UZBEKISTAN’S “YOUTH” camp, Jaslyk in the vernacular, sounds like a children’s holiday camp, but it is a prison where enemies of what was until recently one of the world’s most repressive regimes were isolated and tortured. Now Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan’s reforming president, is shutting it down.
Jaslyk became synonymous with medieval-style barbarism when two inmates died after immersion in boiling water in 2002—in effect boiled alive. Other political and religious dissidents held there were beaten with iron rods, had their fingernails pulled out and were given electric shocks. Situated in a desert in the Karakalpakstan region, where the temperature ranges from 45°C to -35°C, some 1,400km from the capital, Tashkent, and 180km from the nearest town, Jaslyk—like the Soviet Siberian prison camps on which it was modelled—was impossible to escape from. The local railway station is Barsa Kelmes, which loosely translates as “place of no return”.
Jaslyk was opened in 1999 by the tyrannical Islam Karimov, who ruled the post-Soviet Central Asian country for a quarter of a century until his death in 2016, after bombings in Tashkent sparked a hunt for dissidents. His successor, Mr Mirziyoyev, has surprised the world by liberalising politically as well as economically: he has freed 50 political prisoners and removed 20,000 citizens from blacklists of people suspected of extremist tendencies, often simply because they were Muslims.
Mr Mirziyoyev has prohibited the use in court of evidence obtained through torture, in tacit acknowledgment that abuse is rife throughout the penitentiary system, not just at Jaslyk. But the government is shy about facing up to its history: even as it advertises the camp’s closure as a step towards improving the country’s human-rights record, it denies that people were tortured there.
There is some way to go before the country’s criminal-justice system becomes a beacon for the region. Shadowy espionage cases are still being pursued behind a veil of secrecy in closed courts. Andrey Kubatin, an academic, is serving a prison sentence for passing secrets he insists were in the public domain. Kadyr Yusupov, a former diplomat, is on trial for spying for a foreign power, although he left the foreign service years before the alleged espionage began. Mr Yusupov, who has schizophrenia, was arrested following a failed suicide attempt in the Tashkent metro, raising questions about whether he is psychologically fit to go on trial.
And then there is Gulnara Karimova, the late president’s daughter, serving a jail sentence on corruption charges as the government seeks to recover her assets from abroad. She has been confined since 2014, before her father died, but has never faced open judicial proceedings. One trial reportedly took place in the kitchen of a house in which she was being held. If Uzbekistan wants to show that it believes in the rule of law, which is so important to investors, it will need to show that even a “robber baron”—as a WikiLeaks cable once dubbed Ms Karimova—gets a fair trial. ■