Uzbekistan's most notorious prison

Many of the inmates in Uzbekistan’s most notorious prison are hardened thieves, thugs and killers, but even more were sent here as suspected Islamic extremists.

Most of the prisoners are skittish about talking to outsiders, but a few look visiting reporters straight in the eye and defy the guards by talking openly about torture, beatings and rapes.

Akram Ikromov, one of those convicted as a religious militant in this secular former Soviet state, asked first if the small group of journalists allowed a rare visit had come to find out the truth.

Only then did he begin to talk about the physical abuses that have made Zhaslyk a sinister symbol of the country’s abusive law enforcement and prison system.

“What you hear about Zhaslyk is fairy tales. Things that happen here are worse than any nightmare,” said Ikromov, a thin man in a dark gray prison robe who looks much younger than his 28 years.

This remote colony where the government sends political prisoners is known to human rights advocates as Barsa Kelmes—the Place of No Return.

At least three inmates were beaten and tortured to death last year.

The bodies of two, Muzafar Avazov and Khusnuddin Olimov, were burned, bruised and disfigured when returned to their families for burial last August. Both had been jailed for belonging to a banned Islamic group.

The official investigation said they died from a fight with two other prisoners. Several prison guards were fired for negligence and the prison terms of the alleged killers were extended, officials said.

But the dead men’s families charge several guards were also involved in the killings and said they’re still on the job.

More than half of Zhaslyk’s 538 inmates allegedly belonged either to the banned radical Islamic Hizb-ut-Tahrir party, which calls for the creation of a single state for Muslims, or to the fundamentalist Wahhabi branch of Islam, which is based in Saudi Arabia. The average sentence for religious prisoners is about 16 years.

No road leads to Zhaslyk. Only a railway line links the outside world to the prison colony, in the middle of barren plains in the Karakalpakistan region 1 500km north-west of the capital, Tashkent.

Stinging winds blow incessantly much of the year, bringing dust and salt from the dying Aral Sea 90km away. A thick white layer of salt blankets the plains. Drinking water is polluted and salty.

Prison officials apparently tried to spruce the place up for the journalists’ visit. Bunk beds were covered with clean white linens, and toilets and sinks in the cells were clean. However, there were just two rusty showers for the 538 inmates, and an acrid smell permeated the prison.

Zhaslyk opened in 1999, the year the government’s crackdown on suspected religious extremists was at its peak after bombings in the capital. The attacks were blamed on Islamic fundamentalists who were believed intent on killing Uzbek President Islam Karimov and close advisers. Sixteen people died, none of them high officials.

About 7 000 young men deemed political threats were arrested between 1999 and 2001, human rights groups say. Officially, about 3 000 of them remain in jail, but the State Department’s human rights report on Uzbekistan for 2002 put the number of political prisoners at about 6 500.

Mikhail Gurevich, chief of staff of the Uzbek prison administration, denied Zhaslyk was opened to hold political prisoners. He said it is meant for convicts from the country’s western regions.

However, prisoners said during private conversations that non-political inmates were not sent here until just before the first visit by the International Red Cross in 2001. They said it was then that the three-story building where inmates are kept in 12-man cells was painted for the first time.

Ikromov, who is serving an 18-year sentence, said he was beaten unconscious when brought here in 2000. His back still bears the traces of dark bruises that he said were caused by guards’ clubs.

“It used to be beating, beating and beating,” he said.

Gurevich said the first groups of prisoners brought here needed “harsh” treatment because they were behaving like “kings”.

The prison is supervised by Alikhaydar Kulumbetov, a large, imposing man with a thick mustache and thunderous voice. Some prisoners and guards call him “Master”.

“They are all finished men. They want to create chaos in Uzbekistan,” Kulumbetov said of the alleged Islamic extremists in his prison.

“There will be explosions everywhere if you set them free.”

Ikromov said at least 20 prisoners had died since he arrived, four of them from his cell. Kulumbetov refused to give any figures on prisoners’ deaths.

Many prisoners said treatment had improved since last year’s killings, which attracted a lot of attention from human rights groups and foreign news media. They said systematic beatings stopped and the basement cells where the killings allegedly happened were closed.

Mukhammadkutub Botirov, another alleged religious extremist, said official or foreign inspectors are now visiting almost every two months, and prison administrators have had to change tactics.

He expressed concern for a prisoner named Bahrom Pulatov, who is in a punishment cell for praying during a morning exercise. Botirov said Pulatov was put there with a violent criminal and feared officials might have ordered him to “break” Pulatov.

But Pulatov’s main complaint was about being sent to prison.

“We are victims. No matter what conditions we are in here, the main thing is that I am being held here unfairly,” he said in the large, but isolated punishment cell with bare metal beds. His voice was loud but tense.

Most prisoners were too afraid to talk, ignoring questions about treatment and food.

“You do understand everything by yourself, don’t you?” whispered one prisoner. - Sapa-AP