TASHKENT (Reuters) - A court in Uzbekistan agreed on Wednesday to investigate the alleged torture of a suspect by state security agents, in a case that rights campaigners describe as a test of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s promised liberal reforms.
The decision marked a departure from practice under Islam Karimov, who ran Uzbekistan for 27 years until his death in 2016, when courts routinely dismissed torture complaints.
Journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev, 44, is accused of publishing stories criticizing the government and urging its overthrow on a website run by exiled opposition politicians over the last 14 years.
Last week his lawyer Sergei Mayorov said in a statement that Abdullayev had been beaten, deprived of sleep and put in solitary confinement. Immediately after the trial began on Wednesday, Mayorov requested a medical examination and the inclusion in the case file of a complaint about the torture he said his client had suffered in detention since last September.
Head judge Zafar Nurmatov then asked Abdullayev, who sat behind bars alongside three co-defendants, to show if there were traces of torture on his body. Abdullayev took off his shirt and showed a bruised left arm.
The judge agreed to both requests after the prosecution lodged no objections and adjourned the hearings until after the medical examination.
Mayorov said his client, who wrote under the pen name Usman Haknazarov, would plead not guilty. Also on trial are an Uzbek blogger accused of receiving cash from an exiled politician, and two men accused of passing sensitive information to Abdullayev. The four men face up to 20 years in prison each.
Rights campaigners link the case to promises made by President Mirziyoyev after came to power in 2016 to liberalize the tightly-controlled former Soviet republic.
“This case is an extremely important test of whether President Mirziyoyev’s stated goals of reform are genuine - whether people have the right to peacefully criticize the government,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Under international and Uzbek law and a new decree President Mirziyoyev recently signed into law, no evidence obtained through torture will be admissible in court.”
Abdullayev was detained and investigated by the SNB state security service. Mirziyoyev sacked the once-influential SNB chairman, Rustam Inoyatov, in January and has accused the security service of abusing its powers.
Reporting by Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; editing by David Stamp