A catalogue of crude procedural violations stands to gravely undermine Uzbekistan’s claimed embrace of reformist values.
Before descending into Tashkent’s Pushkin metro station on the morning of December 3, Kadyr Yusupov opened the Telegram app on his phone and sent a note to his three children.
In the brief message, Yusupov, who had for decades struggled with mental illness, said he loved his family, but that he was weary and had decided to put an end to it all.
Ten minutes later, at 8:45 a.m., the 66-year-old threw himself onto the railway tracks. He broke his collarbone and sustained head injuries, but he lived.
The details of what happened in the hours that followed are hazy. Because Yusupov was a retired, top-ranking official in Uzbekistan’s diplomatic service, his suicide attempt immediately drew the attention of security bodies.
While receiving medical attention in the hospital and still in the depths of a profound depressive episode, Yusupov was subjected to questioning by personnel from the State Security Service, or SSS, the successor agency to the KGB. At least half a dozen law enforcement officers milled around Yusupov’s ward and then the private room to which he was moved.
Sometime after 9 p.m., after hours of grilling, Yusupov summoned his youngest son, Temur, who had spent much of the day at the hospital, to his bedside. Two SSS agents stood within earshot. Speaking in a monotone, Yusupov made a startling confession. Since 2015, he had been spying for an unspecified Western government in return for a monthly $1,000 retainer, he said.
Temur believes those were the confused words of a suffering, tired and frightened man.
“My father was clearly not in his mind. If he wasn’t thinking straight before the incident, he wasn’t thinking better after it happened,” he told Eurasianet. “I think those interrogations led to the point where they basically broke him down and then sort of forced him to confess in my presence.”
Authorities took the statement deadly seriously. And so, Yusupov, who retired from diplomatic service in 2009, has since June been standing trial behind closed doors on charges of treason. The third hearing is scheduled to take place on July 12.
The interlude between Yusupov being charged in December and the trial has been what rights activists have described as a catalogue of crude procedural violations that stands to gravely undermine Uzbekistan’s claimed embrace of reformist values.
The questionable behavior of investigators began on the first day, as soon as they had squeezed the confession out of Yusupov. One security services agent rushed to the former diplomat’s home and pressured his daughter into handing over a laptop. They confiscated his mobile phone in the hospital.
The following day, investigators sought to cover their tracks.
“They tried to give me a note saying that we voluntarily gave them the phone and my father’s laptop. I said: ‘Well, we’re not going to sign that, sorry. It wasn’t voluntary, you basically forced us,’” Temur said.
By December 10, one week before Yusupov turned 67, he was removed to a detention facility. His family only learned about it from hospital staff when they came to visit.
That is when state-appointed defense lawyer Shahzod Sharipov entered the picture. He called the family on December 11 to tell them he had been appointed to the case.
The Yusupovs were suspicious as they had never heard of Sharipov. Others that have faced similar criminal charges certainly have, however.
When journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev was arrested in September 2017 on charges of plotting the overthrow of the government, Sharipov was forced upon him. Authorities forcefully resisted Abdullayev’s attempt to appoint his own counsel.
“[Sharipov] demanded that I sign all the documents that the investigators gave me to sign. That’s to say, he was a defense lawyer that adopted the position of the SSS,” Abdullayev told Eurasianet. “Sharipov demanded that I confess to everything.”
Abdullayev has always strenuously rejected the charges against him, and the government has never sought to publicly substantiate its sensational allegations. (He was found guilty in May 2018 and released.)
When the time came for interrogations, Sharipov was never to be seen.
“He was not present at all,” Abdullayev said. “He did not even come to the criminal investigations department.”
This account rhymes unerringly with Yusupov’s experience.
When Temur Yusupov suggested to Sharipov that he cite his father’s history of mental instability as a factor, the lawyer was dismissive.
“He just responded that it wouldn’t matter,” he said.
Exasperated by Sharipov’s inaction, the family began looking for other representation and landed on Allan Pashkovskiy.
But Pashkovskiy was serially denied access to Yusupov. Officials at the detention facility cited maintenance works, the end-of-year holidays and bureaucratic impediments as excuses for keeping the lawyer at bay.
Only on January 4, did Pashkovskiy get to see Yusupov. The man he found before him was unkempt and appeared to be struggling to maintain personal hygiene. Only one side of Yusupov’s face was shaven.
It was unclear quite how much the prisoner could understand about what was happening to him. For more than a month, Yusupov had no way of getting his doses of escitalopram, the powerful antidepressant he used to take religiously at 9 p.m. sharp every day. Doctors advise that missing a dose of escitalopram can cause relapses, which in the case of a diagnosed schizophrenia suffer like Yusupov could lead to bouts of insomnia, suicidal thoughts and irrational behavior.
“This is another form of torture, because he has to receive this medication. He was becoming like a zombie,” said Temur.
With an investigator sitting next to him, Yusupov passed a letter to Pashkovskiy to tell him that he was refusing his legal services.
The letter was dated December 27, one week before they had met. Under Uzbek law, at least one private consultation should take place before a client can fire his lawyer.
Only on January 17 did the SSS detention facility accept Yusupov’s doses of escitalopram.
Over the months that followed, Yusupov was subjected to an untold number of interrogations. He has subsequently alleged that his interrogators used a battery of psychological intimidation techniques, including threats to jail and rape his wife and children. The combination of that and the on-and-off access to medication is tantamount to torture, according to rights advocates.
“Yusupov’s case presents a veritable litany of the worst kind of human rights abuses, including months of torture, the denial of access to counsel, and the denial of medicine that doctors said were essential for treating Yusupov’s mental illness,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “On this basis alone, the case against Yusupov should be dismissed.”
In June, deputy General Prosecutor Erkin Yuldashev told reporters that claims that Yusupov was being tortured were groundless.
“We carried out special prosecutorial checks, and according to the results, it was established that there were … no cases of psychological or physical pressure,” he said.
It was not clear from Yuldashev’s remarks what period those checks covered.
As for Sharipov, the lawyer, in echoes of Abdullayev’s account, he does not appear ever to have been present at any of the interrogations. Repeated attempts by Eurasianet to contact Sharipov for his account of events proved unsuccessful.
It was only toward the end of April that Yusupov, who has had no direct communication with his closest relatives even to this day, was able to convey his desire to have Pashkovskiy represent him after all. Interrogations ended shortly after that.
The nature of the charges means that the trial is taking place under a cloak of secrecy. Yusupov’s wife and children cannot attend hearings. Pashkovskiy is not authorized to speak about the proceedings. The list of witnesses consists of around 10 or so names. Only investigators, the lawyers and the officers of the court know what it is precisely that Yusupov is accused of doing.
It is hard to even speculate how Yusupov fell afoul of the treason charges.
He is not known to have held any government position for the past decade. His alleged espionage activities are said by investigators to have begun in 2015. As an Arabist who joined the diplomatic corps in Soviet times, in the 1970s, Yusupov perhaps inevitably drew the attention of the KGB, but he has told his sons in the past that he rebuffed efforts at recruitment.
In the early 1990s, he pursued further studies in Moscow and then went on to assume prestigious postings in Europe, including a stint as deputy ambassador at Uzbekistan’s mission to the United Kingdom.
His public activities since retirement have, according to his family, focused on nongovernmental work geared toward easing and promoting investment in Uzbekistan.
Yusupov’s prior diplomatic career has earned his ordeal some degree of international attention.
Greg Hands, a member of parliament in the United Kingdom, has told The Telegraph newspaper that the “British government [is] continuing to monitor this case closely.” The British Foreign Office said it could not comment on the case, however.
British lawmakers met with Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov in London on July 9. It is not known if the Yusupov case was raised during Kamilov’s talks with British officials, although it is understood that Hands did ask the Foreign Office to raise the matter.
While officials like Kamilov, who is in the UK this week to attend an event called the Global Conference for Media Freedom, are working hard to rouse optimism about Uzbekistan among foreigners, this saga is only likely to generate pessimism back home.
Temur Yusupov said what has happened to his father has shaken his faith in the possibility of justice. He has no hope that his father will be cleared. The very most that can be expected is that the court will allow Yusupov to serve his sentence, which could be as long as 20 years, under conditions of home confinement, Temur said.
“After this whole process, I have literally zero belief in the independence of the Uzbek judicial system,” he said.
Peter Leonard is Eurasianet’s Central Asia editor.