ResourcesPress Release

PHR Program Seeks to End Impunity for Torture in Kyrgyzstan

For Immediate Release

Although torture remains deeply embedded in the law enforcement and state security systems of the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, a new PHR briefing paper documents recent efforts to end impunity for torture, both by promoting policy changes and by improving the country’s local capacity to investigate, document, and prosecute such abuses.

Torture and ill treatment are widespread and systematic in Kyrgyzstan because, in the absence of adequate legal investigation, prosecutors depend on them for securing convictions. Police and other law enforcement officials in Kyrgyzstan are able to get away with physical and psychological abuse because prosecutors and judges in effect turn a blind eye to evidence of torture used to extract confessions. Impunity for perpetrators is the norm in Kyrgyzstan because it sustains the “confession-based” legal system. Yet such tolerance not only undermines the rule of law, it also creates a corrupt environment in which law enforcement agents extort money from defendants to have their charges dropped or reduced, and in which fear of reprisals prevents victims from seeking to hold perpetrators accountable.

A PHR team of experts in forensic medicine has spent part of the past year in Kyrgyzstan compiling data on the routine use of torture and training local medical and legal professionals how to investigate and document such human rights violations. As part of its work, the team conducted forensic investigations of 10 people. The PHR forensic evaluations revealed a pattern of extremely brutal torture methods, including severe beatings that frequently resulted in head trauma, asphyxiation with gas masks and plastic bags, electric shock, threats of rape and sodomy with truncheons, and death threats, among others. Eight of the 10 exhibited traumatic brain injury evidently caused by blunt force trauma to the head and/or asphyxiation.

In only two cases had the people been examined by government forensic evaluators, and in neither case had their injuries been classified as torture—although PHR’s subsequent evaluations showed clear evidence of physical and psychological abuse. Their experience is documented in the briefing paper, Ending Impunity: The Use of Forensic Medical Evaluations to Document Torture and Ill Treatment in Kyrgyzstan.

“Forensic medical evidence is often one of the most powerful forms of material evidence to corroborate a victim’s allegations of abusive treatment,” said Dr. Vincent Iacopino, senior medical advisor to PHR and the paper’s lead author, who coordinated the team’s work in Kyrgyzstan. “Unfortunately, the country still lacks the capacity to document forensic medical evidence in an independent and effective way.”

Perhaps Kyrgyzstan’s most well-known case of torture is that of Azimjan Askarov, the country’s most prominent rights activist, who founded an organization in 2002 to investigate police brutality. Arrested in 2010 on charges that included inciting ethnic hatred and complicity in murder, Askarov was sentenced to life in prison, despite protests by rights organizations that his arrest was on trumped-up charges and his conviction based on a false confession extracted under torture. PHR’s examination of his medical records confirms that his symptoms of traumatic brain injury, major depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder are consistent with his complaints of being tortured while in detention.

Meaningful anti-torture reform to break the cycle of impunity should start with effective forensic investigations leading to appropriate punishment of torturers. Kyrgyzstan faces huge obstacles to the forensic documentation of torture, including detainees’ lack of access to doctors and lawyers during pre-trial detention and poor technical capacities for obtaining evidence admissible in court to enforce accountability. PHR is focusing much of its effort in the country on training a cadre of people who can perform such work, while also promoting a legal climate in which such work is possible.

But institutional reform is also needed. To that end, PHR urges the government of Kyrgyzstan to take the following actions, among others:

  • Recognize and implement international standards for the effective investigation and documentation of torture, known collectively as the Istanbul Protocol.  
  • Ensure the independence of government health professionals who evaluate alleged torture victims by giving autonomy to the forensic medical division or moving it from the Interior Ministry to the Ministry of Health.
  • Revise the Criminal Procedure Code and other regulations and policies to ensure that alleged torture victims have prompt access to legal counsel and forensic evaluations by qualified independent governmental and non-governmental professionals.
  • Order the immediate release from prison of Azimjan Askarov, who must also be afforded medical treatment and legal counsel to seek redress for his wrongful conviction and brutal treatment.  

While torture remains systematic and widespread in Kyrgyzstan, Iacopino noted reasons to hope that the situation might change. Kyrgyzstan is now the region’s first parliamentary democracy. Recent elections were widely regarded as fair, for the most part, and resulted in the country’s first peaceful transfer of power in 2011. And civil society organizations have played a critical role in efforts to prevent torture and promote accountability and redress.

“Ending systematic torture and ill treatment is a matter of political will,” Iacopino said. “Torture is illegal in Kyrgyzstan and a violation of international treaties it has signed. By bringing police and judicial behavior into accord with its own laws, Kyrgyzstan can set an example for other countries in the region and relegate torture to the history books.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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