At least 39 people have died of torture in prisons of authoritarian Uzbekistan this year amid a spiraling crackdown on religious groups and government critics, a respected rights group said Thursday.
The Independent Human Rights Defenders Group said the figure was based on information from the victims' families and former inmates. It added that the actual number of such deaths could be higher, but many are not reported because the families fear official reprisals for contacting rights activists or reporters.
In 2009, the group registered 20 prison deaths by torture.
Prison authorities often return bodies to relatives in sealed coffins to conceal torture, the report said. Police officers force the families to ignore Muslim burial rites and bury the unopened coffins, it said.
"They bring the bodies late at night, tell the relatives to bury them at dawn and then patrol their houses for several days after the funeral," the group's chairman, Surat Ikramov, told The Associated Press.
Muslim law prescribes the washing of bodies and burials in a shroud.
Uzbek officials were not available for comment.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said in 2007 that Uzbek authorities routinely beat prisoners and used electric shocks, asphyxiation and sexual humiliation to extract information and confessions. A forensic report commissioned by the British Embassy concluded that in 2002 two jailed rights activists were boiled to death.
Dozens of rights and opposition activists have been jailed in Uzbekistan in recent years.
Worried by the revival of Muslim traditions and the threat of radical Islamism from neighboring Afghanistan, the government of former Communist boss Islam Karimov has for years suppressed peaceful Muslims who practice their faith outside government-approved mosques.
Ikramov said the number of peaceful Muslims that serve time in Uzbek jails approaches 10,000. "The number is always rising," he said.
His group said this year alone 370 Uzbeks, including dozens of women, have been convicted and jailed on trumped-up charges of membership in radical Islamic groups. It said the defendants are routinely tortured before they face closed trials. Once in jail, they face beatings and abuse from other inmates encouraged by prison authorities, the group said.
Other religious groups such as Protestants also face constant pressure in Uzbekistan, and several pastors have been convicted and jailed in recent years for allegedly preaching hatred against Muslims.
Karimov has ruled the predominantly Muslim nation of 28 million since before the 1991 Soviet collapse. His government had a falling out with the U.S. and other Western countries after a brutal suppression of an uprising in the eastern town of Andijan in May 2005.
Witnesses and rights groups said government troops killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in Andijan. The government said 187 died and blamed Islamists for stoking the violence.