Uzbekistan: Possible Changes at Security Agencies Offer Litmus Test for Reform

Ulugbek Haidarov says the date of September 14, 2006, will forever be seared into his memory.

On that day, the journalist was standing at a bus stop in the central Uzbekistan city of Jizzakh. Suddenly, a car drew up and out jumped five men in plainclothes, who dragged him into their vehicle and took him to a police station.
Haidarov told that, in the moment, he was not initially worried. He believed he was in for the usual grilling, and then would be allowed to go home. As a well-known journalist, Haidarov was used to harassment, and believed himself relatively immune from torture, which Uzbek police are routinely accused of inflicting on detainees.
But after a few questions, Haidarov discovered that his interrogation would not go as expected. He had a cellophane bag shoved over his head. A police sergeant only loosened his grip as Haidarov began suffocating. The routine was repeated several times.
Once police officers were done with the bag, they tried another technique. They restrained the reporter, removed his footwear and took to beating the soles of his feet with their nightsticks. His tormentor told him with a smile that usually even corpses come to life after a beating like that.
“Who came up with this form of torture? When they beat you on the soles of your feet, you feel the agony in your brain? It is unbearably painful,” Haidarov said. “The worst thing was when they put on the gas mask and pumped the smoke from burning cotton buds through the inhalation valve. As I struggled to breathe, I thought that I was done for. The only thing I kept thinking to myself was: I cannot die, I have a pregnant wife waiting for me at home.”
Haidarov’s story is one of hundreds to emerge over the years. Collectively, they shine light on the darkest aspects of Uzbekistan’s authoritarian system, in particular the abusive practices of the police and agents of the National Security Service, or SNB as it is known by its Russian initials. The SNB is a successor agency to the KGB, but is, by all accounts, far better staffed than the Soviet secret police ever was.
Since the death of former president Islam Karimov last summer, Uzbek authorities have undertaken largely cosmetic political transformations. But it is the fate of the country’s repressive security organs, and whether ordeals like that suffered by Haidarov are truly a thing of the past, that will be the true test of the new leadership’s intent.
Some recent important personnel appointments do not foster a sense of optimism.
Many in Uzbekistan were stunned late last year, when they saw former Interior Minister Zokir Almatov, a man believed to be responsible for the bloody crushing of an uprising in the Ferghana Valley city of Andijan in 2005, pop up on their television screens. The 68-year old, who resigned as interior minister in December 2005, was the first beneficiary of a top job in the reshuffle among security agencies. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev appointed Almatov to head a state anti-corruption commission.
Then on January 3, Mirziyoyev appointed a fresh interior minister, Abdusalom Azizov, another veteran police officer whose leadership experience included a long stint as the top cop in the president’s native Jizzakh region.
Azizov’s first major task will be to implement recently adopted legislation setting the terms under which the police force operates. Uzbekistan’s police officers have operated in legal limbo since 1991. Until recently, they had no explicit rules of engagement. As a result, police officers have been able to treat criminal suspects in whatever way they see fit, provided their conduct did not break existing laws.
Attention is now focusing on the all-powerful SNB, and whether similar personnel changes are imminent. The agency has been headed by Rustam Inoyatov since the 1990s. The 73-year old was a KGB operative in Afghanistan before climbing through the ranks to transform the Uzbek SNB into a tool central to engineering Karimov’s capillary control over public life. Most major political bodies, not to speak of private enterprises, in Uzbekistan are widely assumed to be deeply infiltrated by SNB operatives.
The reach of the SNB is also said to extend into the grey sectors of the economy, so eyebrows were raised when Mirziyoyev signed off on a decree in late November, before he had even been formally elected to succeed Karimov, to overhaul the currency market. Tight controls over flows of foreign cash make life a misery for many — businesses first and foremost — but benefit shady exchange market operators, who would unlikely be able to operate without some informal protection.
Mirziyoyev has on paper also pledged to step up protection of private property — a veiled allusion to the corruption and racketeering that has crimped the potential of entrepreneurs. Graft too is said by the business community to be a lucrative source of income for the most powerful wings of the security apparatus.
Nigora Khidoyatova, a political emigre based in the United States who has said she hopes soon to return to Uzbekistan, told that from the very start of his rule, Karimov bought the loyalty of security structures by giving them access to money-making opportunities. To this day, security services in Uzbekistan are motivated not by ideology but by cash, she insisted.
“Because of the lack of a clear separation of powers and respect for the constitution, Uzbek security agencies transformed [themselves] into a private corporation pursuing only its own material interests,” Khidoyatova said. “What is more, you get this constant imbalance, so when Zokir Almatov left the Interior Ministry, [it] ceased to act as a counterweight to the SNB, and Inoyatov seized all power in the country.”
“Now, under new conditions, there is need for a wholesale reform of the security forces,” Khidoyatova added.
Although the SNB appears from the outside like an impenetrable black box, there are indications of change.
RFE/RL’s Uzbekistan service, Ozodlik, reported on January 7, citing unnamed sources, that Inoyatov’s deputy, 51-year old Shukhrat Gulyamov, had been fired. Ozodlik claimed the dismissal was precipitated by a row between Gulyamov and Mirziyoyev.
Gulyamov was previously also known for his confrontations with fellow high-ranking SNB officers, like the Sharifhodjayev brothers. Last July, two brothers, Hayot Sharifhodjayev and Javdat Sharifhodjayev were reportedly found guilty of corruption and sentenced to prison terms as a result of an ongoing standoff. Further complicating matters for the Sharifhodjayev brothers, they were said to be business associates of Karimov’s disgraced daughter, Gulnara Karimova.
Foreign-based opposition websites have stoked speculation about how the various branches of the security apparatus will fare under Mirziyoyev. The sensational reports posted by such websites can gain lots of traction, despite being dubiously sourced.
Political commentator Usman Khaknazarov, a pseudonym for a writer believed by some to be a composite figure of government critics, has claimed recently that after coming to power, Mirziyoyev relinquished the protection of the Presidential Guard Service. That unit is comprised mainly of troops from the Qalqon (“Shield”) unit whose ultimate loyalty is to the SNB, Khaknazarov wrote.
Confirming or denying such claims is impossible as the Uzbek government is secretive when it comes to almost all aspects of government policy, let alone something concerning an issue as sensitive as the president’s protection unit.
Exiled political activist and journalist Pulat Ahunov said he saw no obvious clash of interests between the new president and the security services. “I think that if Mirziyoyev truly does carry out reforms, the [security] organs will not interfere, since he controls them,” he said.
Haidarov, the journalist beaten in a police station in 2006, said for any substantive change to come to Uzbekistan, the popular mindset needs to be recalibrated. And for that to happen, the police and security services will have to be made truly accountable, said Haidarov, who emigrated to Canada after his ordeal.
“I am convinced that the SNB and the Interior Ministry should not be subordinated to the president. We can see for ourselves what consequences that leads to. They should be made accountable to parliament. Only then will the situation really change,” Haidarov said.