BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — A leading international rights group warned Wednesday that the torture and arbitrary detention of ethnic Uzbeks by security forces in southern Kyrgyzstan could lead to a new wave of intercommunal conflict.
Human Rights Watch said that Uzbeks are being “disproportionately” arrested — and at times choked and burned with cigarette butts — as part of a government drive to investigate and punish those responsible for deadly ethnic riots last month.
“Coercing confessions through torture discredits the investigation and fans the flames of the ethnic conflict,” said Anna Neistat, a researcher with the New York-based group in Kyrgyzstan.
Hundreds of people, mainly minority Uzbeks, were killed in rampages by ethnic Kyrgyz through their neighborhoods in June. The violence left much of the southern city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city, a smoldering ruin. Hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks were forced to flee their homes.
Kyrgyz authorities have yet to agree to growing demands for an international inquiry into the violence, which is thought to have been deliberately provoked.
“While the Kyrgyz authorities have an obligation to investigate the June violence and prosecute those responsible, they must do so without violating international or Kyrgyz law,” Neistat said.
Human Rights Watch said it has documented dozens of cases where people held in connection with the violence have been subjected to torture by asphyxiation and burning with cigarette stubs.
Family members and lawyers of detainees have also been threatened and attacked by police, the group said.
Authorities have consistently declined to reveal the ethnic breakdown of detainees, citing the need to avoid stoking tensions. But Human Rights Watch says it has spoken to a law enforcement officer that said police are wary of arresting ethnic Kyrgyz for fear of provoking a new wave of violence.
Officials in the capital, Bishkek, acknowledge that there have been tensions between the law enforcement forces, composed mainly of ethnic Kyrgyz, and the Uzbek community.
But government spokesman Farid Niyazov said officials in charge of the security forces have been instructed to pay more attention to rights violations.
“Many cases have been investigated and in many instances measures have been adopted to punish the guilty,” Niyazov said.
Uncertainty over the Kyrgyz security forces’ ability to ensure security in the south has also prompted calls for an international police force to be dispatched to the region.
That issue is likely to be discussed later this week at an informal summit of foreign ministers of member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation.
Resolving the security situation will be one of the first challenges facing Kyrgyzstan’s President Roza Otunbayeva new caretaker government, which was formed Wednesday.
The unveiling of the new Cabinet comes after the resignation of leading ministers from the interim government, which ruled the country since President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was deposed in a bloody uprising in April amid anger at falling living standards and rampant corruption.
Many former members of the interim government are now expected to run for parliament.
Associated Press writer Peter Leonard contributed to this report from Almaty, Kazakhstan.