Some public criticism of security services surfaces but open public debate remains far-off
International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (AHRCA) prepared this update for the CIVICUS monitor covering the period from late December 2017 to end of February 2018.
Public criticism of the national security services
Over the reporting period reshuffling in the State Security Service (SNB) of Uzbekistan and reports of the continuing practice of torture in the state agency hit the headlines in Uzbekistan.
In the past, open discussion of the SNB's activities and its notorious head Rustam Inoyatov was taboo. However, on 22nd December 2017 President Mirziyoyev addressed the parliament on the role of the SNB, saying that the agency had frequently obstructed the functioning of the justice system and he further decried the “groundless expansion of the agency’s powers”. On 31st January 2018, the government announced the resignation and replacement of the head of the SNB, Rustam Inoyatov, whose 22-year leadership was notable for reports of pervasive torture and ill-treatment by the security services. Inoyatov was replaced by former Prosecutor General Ikhtiyor Abdullayev. However, neither the President nor Inoyatov commented publicly on the reasons for his resignation and the SNB remains shrouded in secrecy. Nevertheless, through coverage of President Mirziyoyev’s public critcicism of the SNB at government meetings, the public obtained insight into the intrigue surrounding one of the most powerful state departments. Reporting of the arrest of former Prosecutor General Rashid Kadyrov on 22nd February 2018 in connection with charges of extortion, bribery and abuse of office was a further step in the direction of increased access to information in Uzbekistan.
Despite a cautious welcome for such public discussions of previously taboo issues, observers have pointed to a risk that what is now being allowed is reporting centred solely on the president’s opinion, and that dissenting and alternative voices are still filtered out. A political campaign to strengthen Miziyoyev’s grip on power can be observed, and criticism in the press only appears with reference to his comments or speeches. Those who are subject to prosecution or criticism by him are prevented from speaking out. Despite these improvements therefore, a society characterised by open and balanced public debate remains far off.
Improving state dialogue with the press
The Decree of the Cabinet of Ministers "On Measures for Further Improvement of the Activity of Information Services of the State and Economic Management of the Republic of Uzbekistan" dated 17th February 2018 instructs ministries and government departments to organise regular monthly press conferences and briefings. The text states that ensuring accountability to the public is important to ensure respect in practice of the constitutional principle that "the people are the only source of state power". For example, on 12th January 2018, a press conference was held during which Deputy Prime Minister Sukhrob Holmuradov spoke about the investment climate in Uzbekistan The event was broadcast live on the Facebook page "Shavkat Mirziyoyev". Presidential Press Secretary Komil Allamjonov also promised that the heads of ministries and departments would meet with the media to clarify new provisions in recently-passed decrees.
Dilmurod Saidov becomes at least the 18th political prisoner, and the 8th journalist, to be released from custody in #Uzbekistan since Shavkat Mirziyoyev assumed the presidency in September 2016. https://t.co/pk69wk4DJv— Steve Swerdlow (@steveswerdlow) February 3, 2018
The situation of people imprisoned on politically-motivated grounds
Two people imprisoned on politically-motivated grounds were released from detention during the period under review. On 3rd February 2018, journalist and human rights activist Dilmurod Saidov was released early on parole after spending nine years in prison for being found guilty of embezzlement in an unfair trial in 2009. Since his release, he has met openly with journalists and told them that he has not heard of any bans on him continuing his human rights or journalistic activities.
On 21st February 2018, Isroil Kholdarov, chairman of the Andizhan branch of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan Ezgulik, was also released. In 2006, he was abducted in the city of Osh (Kyrgyzstan) and subsequently sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment on trumped up charges of anti-state activity brought in retaliation for his human rights work at the time of the Andijan tragedy in 2005. His prison term was arbitrarily extended twice for alleged violations of prison rules under Article 221 of the Criminal Code of Uzbekistan.
Human rights activist Agzam Turgunov, who was released on 3rd October 2017, told Fergana News Agency how the criminal charges against him had been fabricated and details about his years spent in prison. Turgunov has recently appealed to the Ministry of Justice of Uzbekistan with a request to register the human rights center Mazlum, established in 2002. Human rights defender and independent journalist Solijon Abdurakhmanov who was also released in October 2017 gave an interview, during which he spoke about the systematic persecution of individuals who exercised their right to freedom of expression.
On 22nd February 2018, journalist and former prisoner Muhammad Bekzhanov on wrote on Facebook that he is no longer under police supervision. He was released from prison in February 2017 after 18 years behind bars.
Among those still behind bars on politically-motivated charges include:
- Human rights defenders: Mekriniso Khamadova, Zulkumor Khamadova, Gaybullo Dhalilov, Chuan Matmakulov, Zafarjon Rakhimov, Yuldash Rasulov, and Fakhriddin Tillaev.
- Independent journalists: Aziz Yusupov, Gairat Mikliboev, Yusuf Ruzimuradov, Bobomurad Abdullayev, and Hayot Nasreddinov and also Dilorom Abdukodirova – witness to the Andijan tragedy in 2005
Fergana News Agency, the media outlet covering Central Asia, will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2018. Forty well-known human rights organisations congratulated the work of the editor and staff, given the risks they have faced. Currently, three Fergana News Agency correspondents are in custody and another fifteen face persecution for their professional activities. On 31st January 2018, two journalists from Fergana News Agency were awarded the Andrey Sakharov prize "For Courage", in the category of “Acts of Journalism”. These are the late Alisher Saipov, a journalist who was shot dead in October 2007 in Osh; and Hayot Nasreddinov, who since October 2017 has been in detention under the SNB, and whose fate remains unknown as lawyers and relatives have not been allowed to visit him.
#Uzbekistan: blogger Haethan Nasreddinov held for over three months in detention. @ahrca and IPHR believe he was targeted because of his writings and blog posts @OHCHR_Europe: https://t.co/ZAjJ9QtgWm pic.twitter.com/bEfwelPzoM— IPHR (@IPHR) January 30, 2018
Update on the case of arrested independent journalists
In the case of imprisoned freelance journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev, held since October 2017 in SNB detention on anti-constitutional charges, Gavharzhon Madaminova, Abdullayev’s mother, wrote to President Mirziyoyev in February 2018, explaining that after she was allowed to visit her son on 10th January 2018, she learned that he had been tortured. Bobomurod also appeared emaciated and in ill-health. On 8th February, Surat Ikramov, a human rights activist from Tashkent, reported that following media reports of torture of Abdullayev, two SNB officers suspected of torturing Abdullayev were discharged from the case and told not to leave the city pending an upcoming investigation into them “exceeding official duties”. On 13 February 2018, 12 human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, AHRCA, Civil Rights Defenders, Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, IPHR and others, called for a thorough, objective and independent investigation into allegations of torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of Bobomurod Abdullayev, blogger and researcher, Hayot Nasreddinov and academic Akrom Malikov.
On 26th February 2018, the Initiative Group of Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan reported that the prosecutor's office had transferred the case to Tashkent City Criminal Court for review. The trial has been set for 5th March 2018 and charges will be heard against Bobomurod Abdullayev; independent blogger and journalist, Hayot Nasreddinov; and businessmen Ravshan Salayev and Shavkat Olloerov, all accused of anti-constitutional crimes under Article 159 of the Criminal Code.
Continued persecution of journalists, bloggers and academics
The authorities in Uzbekistan continue to use other methods of persecution against human rights activists, independent journalists and other individuals who speak out and voice their opinions or opposition to government policy.
For example, at 11pm on 7th January 2018 unknown people knocked at the door of independent journalist Sid Yanyshev’s flat in Tashkent. The journalist described what happened as follows: "I went to the door and [through the peephole] saw figures of a man and a woman. I asked 'Who’s there?' and the woman said 'Open the door please'. I asked again who they were and she told me, 'We need your help, you're a journalist, I'm a journalist too'. I replied, 'Actually, I'm not dressed and already asleep, come back tomorrow'".
The next day Yanishev found out that a local police officer had paid him a night visit. He took advantage of the trusting nature of Yanishev’s elderly mother to find out the journalist's telephone number and address. The police officer rang Yanishev constantly throughout the day and knocked on the door in the evening again.
On 14th February 2018, the wife of Uzbekistani academic Andrei Kubatin published an appeal to the Ombudsman for Human Rights on her Facebook page in which she said that her husband had been convicted of treason by a military court on 1st December 2017 and sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment.The prosecution claimed that Kubatin had sold electronic books, allegedly from the Central State Archive of Uzbekistan and the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences, to a foreign citizen (the then head of TIKA - Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency under the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan and Turkey - Suleiman Kiziltoprak) for 1,000 USD. The prosecution claimed that these books could be used for pan-Turkism propaganda, inciting inter-ethnic and inter-religious hostility, as well as for obtaining information about the geological wealth of Uzbekistan. TIKA employee Muzaffar Zhoniyev, who was present at discussions between the academic and Kiziltoprak, wrote to the SNB. Kubatin alleges that a number of procedural violations were committed during the trial. For example, the academic believes that the assessment of the value of the materials transferred was not objective. On 21st February 2018, Radio Ozodlik reported that well known academics appealed to President Mirziyoyev to review the case personally.
Individuals who criticise or who are perceived to criticise high-ranking officials or who express their opinions about government policies on social networks continue to be at risk of prosecution for libel.
For example, on 21st February 2018 it was reported that 59 year-old Abbas Nasretdinov was charged with “libel” and “insult” under Articles 40 and 41 of the Administrative Code in relation to comments he made about the administration in Uzbekistan including about former President Karimov on Facebook. If found guilty, he could face a fine of between 420 and 840 USD. On 23rd February, Namangan City Court returned the case for further investigation of the sources quoted by Nasretdinov in his posts. This ruling is significant because the judge stated that the defendant had the constitutional right to express his opinion on the activities of the authorities and demand the resignation of the prime minister.
On 22nd January 2018, KUN.UZ / NEWS reported that journalist Khairulla Khamidov was appointed editor-in-chief of the TV channel "Madaniyat and Marifat" ("Culture and Enlightenment") of the National Television and Radio Company of Uzbekistan. In January 2010, Hamidov was arrested, and in May, sentenced to six years in prison on charges of illegally organising public associations or religious organisations (Article 216 of the Criminal Code of Uzbekistan). He spent five years in prison and was released early on 11th February 2015.
Ongoing state surveillance of civil society activists
On 22nd February 2018, representatives of the delegation of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) met with representatives of civil society in Uzbekistan. The human rights situation inside the country was discussed during these meetings. AHRCA learned that, on the day of the EBRD meeting, three participants noticed they were being followed.
Some signs of wider Internet access
On 9th January 2018, President Mirziyoyev presided over a meeting to consider the effectiveness of measures taken to develop information and communication technologies in Uzbekistan and ensure information security. "I was informed that 20 million people use the Internet in our country. However, due to the limited range of services provided through the national Internet, most of the population uses it only for correspondence via Telegram", Mirziyoyev stated. He blamed telecoms operators for not investing in expanding the telecommunications network to remote areas and called for a reduction in the cost of Internet access and increased connection speed.
Reporters Without Borders has repeatedly listed Uzbekistan as an "enemy of the Internet". Internet access is still strictly regulated: special services regularly block internet resources that publish opinions or information which differ from that of the official line. At the same time, the authorities refuse to recognise this censorship. When asked about the long-term blocking of access to the website of the Fergana News Agency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan stated that operators and providers are not responsible for the functioning and availability of individual sites on the Internet.
On 14th February 2018, Eurasia.net reported that previously-blocked websites, such as Fergana, BBC and Voice of America as well as human rights organisations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, were accessible to users in Uzbekistan. It remains to be seen if this unrestricted access to these sites is permanent or temporary.
Pressure on members of religious minority groups
Reports continued of pressure on members of religious minority groups. In the most recent example, information received by AHRCA on 17th January 2018 indicated that in Urgench, western Uzbekistan, a Christian woman (who wishes to remain anonymous) was summoned and questioned for three hours by officials at the Service for the Fight against Terrorism. She was asked about a recent trip to Russia and accused of having “liked” a religious clip on social media, thereby disseminating prohibited religious information. She was threatened with criminal punishment. According to amendments made to the Criminal Code of Uzbekistan on 26th April 2016, the publication of “banned” material of a religious nature in the media or on the internet can be punished by imprisonment of up to eight years.
Update on the case of Zhasur Ibragimov
As reported before, the public response to a situation of alleged bullying resulting in a student’s death illustrates the evolving nature of civic engagement and public demonstrations in Uzbekistan. On 1st June 2017, Zhasurbek Ibragimov, a student at the Borovskiy Medical College, died in Tashkent after being beaten up by unknown assailants on 3rd May. Civic activists Irina Zaidman and Maria Legler organised an online petition calling on the Uzbekistani authorities to find those responsible for Zhasurbek’s death and bring them to justice. The petition received unprecedented public support and was signed by over 20,000 people. At a rally held in Duslik Park on 4th June 2017, Deputy Chief of the Tashkent Central Internal Affairs Directorate Doniyor Tashkhodzhaev assured the participants that this tragic case would be thoroughly investigated. However, on 15th November 2017 Zaydman was summoned to the police station, where she was detained. Police officers searched her house on the same day. The next day she and Legler were found guilty of organising an unsanctioned meeting and sentenced to ten and 15 days of administrative detention, respectively. Neither woman had a lawyer present at the closed hearing when they were sentenced, which is a violation of the Criminal Procedural Code of Uzbekistan.
Reports on progress in the case of Zhasur Ibragimov are no longer posted on the internet and the deceased student’s parents refuse to talk to journalists or human rights defenders about the current situation.