Civic freedoms remain highly restricted as Karakalpakstan protests turn violent, bloggers and activists targeted
This update, prepared for the CIVICUS Monitor by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (AHRCA), provides an overview of key developments affecting freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Uzbekistan from 1st November 2021 to 30th September 2022.
On 20th June 2022, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev outlined draft amendments to the Constitution and proposed holding a nation-wide referendum on the amendments. Observers and civil society activists voiced concern that the proposed amendments do not envisage any limitation of the President’s scope of power, and would allow President Mirziyoyev to potentially remain in power for two more seven-year terms – until 2040.
The proposed amendments triggered an outcry in the state of Karakalpakstan in western Uzbekistan since they included amendments removing this region’s autonomous status and its constitutional right to secede from Uzbekistan. When bloggers, journalists and activists in Karakalpakstan started to criticise the proposed amendments, public discontent grew and people gathered for protests in Nukus and other towns of Karakalpakstan. Authorities reportedly dispersed the demonstration using excessive force. Official figures indicate that 21 people died, including 17 citizens and four law enforcement officials. However, media reports stated that by the evening of 2nd July 2022 there were at least 77 bodies at the Republican Scientific Centre for Emergency Medical Care. Nothing is known about the situation in other medical institutions. Witnesses reported at least 20 dead. The authorities have detained journalists, bloggers and activists whom they suspect of playing leading roles in the protests.
The space for the exercise of freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression remains highly restrictive in Uzbekistan: harassment and intimidation of journalists and bloggers continues, as does government pressure on media outlets, including the small number of independent media outlets that are able to operate in the country. Bloggers who criticise the authorities are at particular risk.
Despite some seemingly positive steps by the authorities to promote civil society space, such as the adoption of the “Concept on Development of Civil Society in 2021-2025”, there are concerns about the lack of transparency of such legislative initiatives, and in practice civil society organisations (CSOs) continue to face serious challenges - particularly when it comes to obtaining compulsory state registration. In June 2022, new regulations passed by the Cabinet of Ministers provide for obligatory state oversight of the implementation of projects funded by foreign donors and threaten to further restrict the opportunities for human rights organisations to work in the country.
The implementation of overly broad and vague legislation, which provides for disproportionate punishments for the dissemination of “false information” and the continued use of Criminal Code provisions on defamation lead to restrictions on free speech both on- and offline. Such overly broad and vague legislation allows the authorities to block websites in violation of international standards protecting free speech - a practice that occurs regularly.
In May 2022 the Commission for Constitutional Reform was established and tasked with drafting a Constitutional Law on Amendments to the Constitution of Uzbekistan at a joint session of the Senate and Legislative Chamber of Parliament. Akmal Saidov, first deputy speaker of the lower chamber, was appointed as the head of the Commission. Other members consist of deputies, senators, representatives of all regions of Uzbekistan, lawyers, political scientists and other experts - a total of 46 people.
The following month, the Commission put forward draft legislation proposing over 200 amendments to 64 articles of the Constitution. President Mirziyoyev outlined four main priorities of the proposed amendments, one of which concerns the rights and freedoms of individuals. The President suggested holding a nation-wide referendum on the proposed amendments in the near future. According to the president, over 48,500 proposals for constitutional amendments were submitted online by citizens during a public consultation on the amendments. The bill is now due to be debated by the five registered parties before being submitted to the plenary session of the Legislative Chamber for a first reading.
Observers and civil society activists criticised the draft constitutional amendments for failing to introduce any real democratic change. The President's broad powers remain untouched. In particular, the President remains responsible for appointing all government and security force officials, and the prosecutor's offices and courts are effectively subordinate to the President. The draft amendments also contained controversial provisions that would allow President Mirziyoyev to potentially remain in power until 2040. Thus, the amendments proposed extending the presidential term from five to seven years, while retaining the right of elected presidents to remain in office for two consecutive terms. At the same time, previous terms served would not be counted when the new provisions take effect, as a result of which President Mirziyoyev could potentially be re-elected for two more seven-year terms.
Additionally, the draft amendments proposed to revoke the autonomous status of Karakalpakstan and its constitutional right to secede from Uzbekistan. These proposed amendments sparked widespread protests in the region (see more under Peaceful Assembly). On 2nd July President Mirziyoyev visited the region and promised to withdraw the proposed amendments relating to the autonomy of Karakalpakstan.
Furthermore, activists and human rights defenders expressed disappointment that the proposed amendments do not introduce any concrete mechanisms for ensuring the realisation and enforcement of the rights enshrined in the Constitution. They stressed that real democratic and human rights change would require steps to ensure the rule of law, free and fair elections and the functioning of opposition parties, independent human rights organisations, and a truly free media in practice.
The operating space for civil society remains seriously restricted in Uzbekistan, despite the adoption in March 2021 of the “Concept on Development of Civil Society in 2021-2025” and a road map for its implementation which set out actions to improve the legal framework and provide support for CSOs. These documents were adopted without meaningful input and consultation with civil society and failed to address issues of key importance, including obstacles facing new NGOs trying to register as legal entities, excessively complex reporting requirements, and the need for NGOs to notify and obtain prior state approval before receiving foreign grants or conducting events.
On 13th June 2022, resolution 328 was passed by the Cabinet of Ministers of Uzbekistan, significantly increasing state control over projects run by NGOs which are funded from foreign sources. The resolution constitutes another national legal mechanism that essentially makes already existing practice official and further strengthens state control over human rights activities. As a survey of Uzbek human rights activists and independent journalists shows, over the past five years, all NGOs who apply for foreign funding are obliged to inform the Ministry of Justice and the State Security Services about this.
The new resolution states that NGOs who receive foreign funding must inform the Ministry of Justice, after which an opinion from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs may or may not approve funding and appoint a state agency as national partner. This constitutes direct state interference in NGO activities. The grounds on which it can decide to deny funding are not listed, meaning the Ministry of Justice can make decisions at its own discretion.
Additionally, NGOs are now required to work in partnership with designated state-appointed partners who will oversee the planning and implementation of their projects, make recommendations and devise a planning road map. NGOs will be required to have a memorandum of cooperation with the national partner (designated state representative). The Cabinet of Ministers resolution contradicts Article 4 (“Relations between non-state, non-profit organisations with state bodies”) of the Law “On non-state non-profit organisations”, which clearly states that “the state ensures the observance of the rights and legitimate interests of non-governmental non-profit organisations and creates equal legal opportunities for them to participate in public life. The state may provide support to individual socially useful programmes of non-governmental non-profit organisations. Interventions by state bodies and their officials in the activities of a non-state non-profit organisations is not allowed, just as the interference of a non-state non-profit organisation in the activities of state bodies and their officials is not allowed.” This is another example of government decisions which conflict with previously adopted laws. State interference in the activities of NGOs, especially through national legal mechanisms, leads to excessive state control over NGO projects and activities.
The resolution further states that both the Ministry of Justice and the Cabinet of Ministers must approve the road map of projects amounting to 55,000 USD.
This development has the potential to further undermine the independence of civil society in Uzbekistan and prevent any genuinely independent human rights organisations from carrying out the important functions of monitoring and critical dialogue with the authorities in the country.
Additionally, activists and individuals who openly criticise officials and inform the public about human rights violations are often excluded from programmes of state cooperation. For example, independent activists, such as Tatyana Dovlatova, Klara Sakarova, Aziz Ysupov and Agzam Turgunov who regularly carry out prison visits have not been allowed to participate alongside other members of civil society groups in visits made by the Ombudsperson's office to penitentiary institutions.
Furthermore, the process of registering new NGOs remains fraught with difficulties, in particular for those which focus on human rights. Several independent NGOs have repeatedly been denied registration on grounds that appear to be politically motivated.
For example, human rights defender and former political prisoner Agzam Turgunov has unsuccessfully attempted to register his human rights NGO ‘Human Rights House’. Since 2019 he has received ten rejections for registration by the Ministry of Justice on the grounds of alleged minor technical mistakes in the application. However, Turgunov and his lawyer maintain that they prepared the necessary documents in accordance with the advice provided during meetings with representatives of the Ministry of Justice and in keeping with the written procedural guidelines. The situation has not improved, even after representatives of the European Union expressed serious concern about the obstacles faced by NGOs with respect to obtaining registration during the annual EU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue in June 2021.
Based on a presidential decree,Human Rights House, an information centre, was established under the National Centre for Human Rights (NCHR) in March 2022. Thus, this state-run entity was given the same name as the NGO, which Agzam Turgunov is in the process of trying to register – a development viewed with concern by the human rights community. The state-run Human Rights House was tasked with systematisation of the academic and legal human rights framework and the publication of educational and other information in Uzbek.
Human rights defender Nikolay Kungurov initiated a court complaint against Akmal Saidov, the head of the NCHR, in October 2021 on the grounds of procedural inaction in relation to a decision by a UN human rights body on the failure of the authorities to grant his NGO registration. Kungurov has been trying to register the NGO "Democracy and Law" since June 2003 without success. After national remedies had been exhausted, a complaint was sent to the UN Human Rights Committee in 2006. The Human Rights Committee issued its views in September 2011, concluding that the refusal by the Uzbekistani authorities to register "Democracy and Law" violated Kungurov’s rights to association and freedom of expression. In accordance with Uzbekistani law, the NCHR would have been responsible for submitting the conclusions of the UN human rights body to the Supreme Court for consideration. According to Kungurov, inaction by the NCHR director meant that this was not done. However, in a positive development, in September 2022, Kungurov’s application to register “Democracy and Law” was finally approved.
On 27th September 2022, independent journalist and former political prisoner Aziz Yusupov was arrested in Ferghana, Uzbekistan, shortly before he was due to attend the Human Dimension Conference in Warsaw, which was organised by the Polish OSCE Chairmanship with support from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). His arrest appeared to be aimed at preventing him from attending this major human rights event. Yusupov was detained after being summoned to the police station in Ferghana in eastern Uzbekistan on 25th September 2022 after he applied for a Polish visa in order to travel to the Human Dimension Conference. Yusupov had submitted a visa application at the Polish embassy on 23rd September, using an invitation issued to him by the ODIHR. Two days after his detention, the Ferghana Criminal Court sanctioned his pre-trial detention for three months on charges of possession of drugs, an offence which is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment under Article 276(1) of the Criminal Code. Yusupov denies the charges and many human rights observers believe that these were fabricated in order to penalise him for his human rights activities, especially as the charges are similar to earlier charges initiated against him on politically motivated grounds. In 2016 Yusupov was arrested and unfairly sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for allegedly possessing drugs, in a case believed to have been initiated by the authorities to put pressure on his brother, independent journalist Farrukh Yusupov (Yusufiy), works for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and has repeatedly spoken out against the authorities in Uzbekistan. Yusupov was tortured in detention and the only evidence against him was his written admission of guilt, which he signed under pressure. He was widely recognised as a political prisoner by human rights groups. Following international pressure, he was released from prison on parole early in February 2019 due to poor health. He had to follow several courses of medical treatment after his release. More recently, Yusupov has been involved in monitoring the situation of prisoners in Uzbekistan.
I'm hearing concerning news that HRD & journalist Aziz Yusupov was detained in #Uzbekistan earlier this week on drug-related charges, allegedly to prevent his trip to #HDIM2022. These events are essential for human rights work & preventing HRDs from attending them is unacceptable— Mary Lawlor UN Special Rapporteur HRDs (@MaryLawlorhrds) September 30, 2022
Restrictive environment for protests
Public assemblies in Uzbekistan remain rare as punishments and risks for protesters are high. However, despite the risks of detention and fines facing protesters, occasional protests occur, such as in response to court rulings or other actions by state bodies perceived as being unfair and unjust, or in response to shortages of basic necessities, or state-ordered house demolitions.
These are a few cases involving the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly from the reporting period:
- On 27th December 2021, about 50 farmersin Bo’ka District of Tashkent Region in eastern Uzbekistan peacefully protested against the lack of state financial support. The protest was held without the required pre-approval by authorities since the District Deputy Head of agriculture had denied permission to carry it out. However, the protest took place without interference from the authorities.
- On 1st March 2022, Lenur Isaev planned to hold a picket near the Russian embassy in Tashkent to protest against Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine. He prepared posters with slogans such as “May Allah punish Russia - Stop Russian Aggression” and “Uzbekistan and Crimea are Turkish lands”. He informed the authorities about his plans, but did not eventually go through with the protest.On 2nd March 2022, Isaev was forcibly admitted to Tashkent Regional Psychiatric Hospital for several hours on the orders of the head of the Chirchik police department. These orders were reportedly issued because of his planned protest outside the embassy and the posters he had prepared. Following this, Isaev engaged in a legal struggle to defend his right to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression and to prove that he is mentally sound. However, he was unable to find a defence lawyer to agree to represent him.
- On 9th May 2022, activists Anvar Nazir and Maazam Ibragimova held a Day of Remembrance for child victims of the war in Ukraine in a suburb of Tashkent. They were supported by other activists and Ukrainians living in Uzbekistan. In an act believed to constitute retaliation for the event, on 15th March 2022 officers of the Mirzo-Ulugbeksky District Police Department detained Anvar Nazir and held him for several hours before releasing him. Human rights defenders report that pressure on Nazir continues at the time of the writing but no pressure was reported against Ibragimova following the event.
Mass protests in Karakalpakstan
Mass protests have not taken place for a long time in Uzbekistan, which reflects the restrictive environment for the exercise of the freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression in the country.
However, following the President’s announcement of proposed constitutional amendments which affected the autonomous status of (see above), mass protests broke out in Karakalpakstan on 20th June 2022. Between the 1st and 2nd of July 2022, thousands of people gathered in Nukus and other cities of the western region to peacefully express their discontent with the proposed amendments. In the evening of 1st July 2022, authorities reportedly dispersed protesters using a water cannon, rubber bullets, stun grenades and smoke bombs. There were also unconfirmed reports that some people were killed by law enforcement officers during the dispersal. On 2nd July, authorities again dispersed people who had gathered for protests in Nukus. Videos circulating on social media documenting footage from the protests in Nukus show numerous people lying on the pavement, who appear to be dead or badly injured.
On the same day, the authorities announced that an “attempt to seize power” had taken place in Nukus. President Mirziyoyev, who flew to Nukus and addressed the Regional Parliament, promised to take the views of the local population into consideration and affirmed the right of Karakalpakstan to secede from Uzbekistan. However, the next day he issued a warning that calls for separatism and unrest would not be tolerated and stated that those responsible would be punished. He introduced a state of emergency in Karakalpakstan until 2nd August 2022, which permitted authorities to impose curfews and other restrictions such as restricted entry and exit from Karakalpakstan. On 4th July 2022, during a joint briefing of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the National Guard, which took place at the Agency for Information and Mass Communications, it was announced that 18 people had been killed and 243 injured in connection with the protests, including 38 law enforcement officers.At the time of writing the authorities had not made public the names of those killed. According to non-state sources, among those who were killed during the dispersal of demonstrations on 1st and 2nd July were protesters Sabir Bakirov, Bayram Kalimbetov, Azamat Kurbanov, Muratbek Pirnazarov and Sultan Yesemuratov.
Official figures indicate that as of 4th July 2022, 516 people had been detained in connection with the protests. According to Davron Zhumanazarov, the head of the National Guard Press Service, detainees were “under investigation, with most of them subjected to administrative penalties and they were released from custody.” At the same briefing, he urged residents of Karakalpakstan to respect the state of emergency and not to go out “without reason” nor to believe the information disseminated by various non-governmental sources.
On 31st August 2022, it was reported that 34 protesters remained under house arrest and that 14 detainees face charges under article 159 (“Infringement on constitutional order”), including Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, a well-known lawyer and journalist, and Azamat Turdanov, a well-known athlete and regional vice-president of the Sambo Association of Uzbekistan. Lolagul Kallykhanova, journalist and editor of the popular Karakalpak news site makan.uz (see below), has also been detained as a suspect on charges of infringing on public safety. On 5th August 2022, a list of detainees which appeared on the Internet included the names of 331 people, yet to date there has been no official data on those detained. After repressing the mass protests, authorities allegedly continued to target and detain people whom they suspected of playing leading roles in the protests. Unconfirmed reports indicate that some of those detained have been extrajudicially killed and that officials removed dead bodies from the houses of the people believed to have been killed in order to hide evidence of crimes. On 4th July, there were unconfirmed reports that in the town of Chimbay to the north of Nukus, security forces shot six people. Non-governmental sources from Karakalpakstan reported on 6th July 2022 that at least 64 people remained unaccounted for, with their whereabouts unknown. Most of the individuals in question came from the cities of Nukus, Khodzheyli and Chimbay.
#Yuldashev Kuuanyshbek Bazarbaevich.He was born on February 25, 1999.He went out with a friend to a peaceful rally in the town of #Nukus and did not return.He is listed as missing.There are many people who disappeared and were not found. #Karakalpakstan #Uzbekistan @hrw @amnesty pic.twitter.com/yl8gQyTIv3— Karlibay BEKMURATOV (@KarlibayBEKMUR2) July 5, 2022
Other reports stated that on 2nd July 2022, authorities detained dozens of people as they were travelling to Nukus from different towns to prevent them from joining the demonstrations.
On 8th July 2022, the Prosecutor General’s Office issued a public statement saying that an investigation had been opened into mass disturbances in Karakalpakstan under Article 159, part 4 (“infringing on the constitutional order”), and that 14 people had been placed in pre-trial detention.
Law on Public Assemblies
At the time of writing there is no information about the adoption of the Draft Law on Public Assemblies. The draft legislation, which was authored by the Interior Ministry, was published on a government portal on 18th August 2020 for a public consultation period expiring on 2nd September 2020. According to the official government portal, 191 proposals were received. The most recent draft made publicly available states that the law is “based on the principles of priority of the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of citizens” and that “if an international treaty establishes other rules than those provided for by the legislation of the Republic of Uzbekistan, then the rules of the international treaty shall apply”. However, human rights defenders are concerned that the draft law falls short of international standards on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. They consider certain provisions particularly problematic, such as the requirement to apply for permission to hold a rally, meeting or demonstration at least 30 working days before the intended event. (Article 8, para 2). Moreover, assemblies can be held only in places designated by the authorities (article 10) and only on weekdays between 10.00 and 17.00 (Article 11). The draft was last considered on 2nd September 2020. Since then there has been no further information on its adoption.
Тhe climate for free speech remains repressive in Uzbekistan as the authorities implement restrictive legislation, maintain tight control of media outlets, harass outspoken journalists and bloggers, and limit internet access. In the past two years, AHRCA has documented more than 200 cases of violations on freedom of expression in its monitoring of the situation in the country. In the World Press Freedom Index 2022, published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Uzbekistan was ranked 133 out of 180. In last year’s ranking the country was placed 157 out of 180.
Vaguely worded legislation threatens free speech
As reported previously on the CIVCUS Monitor, in accordance with amendments to the Law on Informatisation adopted in March 2021, the owners of online resources are required to ensure that these resources are not used for the dissemination of ‘’knowingly false’’ information, ‘’defamatory’’ information, or other information defined as impermissible through vaguely worded language. Failure to promptly remove such information could result in restrictions to accessing the online resources in question. The dissemination of “false” information, and defamation and insult, including online, are also criminal offences. While slander and insult are no longer punishable by imprisonment, the crime of insulting the President is punishable by up to five years in prison, and the dissemination of ‘’false’’ information about COVID-19 and other infectious diseases carries a penalty of up to three years behind bars.
Restrictions on access to internet resources
The practice of blocking websites continues. An international election observation mission, which monitored the Presidential elections held in October 2021 under the leadership of the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), identified over 60 websites of local and international media outlets, services and human rights organisations that were inaccessible during the presidential election campaign.
In early November 2021, the state agency in charge of oversight of telecommunications restricted access to Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Telegram and other social media and messenger platforms, accusing them of failing to store user data on servers located in Uzbekistan, a requirement introduced under a law adopted in January 2021. This sparked an outcry, resulting in the head of the agency being dismissed and access to the platforms being restored. However, Twitter, TikTok and some other platforms, to which access had previously been restricted on the same grounds, reportedly remained unavailable.
From 27th June 2022, internet services were disrupted and only worked intermittently in Karakalpakstan after bloggers, journalists and activists expressed their discontent with the proposed constitutional amendments. This made it difficult to obtain and verify any information in relation to the events.
Independent online media outlet Gazeta.uz was reportedly subjected to a “troll attack” after criticising the proposed extension of presidential terms, included among the proposed constitutional amendments on 25th June 2022. As a result, it was forced to remove two articles from its website. On 5th July 2022, several important articles concerning the events in Karakalpakstan were taken down for some time from the outlet’s site. At the time of writing access to these articles had been restored.
An op-ed about the recent tragic events in #Karakalpakstan and problems of communication with the society written by international relations expert Yuri Sarukhanyan has been deleted @gazeta_uz. Do you still think that Uzbek media can freely report about #Karakalpakstan @Bbobur? pic.twitter.com/RB1KEA4a68— Dilmurad Yusupov 🇺🇦 (@d_yusupov) July 5, 2022
According to human rights defenders, since 16th June 2022, targeted cyber-attacks were carried out against Asiaterra, one of the few independent Uzbekistani online media outlets. This resulted in the site being unavailable for users inside the country and forced its owner Alexei Volosevich to shut down the site temporarily. The cyber-attacks began shortly after the outlet published a story about corruption allegations involving former presidential press secretary Komil Allamzhonov. The story reported on an article published by Sergei Yezhkov, founder and journalist of the Uzmetronom website, in which he alleged that Allamzhonov was involved in a million-dollar jewellery smuggling operation, the beneficiary of which was the president's daughter. Because of this article, Allamzhonov filed a defamation lawsuit against Yezhkov. Many civil society activists believe there is a connection between the spate of cyberattacks and the publication of the article. The Asiaterra website’s mobile app has still not been restored, creating difficulties with access for the publication's readers who often use their mobile phones to access the internet.
In a related development, over 200 posts were removed from Asiaterra’s Facebook page following complaints it received about alleged abusive content on the site (a pattern that has been observed in other countries where trolls abuse Facebook’s complaint reporting mechanisms to ensure the takedown of information that is inconvenient to the authorities). Volosevich filed a complaint with Facebook and the publications were subsequently restored. Shortly afterwards, 54 posts were deleted from his personal Facebook account, containing hundreds of critical comments from Asiaterra's readers. A few days later Facebook deleted hundreds of posts from the site again, which were restored after another appeal was made.
Bloggers under pressure
Blogging on corruption and other issues considered as sensitive by the authorities is dangerous in Uzbekistan. Our monitoring indicates that over the past two years more than 20 leading bloggers have come under pressure from the authorities because of their criticism of state bodies and officials.
Outspoken bloggers have been targeted for prosecution in several recent cases.
On 21st January 2022 the Mirabad Criminal Court found Miraziz Bazarov guilty of slander (under Article 139 of the Criminal Code) and sentenced him to three years’ restriction of liberty. During the trial, which took place on 20th January 2022, journalists were not allowed to enter the courtroom after an additional, unannounced requirement of the Court for a negative COVID-19 PCR test. In addition, according to the blogger’s lawyer, video and audio recordings were not allowed. As an active and well-known blogger, Bazarov has repeatedly criticised the authorities, including for the lack of transparency and public control over the government’s use of COVID-19 related loans, and double standards amongst officials in relation to LGBTQI+ people. As reported in previous updates, prior to facing investigation for slander, on 28th March 2021, Bazarov was physically attacked by masked men as he was walking in Tashkent, sustaining injuries for which he required hospital treatment. The police opened an investigation into the attack, but there are concerns about its impartiality and effectiveness. Bazarov had previously received violent online threats, for which no one has been held to account.
Blogger Miraziz Bazarov spoke out about human rights and #FreeUzbekLGBTQ in #Uzbekistan, and was beaten and put under house arrest. #Uzbekistan should quash Bazarov's sentence and #Repeal120. #PrideMonth2022 https://t.co/DT8gyFPnVc— Decrim LGBTQ (@DecrimLGBTQ) June 2, 2022
Another worrying case is that of religious blogger Fazilhoja Arifhojaev. In January 2022, theAlmazar District Court of Tashkent found the blogger guilty of “preparation, storage, distribution or display of materials that threaten public security and public order” (under Article 244-1 of the Criminal Code) and sentenced him to seven years and six months in prison for a Facebook post related to whether it was appropriate for a Muslim to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious holidays. Arifhojaev was initially detained in June 2021 on charges of petty hooliganism (under Article 183 of the Code of Administrative Offences) after an altercation with a pro-government blogger. However, he was not released after serving his 15-day detention term but instead a criminal case was initiated against him. The police allege that they found “phone material of dubious religious nature” intended for distribution. Human Rights Watch reported that Arifhojaev has suffered ill-treatment and lack of medical treatment in detention. The organisation stated that the criminal case against Arifhojaev appears unfounded and demanded his release.
Criticism or perceived criticism of the authorities, especially of the president, on social media remain dangerous activities for bloggers. On 3rd February 2022, blogger Sobirjon Babaniyazov was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for allegedly insulting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on social media. Similarly, blogger Valijon Kalonov was imprisoned after allegedly insulting the president in the press, and on 23rd December 2021, the Jizzakh Criminal Court ruled to detain him in a psychiatric hospitalfor compulsory psychiatric treatment. People who know Kalonov claim to be unaware of him having any mental health illness and that there is no credible evidence to suggest this, which indicates that Kalonov has been placed in the psychiatric hospital in retaliation for his exercising his right to freedom of expression.
A further case illustrating the pattern of harassment of bloggers in Uzbekistan is that of human rights defender and blogger Nargiza Abdiyeva. Abdiyeva, from the Surxondaryo Region, told Radio Ozodlik in December 2021 that she has been repeatedly harassed and that security forces are putting pressure on her and people around her. The blogger posts videos on YouTube in which she discusses social issues and problems facing local residents - for example, about problems linked with supplies of drinking water, electricity and gas, among others. This comes after Abdiyeva filed a complaint against her superior for harassment and a criminal case was initiated against her, with no action taken against her supervisor. Since then she has been subjected to harassment several times by law enforcement and security forces, who have searched her house and threatened her. Abdiyeva’s appeals to the prosecutor’s office and the presidential office have received no response and the blogger is under serious pressure for her outspoken criticism of the local authorities.
On 2nd March 2022, civil society activists together with the well-known economist and blogger Yuliy Yusupov and political scientist Anvar Nazir, as well as some members of the Uzbek parliament, visited the Ukrainian embassy in Tashkent. On 15th March 2022 Anvar Nazir was summoned to the police station for questioning; subsequently his house was searched and his laptop and mobile phone confiscated which, as of the end of September 2022, had still not been returned. Some officers allegedly threatened to kill him. After Nazir appealed to the EU delegation and the US Embassy in Tashkent for support, pressure against him decreased, but the seized property has still not been returned to him.
On 30th March 2022 the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan upheld last year’s court verdict sentencing blogger Otabek Sattoriy to 6,5 years’ imprisonment on charges of “slander” and “extortion” (Articles 139 and 165 of the Criminal Code). There are credible allegations that the charges against Sattoriy were fabricated to punish him for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression after the blogger repeatedly accused representatives of local authorities of corruption on his Telegram and YouTube channels. The initial charges against Sattoriy relate to a reported act of provocation in December 2020 which resulted in his detention on accusations of extortion. Subsequently, additional charges were brought against him on the basis of complaints from individuals whom he had previously accused of corruption. Sattoriy was convicted following an unfair trial during which no evidence of his guilt was presented and the court failed to take into account statements made by the defence, including Sattoriy’s claims that he had been tortured and ill-treated in pre-trial detention, that the conditions of his detention had a detrimental affect on his health and that his family were not allowed to hand him the medicines necessary to treat his bladder and kidney infections. His family has reportedly been kept under police surveillance since his arrest.
Since 28th July 2021, Sattoriy has been serving his sentence in a penal colony. He is in poor health. IPHR, AHRCA and partners have called on the Uzbekistani authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Sattoriy and swiftly provide him with appropriate medical treatment.
On 2nd May 2022, Freedom Now filed a petition with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on Sattoriy’s behalf, arguing that his detention is related to the legitimate exercise of his right to freedom of expression and is in direct violation of his rights under national and international law.
Bloggers and activists targeted in Karakalpakstan
A number of bloggers and activists, who criticised the proposed constitutional amendments announced in June 2022 and participated in the protests in Karakalpakstan, have reportedly been targeted and detained.
Оn 26th June 2022, the Karakalpakstani blogger Kural Rametov posted critical comments on social media. Shortly afterwards, law enforcement officers detained him at his workplace. According to non-governmental sources, police officials tortured him, including with electric shocks, and later left him somewhere in Nukus, completely naked. He was able to get home but was reportedly rearrested later that day and transferred to the neighbouring Khorezm region. His wife and other relatives have reportedly also been detained.
Journalist and activist Lalagul Kallykhanova, editor of the popular Karakalpak news site makan.uz, was reportedly detained in late June or early July 2022 after publicly criticising the proposed constitutional amendments. On 8th July 2022, the Prosecutor General’s Office made a public statement saying that Lalagul Kallykhanova had been arrested on suspicion of having encroached on public safety. Lolagul Kallykhanova is reportedly facing charges of infringing on public safety.
Lola #Kalykhanova, a journalist, managed to record a video before she was kidnapped. According to unofficial data, Kalykhanova was killed as a result of torture. We call on @OSCE, @Europarl_EN, @UN @rozathun to help find out the fate of Lola. #Uzbekistan #Karakalpakstan pic.twitter.com/SZ1VnDt5JO— Ulbolsyn Turdiyeva🇰🇿🇺🇦 (@TurdiyevaU) July 7, 2022
Restricting media freedom: journalists under attack
Harassment of journalists remains a serious problem in Uzbekistan. Since the beginning of 2022, at least 20 attacks on journalists have been recorded. The cases described below illustrate this problematic pattern.
On 3rd November 2021, the press service of the Supreme Court reported on Telegram that three Effect.uz journalists - Elyorbek Tadzhibaev, Akbar Nurimbetov and Khamidjon Akhmedov – had been found guilty by the Kashkadarya Regional Court of interfering in an investigation. The journalists were prosecuted after a video of the trial of business person Ikrom Khudoyarov, who was facing fraud charges, was published on the outlet’s YouTube channel in January 2021. The video showed a conflict between the judge, defendants and journalists, which resulted in the judge ruling to remove journalists from the courtroom. The three journalists were accused of “insulting the judge and bailiffs, disobeying an official order to leave the courtroom, and spreading untruthful information about the authorities” through the publication of the video. Elyorbek Tadzgivaev was reportedly sentenced to three years in a prison colony, while Akbar Nurimbetov and Khamidjon Akhmedov were sentenced to parole-like sentences of three years, and two years and six months, respectively.
In January 2022, Anastasia Pavlenko, the deputy editor-in-chief of the Samarkand newspaper “Vestnik” [“Herald”] and administrator of the initiative group on the social network “Save Samarkand”, was prosecuted for publishing an article about the demolition of the house of Pavel Benkov, the founder of easel painting in Uzbekistan, which is listed as cultural heritage. Charges were brought against Pavlenko under four articles of the Administrative Code (Article 41 (“Insult”), 45 (“Violation of the inviolability of citizens’ homes”), 46 (“Disclosure of information that could cause moral or material damage to a citizen”) and 202-2 (“Dissemination of false information”).
On 18th January 2022, City Criminal Court of Samarkand convicted Pavlenko of slander and imposed a fine of 530 USD. According to Pavlenko, the judicial process was marred by due process violations, which included denial of the right to mount an effective defence as the Court rejected all her motions. Furthermore, the trial was held in Uzbek which Pavlenko does not understand and the Court did not provide interpretation for her. In February 2022, in the appellate instance the decision was upheld after which Pavlenko filed a cassation appeal. In a welcome development, in April 2022, the Supreme Court cancelled all previous decisions, pointing out the lack of proper judicial investigation on the alleged offences and sent the case for further investigation.
The editor-in-chief of the news outlet Rost24, Anora Sadikova, claimed that she was forced to remove an article about business person Jakhongir Usmanov due to threats and pressure. The article alleged that several of Usmanov’s companies were guilty of financial crimes. The name of Jakhongir Usmanov (son of the former Deputy Prime Minister) also appears in the so-called Pandora Papers, which has been called one of the largest leaks of financial documents.
Expatriate journalist and founder of Uzmetronom, Sergei Yezhkov, faces a heavy fine, compulsory public works or restriction of freedom for three years after publishing an article about the illegal import of jewellery allegedly facilitated by Komil Allamjonov - the head of the Board of Trustees of the Public Fund for the Support and Development of National Mass Media. After a complaint was lodged by Allamjonov, a case was opened against Yezhkov for libel (Article 139 of the Criminal Code). The 68-year-old journalist, who is in poor health, is currently under house arrest.
#Uzbekistan: RSF calls for an end to the abusive pursuit of @uzmetronom chief editor Sergey Yezhkov, who is being pressed by the police at the request of @k_allamjonov, former Press secretary of the President and current chairman of the public foundation @massmediauz. 1/2 pic.twitter.com/pRfwfcKSlr— RSF (@RSF_inter) April 21, 2022
On 1st July 2022, Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, a well-known Karakalpakstani lawyer, journalist and former editor of the “El hyzmetinde” (“In the service of the people”) newspaper, spoke to supporters after attending prayers at a Nukus Mosque. He announced that he had gone to the Parliament of Karakalpakstan and requested permission to hold a rally in front of Parliament on 5th July 2022 to draw attention to the constitutional rights of Karakalpakstanis. According to civil society activists, the authorities of Karakalpakstan granted him permission, but later that day Tazhimuratov was arrested. The news of Tazhimuratov’s arrest brought more people out onto the streets.
Tazhimuratov was released from detention a few hours later and, according to media sources, reappeared on the evening of 1st July 2022 at the protest in Nukus where he and Murat Kamalov, Chairman of the Parliament of Karakalpakstan, addressed demonstrators. Local eyewitnesses stated that the demonstration was peaceful and special forces troops were present but did not intervene. Tazhimuratov and Kamalov then entered the Jokargy Kenes, Karakalpakstan’s supreme representative and legislative body, while the protestors waited outside.
That evening, when Tazhimuratov returned to his home dozens of supporters were gathering near his house. Early the next day, around 3 a.m, security forces reportedly stormed his house and rearrested Tazhimuratov. The whereabouts of Tazhimuratov’s wife and children are currently unknown. According to non-governmental sources, about 35 Nukus residents who stood near Tazhimuratov’s house were killed during the operation. No further details are known about the circumstances of their deaths. One of the people who died has been named as Dauletmurat Zhiemuratov, while the names of the others are currently unknown.
According to non-governmental sources, Tazhimuratov was subsequently charged with “infringing on the constitutional order” (Article 159 part 4 of the Criminal Code of Uzbekistan). There are allegations that he has been subjected to physical abuse in custody. According to unconfirmed reports, he has been transferred to a medical facility in the neighbouring Khorezm region for treatment for his injuries and is in intensive care in a critical condition. On 8th July, the Prosecutor General’s Office confirmed that a criminal investigation had been opened against Tazhimuratov.