Established in 1999, Jaslyk (“youth”) Prison passes itself off nominally as a youth camp. But reports from inmates of Jaslyk reveal it to be a place of torture. It is this notorious facility that Uzbekistan’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has ordered closed. Finally, in 2019, 20 years since its formation, sees Jaslyk Prison closed — but its legacy remains a dark stain.
President Mirziyoyev’s predecessor, Islam Karimov, headed an administration partially focused on the reformation of Uzbek identity following independence from the Soviet Union. In this pursuit, however, and alongside acts of corruption and staunch civil rights abuses and censorship, Karimov’s governance was harsh on anyone perceived to be a threat- real, imagined, or outright fabricated. One product of this repressive policy was Jaslyk Prison.
The very name of the local railway station, Barsa Kelmes, roughly means “place of no return.” Modeled after Soviet prison camps, Jaslyk was meant to be just that. The prison itself sits within a desert in the Karakalpakstan region which endures extreme high and low temperatures.
Within the walls of the Central Asian gulag, prisoners are reportedly exposed to torture that had sometimes proven fatal. In 2002, two inmates died by being boiled alive. Those inmates, Muzafar Avazov and Husnidin Alimov, were identified by Human Rights Watch as “religious prisoners.”
“It feels like there is no limit to the cruelty the prison officers there are capable of,” says poet Yusuf Juma, who was detained in 2007 after challenging Karimov’s latest run for office at the time. When not in solitary confinement, Juma was transferred between Jaslyk and another facility in a cramped iron box. Juma, activist and journalist Muhammad Bekjan, and more have likened the prison to “a Nazi concentration camp” or “death camp.”
Poor hygiene and disease ran rampant in Jaslyk Prison. Following Bekjan’s apprehension in 1999, he was sent to Jaslyk where he was exposed to torturous conditions and small cells full of tuberculosis and scabies. Upon his arrival, still early in Jaslyk’s grim existence, Bekjan had been told 71 inmates had already died. Among those imprisoned, many fell victim to beatings, electrocutions, and more.
President Mirziyoyev has already made choices consistent with a reformist policy. These changes involve economics as well as institutions inconsistent with protecting human rights, such as Jaslyk Prison. These moves have openly been referred to as ways to improve the reputation of Uzbekistan on the world stage. The Uzbek Ministry of Internal Affairs praised the prison’s closure as a “truly historic decision” made to “promote the country’s positive image abroad.”
However, the prison’s legacy cuts deep and has an alarming body count. Critics, Uzbeks and foreign observes alike, feel the motive will harm the relationship between the government and people, and leave old wounds unaddressed.
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev seeks to present himself as a reformist, and indeed has brought about many changes, but many in the international community question motives, extent of reforms, and just how long these changes are meant to last.
Alisher Ilkhamov, Uzbekistan-born research associate at the SOAS University of London, feels as much. “The main motive,” he explains, “was the improvement of the country’s international image rather than a sincere wish to start a dialogue with the people, improve their rights.”
This doubt is further fueled by an incomplete allowance of renewed freedom of the press. Despite boasting of expanded freedom for some independent journalists, many outlets remain blocked. The reason for their years-long blockage was blamed on a technical error or malfunction.
Steve Swerdlow, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that Uzbek authorities cannot seek an easy way out of confronting the government’s dark past and harsh treatment of perceived enemies. Rather, they must “begin a formal process of examining the torture, ill-treatment, and arbitrary imprisonment that occurred at Jaslyk and other prisons and places of detention over the last quarter-century.” While Uzbekistan closes Jaslyk Prison, a dialogue must be opened.