’t vote because their crimes disqualified them from exercising that right.
The prison warden, Lt. Col. Jura Pulatov, did not want to appear on camera but seemed quite confident and relaxed talking to a journalist.
“We know what we are doing,” Pulatov said, maintaining that he and his staff are well-trained.
“I know you and many others think that people are just suffering in our prisons and that these are hell places. You can tour the facility and see for yourself that this is not the case. Check out any corner, talk to anyone. This is a place of high discipline and security. But we uphold human rights. We are as humane as we’ve ever been.”
Several hours were not enough to get a full picture of prison life. I left Tavaksay wanting to go back and interview more inmates, especially those who spoke English.
Some of them were Uzbeks with foreign experience, especially the teacher. Talking to them would reveal a lot about Uzbekistan’s past, present and future. They are behind bars, though still living a life in that country.