Why did Human Rights Watch need to present a radiologist from Azerbaijan as forensic expert to protect victims of torture in Uzbekistan? Fake sources and lies spread by human rights activists are turning into a systematic problem.
By Galima Bukharbaeva
Steve Swerdlow, representative of Human Rights Watch, a well-known human rights organisation, in Central Asia, has ignored questions sent by Centre-1 by email and doesn’t answer phone calls.
His voice in 2017 upon return to Uzbekistan, all patronising and directive, promised to be “independent”, “sometimes critical”, “sometimes quite unpleasant”, but “voice which will help collect reliable information”, has gone totally silent.
Swerdlow is not able to answer questions why and for what reason his organisation has resorted to falsifying the medical qualifications of its expert when it wrote about entrepreneur Ilhom Ibodov from Bukhara who was tortured to death in 2015.
Apart from Human Rights Watch, this statement was signed by a number of its partner organisations who often present the united front – The Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, Freedom House, International Partnership for Human Rights and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.
Their representatives have also left Centre-1’s questions about the actual qualifications of the expert without answers, as could not explained the motives for falsifying their source.
Killing of Ilhom Ibodov
A joint statement by Human Rights Watch and its partners on 28 November 2016 called on the Uzbek authorities to investigate the death of 44-year-old Bukharan resident Ilhom Ibodov in custody.
Ilhom and his brother Rahim who worked together at the Sitora car market in Bukhara were detained on 16 August 2015 on suspicion of violating trading rules and foreign currency machinations by the National Security Service of Uzbekistan (SNB, now SGB – the State Security Service).
Less than a month later, on 13 September, the Ibodov family received the body of Ilhom with obvious trades of violence. Brother Rahim was later sentenced to eight years in prison.
The Ibodovs had courage to take pictures and film the injuries and scars on the body of slain Ilhom – they sought after help and protection. But few human rights activists and independent journalists paid attention to another death in detention centres run by Uzbekistan’s SNB. There is no need to talk about the inaction of the country’s oversight agencies.
Ilhom Ibodov’s story was finally publicised in 2016 thanks to efforts made by Uzbek human rights activist Mutabar Tajibayeva, who is living in exile in France. Mutabar decided to help the Bukharan family.
Appearance of “forensic expert”
Action by a group of foreign human rights organisations to protect the Ibodovs, even a year after his death, was what Mutabar had tried to do for the victims of torture and his family. Each partner of Human Rights Watch, like the organisation itself, published Ibodov’s story on their websites.
In order to substantiate that the cause of the Bukharan entrepreneur’s death was torture, the foreign human rights organisations turned to a certain “independent forensic expert”. The introduction of her says that she is “from outside of Uzbekistan, earlier worked as chief of medical services for a government ministry as well as a consultant for human rights organizations”.
This “independent forensic expert”, having studies the photos and video of Ibodov’s body, concluded that the man was subject to torture: the body had numerous injuries and haematomas as a result of butting by a blunt item, as well as traces of tugging legs and hands with ropes or cuffs.
The Ibodov family in Bukhara received a copy of “Act on independent expert examination” carried out by the “forensic expert”. It stated that the conclusion on the death of Ilhom Ibodov was drawn by a certain Nigyar Akhmedbekova.
In her “act”, Akhmedbekova presented herself as “doctor-expert” and said of herself that she graduated from the Azerbaijan State Medical University in 1998, had worked as a doctor at Azerbaijan’s Interior Ministry and had captained the medical service and consulted the Baku-based Zerkalo newspaper.
She has acted as a medical expert for the Centre for Supporting Freedom of Expression in Dictatorships Cenlibart in France since 2014.
Nigyar Akhmedbekova, 43, who left Azerbaijan with her family in 2012, is well remembered back at home, especially by her former colleagues at multipurpose clinics No1 and 2 under the Interior Ministry.
Her story has made a lot of noise in the country. It is easy to find articles about Nigyar and her husband Emin in the archives of Azerbaijani media outlets.
The Azerbaijani press wrote that Nigyar, who worked at the clinic under the Azerbaijani Interior Ministry in Baku, had been harassed by the clinic’s chief doctor. Her husband Emin Akhmedbekov, a former police major, came to her defence and picked a fight with the chief doctor, for which he was sacked in 2004.
In 2009 Emin was arrested for allegedly beating up a traffic patrol officer and was sentenced to three years in prison. Nigyar came to his defence. She held news conferences in Baku which she held with her three children and claimed the cause against her husband had been fabricated.
In protest Emin denounced his Azerbaijani citizenship and filed a suite with the European Court for Human Rights against the country’s authorities but he still served his entire prison term and didn’t manage to achieve justice and truth anyway.
After Emin’s release the entire family left Azerbaijan in 2012. Initially they sought asylum in Ukraine but soon realised that they could not ensure their safety there. Through torment and sufferings, as some journalists wrote about the Akhmedbekovs at the time, they finally reached France.
“Forensic expert” follows “forensic pathologist”
The emergence of “forensic expert” Nigyar Akhmedbekova in Ilhom Ibodov’s case, Mutabar Tajibayeva said, gave rise to her questions.
From Azerbaijani colleague the rights activist knew that Nigyar was a medic at home but they had suspicions that she had worked as a forensic expert. A well-known Azerbaijani human rights activist told Mutabar that he knew Akhmedbekova because of her high-profile case, but he had established that she was an ultrasound doctor in Baku. Other sources said she had worked as a psychologist.
This information, as Mutabar said, concerned her because at that time, in 2016, she unsuccessfully tried to draw international human rights organisations’ attention to the “forensic pathologist” used by the president of The association for Human Rights in Central Asia, Nadejda Atayeva, one of Human Rights Watch’s close partners in the region.
Tajibayeva knew that Atayeva presented a teacher from Kokand called Umidjon Abdunazarov as a forensic pathologist who allegedly became a witness to and victim of the Andijan killings of May 13, 2005, in her film in 2010 and report in 2011 on the Andijan events.
Abdunazarov’s story that he was arrested after the Andijan events and later was forced to work at an Andijan morgue where he in six months between September 2005 and February 2006 saw hundreds of victims of “extrajudicial executions” in Uzbekistan, including women and children, turned out to be fiction and slander from the beginning to the end.
In August 2017 Centre-1 published an investigation report on the fake forensic pathologist and on other lies and machinations in Atayeva’s human rights activities.
In her “Act on an independent expert examination” on the death of Ilhom Ibodov by Nigyar Akhmedbekova said that she had received photos and video of the slain Bukhara resident from Nadejda Atayeva.
“Steve, is she a forensic expert?”
In order to dispel her suspicions, Mutabar has asked Steve Swerdlow from Human Rights Watch to confirm the medical qualifications of Nigyar Akhmedbekova.
On 29 November 2016 in correspondence with Tajibayeva on Skype Swerdlow said: “I thought you would want to discuss Nigyar… Yes, she has got sufficient experience from the point of view of our legal department and we’ve got her resume…”
The following day, on 30 November, Swerdlow continued to give evasive answers, refusing to confirm that in his statement he had indeed used the expertise of the forensic expert, but later he said that no-one needed Mutabar’s attempts to find out the truth.
“If the question of the legitimacy of the expertise in my statement arises, you, it turns out, doubt my work and the work of Freedom House and other organisations that signed [it]. But we are your close partners,” Steve said.
“No-one needs this for a hundred years, I think,” he continued.
“There is a bigger picture”
The discussion didn’t stop there. Further during the exchange (back in 2016), the representative of Human Rights Watch confirmed that he knew about Atayeva’s fake forensic pathologist but he tried to separate the two sources, distancing himself from the lies of his partner.
“But I have checked the current expert myself and our legal department is satisfied with her qualifications and they have asked a lot of questions, I mean the Ibodovs and I am not talking about Andijan,” Swerdlow said.
“This is not personal. This is a matter of principles,” replied Mutabar.
“I understand that this is a very important mission but don’t forget that they in their own way are also, maybe, trying to help people. And there is a bigger picture…”
“For example, deceiving everyone by showing a film about the fake forensic pathologist – how could this be called help? This is a naked lie and all of us were deceived and there are many such examples. International Amnesty has published a magazine titled “Stop the lies” – doesn’t this concern everyone?” asked Mutabar.
“This was directed at our main enemy – dictatorship,” answered Swerdlow.
Centre-1 asked Swerdlow questions about this correspondence, requesting to confirm the authenticity of screenshots and explain principles he aired that one can resort to lies in the fight against dictatorship and turn a blind eye to the lies of colleagues while seeing a bigger picture.
Swerdlow hasn’t answered any of these questions. The latest time Centre-1 asked him to contact the editorial office of Centre-1 was last week when he was in Tashkent and took part in a number of events relating to human rights, namely, rights of property owners in Uzbekistan.
Yet again, Hugh Williamson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe & Central Asia division, came to rescue his colleague Steve Swerdlow.
To Centre-1’s question concerning Nigyar Akhmedbekova’s medical qualifications he sent the following answer:
“Human Rights Watch fully stands by the joint press release issued in November 2016 on the tragic death in custody of Ilhom Ibodov, including the medical expert’s assessment of photographs. We welcome the fact that President Mirziyoyev’s government has taken some steps toward accountability in this case. As far as we are aware, the case against those who engaged in torture or ill-treatment is ongoing before Uzbekistan’s supreme court.”
Centre-1 drew Williamson’s attention to the fact that in his answer there was no phrase “independent forensic expert”, as it was mentioned in the press release. And now he calls his source simply as a “medical expert”, which proves the results of Centre-1’s investigation, but he ignored the follow-up question.
Hugh Williamson, formerly a journalist, earlier angrily answered Centre-1’s questions about Nadejda Atayeva’s fake forensic pathologist, saying that Human Rights Watch wasn’t responsible for the work of other human rights activists.
When he was asked to explain what was the basis for Human Rights Watch in its World Report 2014 to draw the conclusion that Uzbekistan’s Tashkent city court’s 2013 ruling to convict Nadejda Atayeva and her relatives for creating an organised criminal group and embezzling millions of dollars at Uzdonmahsulot state joint stock company was based on “trumped-up” charges, Williamson sent the link to the general methodology of collecting information used by his organisation.
He tried to relegate Centre-1’s investigation to an internal conflict between Uzbek activists and with smug and arrogance said that his organisation adhered to “standards of professionalism, accuracy, and courtesy”.
“We note with disappointment your continued attempts to involve Human Rights Watch and others in third party disputes. We are always ready to provide comments and information to journalists who share our commitment to standards of professionalism, accuracy, and courtesy. Our mission as an international human rights organization is to protect universal human rights and address serious violations of those rights. We encourage other activists and independent journalists to do so as well, rather than weaken our mutual cause with internal quarrels.” said Williamson.
Soviet-era departmental clinics
When Human Rights Watch and its partners presented their “forensic expert” as chief doctor of the ministry, they seem to have tried to boost the level of trust in her and authoritativeness of their statements. A ministry doctor, if such thing does exist, perhaps, gets involved in complicated cases when there need for the expertise of specialised doctors with narrow focus and authoritative conclusion. This could have been thinking of those who doesn’t know the Soviet-era medical system.
Azerbaijan, a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry said in an interview with Centre-1, has mostly preserved the Soviet system of public healthcare.
The Azerbaijani Interior Ministry still has its medical department which runs multipurpose clinics No 1 and 2 in Baku. These clinics treat the staff members of the Interior Ministry and members of their families.
Asked whether Nigyar Akhmedbekova could work as a forensic expert at a clinic, the spokesperson said “no”. “Forensic examination in Azerbaijan, like in all other former Soviet countries, is subordinated to the health ministry. The interior ministry doesn’t deal with forensic examination,” the spokesperson said.
If you call clinic No 1 in Baku doctors on duty will willingly tell you that they remember Nigyar Akhmedbekova very well as she worked there as a radiologist.
“I remember her perfectly,” said one doctor of Nigyar. “She worked as a radiologist in our clinic.”
“What exact kind of radiologist?”
“General one,” was the answer.
“Does you clinic employ forensic experts?”
“We haven’t got forensic experts because we don’t have a morgue. We are a general healthcare facility, we treat policemen,” the doctor explained.
Azerbaijani Interior Ministry’s answer
Centre-1 has sent its inquiry to the Azerbaijani Interior Ministry to seek confirmation of the doctor’s statement. The latest inquiry was sent to Interior Minister Ramil Usubov. A month later the answer arrived and it was worth the wait.
The response by the Interior Ministry’s international department says that “Azerbaijani citizen Nigyar Rauf kyzy Akhmedbekova, born in 1975, graduated from the Azerbaijan Medical University in 1998 with specialisation ‘therapy’”.
Between 2001 and 8 December 2010 she had worked as a radiologist at multipurpose clinics of the Interior Ministry’s medical department. Between 5 October 2007 and 5 October 2010 she had been on maternity leave.
On 8 December 2010 Akhmedbekova was sacked by the Interior Ministry in line with Clause 9, Article 135 (for wrongdoing damaging the honour of police workers) of the Statute on serving in police bodies of the Azerbaijani Republic.
Right to be called forensic expert
Human Rights Watch and partners, presenting a radiologist as forensic expert, a number of forensic examiners believe, have mostly likely broken law.
A doctor at the Forensic Medicine Institute in Almaty, Kazakhstan, said that in order to become a forensic expert in Kazakhstan one needed to undergo specialised education and sit a qualification examination and then obtain a licence from the Kazakh Justice Ministry.
“If a doctor works at a facility then the facility obtains a licence, but if it is an independent forensic expert, then they obtain a personal licence,” she explained.
Strict requirements set for this profession are linked to the fact that a forensic expert gets involved in cases when there are traces of criminal violence.
They could get involved in investigation and their conclusions could act as a leading piece of evidence in a court ruling.
The European Commission’s website says that there is a strict system of licensing forensic experts in the EU. In most EU countries they work at government-run forensic examination facilities or run professional practice.
In France all forensic experts work with a licence and their lists are run and published by the country’s Supreme Court.
Hypocrisy. More hypocrisy
The exposing of Human Rights Watch and its partners will hardly prompt them to acknowledge their mistakes.
“Human Rights watch never admits that it was wrong,” a foreign expert who worked in Central Asia said of Centre-1’s investigation.
What’s clear is that the exposing of Nadejda Atayeva’s fake report on the bloodiest tragedy in Uzbekistan’s modern history – the Andijan killings – hasn’t become a revelation for Human Rights Watch and its experts.
Failing to doubt the authenticity of Centre-1’s investigation, Human Rights Watch has continued to make joint statements with Atayeva on high-profile human rights and political cases in Uzbekistan.
Ahead of a meeting between US President Donald Trump and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Washington in May 2018, Human Rights Watch and Atayeva and other partners called on Tashkent to “ensure long-term and structural changes to improve human rights”.
What about radiologist Nigyar Akhmedbekova? She hasn’t answered Centre-1’s questions sent to the address indicated on the letter head of her organisation Cenlibart.
When in December 2016 Mutabar Tajibayeva asked her via Facebook chat whether she was a forensic expert, Nigyar didn’t answer the questions directly but referred her to confirm her qualifications with Steve Swerdlow and other foreign human rights activists.
At the end she ended her conversation saying: “Don’t involve me in your showdown… I’ve got suspicions that you work for intelligence services…”
Galima Bukharbaeva, Editor-in-Chief of Centre-1