This article comes courtesy of Fergana News, a leading independent news outlet covering Central Asia.
Various people used to approach our human rights organisation, the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan (IGNPU), to ask for help. Some thought they had only to enter my house for their troubles to miraculously disappear. They wouldn’t have to do anything more for themselves, just lie on a sofa watching TV, while we solved all their problems.
Others, on the other hand, wanted real help — information, moral support, legal advice — but were also ready to help themselves. Indeed, these people showed an enviable persistence and courage in defending their rights. And it was these people who tended to triumph over the odds.
I’d like to tell one such person’s story: it lasted 33 months, but ended in the victory of justice over lawlessness.
I’ll shoot the lot of these bastards
In early October 2004, I had a visit from a couple. The husband was smartly dressed and fit looking — obviously an ex military man. His wife looked similarly strong and confident. I have no idea who put them in touch with me, and I didn’t get to ask, because the man immediately floored me by saying, “Mr Ikramov, you are our only hope. If you won’t help us I’ll take a gun and shoot the lot of these bastards!”
I tried to calm my visitor down, sat him at a table and asked what this was all about. This aggressive-sounding character, whose name was Anvar Muradov, began to tell me his life story. I was right in my guess — he was a retired army officer who had fought in Afghanistan, winning seven military orders and countless medals. He had been invalided out, with the rank of captain, after being wounded, and returned to his home village in Uzbekistan’s Surxondaryo Region. There he continued his studies and after gaining a PhD got a teaching job at the local Hydro Technology College, where he met his wife Barno, who also taught there, and they had six children together.
This was, in other words, the happy tale of a decent, simple and honest family. But it was precisely their honesty and decency that led to their rights, or more specifically Barno’s rights, being seriously violated and their consequent long journey from their remote region to meet me.
It was precisely the family’s honesty and decency that led to their rights being seriously violated
Anvar explained that the trouble had started in 2003, when the Hydro Technology College got a new director by the name of Shukurov, who straight away started throwing his weight around and giving commands that flagrantly broke regulations. For example, he ordered Barno Muradova to collect 400 som [£0.10] from each student for a day trip to help with the local cotton harvest. Street market in Tashkent. (c) Sergei Subbotin / VisualRIAN. All rights reserved.Today, 400 som (£0.01) wouldn’t buy a loaf of bread, but in 2003 it was quite a sum for a college student, enough to buy several small pies or samosas. Barno had been teaching in the college for 26 years, from the time when it was still a technical school, and had no intention of losing face before either her students or some petty dictator. She categorically refused to collect the money, and after her relations with the new director broke down completely she wrote a complaint to the local public prosecutor’s office about the situation.
As well as the ‘cotton collection’ incident, the complaint listed a number of examples of Shukurov’s infringement of regulations and abuse of power. There was, however, no response from the law enforcers, and Shukurov just stepped up his pressure on both Barno and her husband Anvar.
‘Stitched up’ for honesty
At the same time, it cannot be said that the public prosecutor’s office ignored what was going on in the college. On 20 May 2004 an unknown man carrying a video camera suddenly appeared in the classroom where Muradova was teaching a group of third year students. He loudly anounced to the class that, ‘your teacher has taken a bribe!’ and then started filming a roll of paper lying on a desk some three metres from Barno.
It transpired that the stranger with the camera was an investigator from the prosecutor’s office. The roll of paper had been brought into the room by one of the students and it contained 20,000 thousand som notes, five of them marked with the word ‘bribe’. ‘Uzbekistan: green, blossoming and free’ reads this billboard in Samani Park, Bukhara. Photo: Adam Jones, 2012. Some rights reserved.My visitors believed, and I agreed with them, that this scenario was set up by Shukurov, with help from his highly placed friends (or possibly even relatives) in the Surxondaryo regional law enforcement organs.
The stitch-up failed, however – it was just too crude and stupid. There were no fingerprints belonging to Muradova on the package; the money was lying close to the students and at some distance from where she was standing and to hand it over to her would have been absurd in the circumstances. The five marked notes were also inscribed ‘bribe for Khatamova’, although that was her maiden name, which she no longer used.
But despite all this, the prosecutor’s office continued to investigate Barno, in a highly prejudicial fashion. Investigator Khuramov, the man with the video camera, beat her on the arms, yelling “write that you took a bribe!” His boss, public prosecutor Suvonov, was no better: he also had only one aim in mind – the short statement, ‘I took a bribe’. And when he realised that Barno would never admit to this crime that she hadn’t committed, he started to use foul language at her, saying that he had nothing to fear, since he “brought his bosses lots of cash.”
It became clear where the money for Suvonov’s bosses came from during a conversation between Muradova and forensics specialist Samad Choriev, who told her bluntly: “Give us two million soms [2,000 USD at the time] and we’ll let you go. Laws don’t mean anything here.”
Barno was told bluntly: “give us two million soms and we’ll let you go. Laws don’t mean anything here”
Muradova, furious, attempted to complain about this abuse of power; in the summer of 2004 she wrote to the heads of the public prosecutor’s department and the regional office of the National Security Council, as well as the Procurator General and the head of the republican National Security Council, the Parliamentary Ombudsman and even Uzbekistan’s president. But nothing came of any of this – there was no response whatsoever.
Soon, however, the district court heard the bribery case against Barno. And despite the fact that her guilt was not established, and all the evidence given by witnesses testified to her innocence, on 17 September 2004 the judge pronounced her guilty. Urgut Bazaar, Uzbekistan. Photo: Robert Wilson, 2015. Some rights reserved.The article under which she was charged was not a serious one, and neither was the punishment – a one year suspended sentence. Muradova did however lose her job and was shamed before her fellow villagers just by virtue of being convicted. Having never taken any bribes, she was highly offended by the whole situation. And her husband, furious about her treatment and despairing of getting justice by lawful means, was ready to use extreme methods.
I managed, however, to calm down the Afghan war veteran and persuade him that using legal methods to fight for your rights can be much more effective than going to extremes. And I promised the couple that IGNPU would help them in whatever way it could.
The tipping point
The couple accepted my argument and on my advice immediately lodged an appeal against the court’s unjust verdict. I wrote a statement the same day, but also continued to support the Muradovs with advice and consultations.
The appeal went against Barno, but she remained steadfast. She lodged appeals with higher judicial bodies, and they set dates for new hearings. None of these changed anything, but Muradova lodged yet more complaints requiring the involvement of yet more hearings. In the end the process even moved from the Surxondaryo to the neighbouring Qashqadaryo Region, and the number of hearings reached nine.
The number nine was obviously a tipping point: the case was transferred to the Surxondaryo regional procurator’s office for further investigation. And the regional investigative tribunal, having looked at the case, came to the conclusion that it indeed represented a serious infringement of the criminal code of practice.
For example, at several hearings at different levels the third year student ‘victim’ claimed that she was seeing her original statement incriminating Muradova for the first time, that the words and signature on the statement were not hers and that she did not have the skills needed to produce the statement on the computer on which it was typed.
And attesting witness Turaboev showed, at three court hearings in different districts, that the order for Muradova’s arrest was re-written three times and that he had had to sign it again each time.
Moreover, it was shown at the last court hearing that law enforcement officers forced Turaboev to sign the third, ‘final’ order at his home, without either giving him the chance to read it beforehand or even giving ham a verbal summary of the amendments made to it.
The Muradovs, meanwhile, had serious criticisms of the new investigation, which they believed was still biased towards a guilty verdict. They were also able to back up their allegations with concrete details. For example, all the facts and arguments put forward by Barno were ignored by the investigators.
The staff at the prosecutor’s office also hid the audio recording that proved her innocence, and witnesses were questioned late in the evening and young students insulted and humiliated in order to force them into making false statements.
Young student witnesses were insulted and humiliated, to force them into making false statements
I heard all this from the Muradovs when they came to see me in November 2006, and I advised them to send IGNPU a complaint, with a detailed account of these facts. Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan: view from Ak-Saray Palace. Photo: Arian Zwegers, 2008. Some rights reserved.Barno followed my advice, and I published her account in my next bulletin, as well as sending it officially from IGNPU to the President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov, its Prosecutor General, the head of its National Security Council, the acting head of the High Court and the Parliamentary Ombudsman, with the aim of getting a ‘substantial response’.
In the end, Barno Muradova’s persistence in proclaiming her innocence was rewarded. Somewhere, a cog in the judicial system had turned and as a result, the public prosecutor of the Kumkurgan district officially informed her that the case against her had been closed, due to no crime having been committed.
On 26 January 2007 the Muradovs had even better news: the Prosecutor General’s office had ratified the decision to rehabilitate the teacher. She would be reinstated in her job and would receive the 33 months’ worth of salary she had lost during her forced absence, as well as the possibility to win a decent sum through the civil courts in compensation for the emotional stress she had suffered.
Three days later, Barno had further proof that in this case justice had triumphed indeed. Another letter from the regional public prosecutor’s department informed her that ‘employees of the Kumkurgan district prosecutor’s office (who had fabricated the case against her) would face appropriate charges’.
It all happened. Barno got both her job and the 33 months’ worth of salary back and the bent officials got their comeuppance. Shukurov, the head of the hydro technology college, was also fired, and to top it all, Barno’s husband Anvar Muradov was appointed director of the new Oil and Gas Industry College just opened in Kumkurgan.
I later received a letter from Barno Muradova, with which I end my account of this tale: “During the investigations and court cases, not one official structure gave me any practical help: they all just passed the buck. The only person I found who cared about the future of Uzbekistan and human rights, and who sincerely and unselfishly wanted to help victims of injustice was the head of IGNPU Surat Ikramov. The Muradov family and their six children offer their thanks to the people at IGNPU, who gave us practical help in re-establishing our relationships with our friends, acquaintances, relatives, neighbours and fellow villagers.”
This is one of the letters I have had that mean the most to me. The main thing for a human rights campaigner is to help people. And when that help leads to such a positive result, it brings a lot of joy as well – joy in the realisation that your work is important and needed.