In “Case Watch” reports, lawyers at the Open Society Justice Initiative provide analysis of notable court decisions and cases that relate to our work to advance human rights law around the world.
The use of torture by police in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan remains a well-documented and endemic problem—despite a series of initiatives that have included internationally funded efforts to reform the country’s police force. The most recent human rights report on the Kyrgyzstan from the U.S. State Department, from 2014, highlighted “routine violations of fundamental procedural protections in all stages of the judicial process, including law enforcement officials’ use of arbitrary arrest and torture.”
To support local efforts to change this culture of impunity, the Justice Initiative has filed four death-in-custody complaints involving torture by Kyrgyz police before the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) since 2010. When making a finding of violations of international human rights obligations, the HRC specifies the remedies that should be provided to the victims. Therefore, among other remedial actions, Kyrgyzstan should pay compensation to the families of victims, and to report back on what steps it has taken to make sure that the abuses do not happen again.
Ultimately, this litigation seeks not only to provide some vindication for the families, but also to add to the pressure for genuine reform.
So far, the HRC has held Kyrgyzstan responsible for the deaths in three out of the four cases, with the fourth case still pending. Most recently, on October 29, 2015, it found violations of the right to life, of the prohibition of torture, and of the obligation to investigate those violations in the case of Akmatov v. Kyrgyzstan, brought by the Justice Initiative and a lawyer from Kyrgyzstan, Nurdin Chydyev.
In the two earlier cases (Ernazarov and Moidunov) the victims were found dead in police cells. The Akmatov case appears to be the first case in the HRC’s jurisprudence in which the committee made an explicit finding that a state is responsible for the arbitrary deprivation of the person’s life in a case where the victim died after being released.
The facts of the case date from May 2005, when 33-year-old Turdubek Akmatov was taken to the local police station in Mirza-Aki village and interrogated about an alleged theft. Akmatov was beaten over the head and kicked in the kidneys and ribs, and then, after 10 hours in custody, released with no charge. At home, he told his family that he had been beaten by six policemen, and named some of them. Shortly afterwards, Akmatov cried out and fell to the ground, bleeding copiously from his mouth, ears, and nose. He died a few hours later. The autopsy revealed numerous internal injuries, including lacerations and abrasions to his brain, lungs, kidneys, and spleen.
A mockery of justice then ensued. The first police to arrive at the house were led by an officer who allegedly orchestrated the beatings. The police waited 21 days before officially launching an investigation, while official medical reports, including an exhumation, asserted that the severe injuries found on Turdubek’s body could have been caused by falling from a bench. In June, when Turdubek’s father went to inquire about the case, the local police chief physically attacked him, bending back his index finger and causing two torn tendons. In August, the police closed the investigation, simply asserting that their questioning of the personnel of the police station showed that the “beating and infliction of bodily injuries were impossible.” Over the next six years, the investigation was suspended and reopened several times; the father filed complaints with the prosecutors’ offices and the courts, to no avail. In April 2011, the Justice Initiative and the family’s lawyer filed the complaint before the UN Human Rights Committee.
In its October 2015 findings in favor of the father of the victim, the HRC made a number of important observations:
- The Kyrgyz government was unable to explain what happened to Turdubek during his 10 hours in police custody. It did not provide any records of the questioning, nor any statement from any or the “more than 60 witnesses” it claimed were questioned during its investigation of his death.
- There are no records or registration of Turdubek to document his whereabouts in detention.
- No suspects were identified or charged, despite incriminating statements from witnesses and from Turdubek himself, and the investigation was neither prompt nor effective.
Importantly, the committee found Kyrgyzstan responsible for the arbitrary deprivation of Turdubek Akmatov’s life, despite the fact that he died at home after being released from custody. This finding is consistent with the committee’s previous jurisprudence in Eshonov v. Uzbekistan that “a death in any type of custody should be regarded as prima facie a summary or arbitrary execution,” unless that presumption can be rebutted by a “thorough, prompt, and impartial investigation.”
Kyrgyzstan is now required to report back to the committee about the steps taken to implement this decision—which should include paying appropriate compensation to the family, issuing an official apology to the family, launching a proper investigation, and taking remedial measures to prevent a recurrence.
Similar measures were required by the two previous HRC decisions in Ernazarov and Moidunov—in an encouraging sign a compensation payment, though inadequate in its amount, has been ordered by the local courts in the Moidunov case.
More broadly, it is hoped that these rulings will reinforce other anti-torture initiatives. Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Health recently started training doctors to properly evaluate medical evidence in cases of alleged torture. The center for training state prosecutors, working with civil society groups, has developed new guidelines for investigating torture allegations. A group of forensic experts and academics has developed guidance for investigators on the kinds of detailed questions that medical professionals would need to provide meaningful information when evaluating torture cases.
Torture is still widespread in Kyrgyzstan. The majority of complaints against the police are not thoroughly investigated; the victims are pressured to withdraw their complaints; their lawyers are intimidated and sometimes openly attacked. In practice, prosecutors are not sufficiently independent of the police. The findings of the Human Rights Committee in the Akmatov case will hopefully serve as another alarm to the government about the need for systemic change.