What is Mirziyoyev hiding behind the screen of “liberal changes”?

The changes in Uzbekistan, which have been talked about so much lately, including in the West, are according to human rights activist Nadejda Atayeva, merely a propaganda screen hiding unresolved problems driven underground. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his team remind her of a pioneer squad – there are many ideas, but few if any achievements.

Nadejda Atayeva, President of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, currently lives in exile in France, but continues to monitor and advocate for improvements in the human rights situation in Uzbekistan. We asked her to assess the ongoing reforms which are much discussed in the press, including the activities of the second president.

 Nadejda, in the West recently there has been a lot of talk about the fact that the President of Uzbekistan, Mirziyoyev, is carrying out liberal modernisation of the country. Is it actually true? And can you name reforms or changes that would support such statements?

— Changes are taking place, but I do not have a single example which confirms the systematic liberal modernisation of Uzbekistan. I will explain why.

The executive branch still prevails over other branches of power, but yet does not ensure the diligent implementation of its own initiatives. This is especially noticeable in the implementation of about two thousand new laws and regulations announced by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev as part of the reform programme. New decisions are often delayed in being passed to local government level and local authorities continue to illegally restrict citizens' rights. Therefore, the hopes associated with the new government have begun to fade .

Over the past three years of his reign, Mirziyoyev has identified many areas of reforms. At the same time, he takes steps that show him to be a consistent executor of behind the scenes agreements with Russian President Putin. It seems that before Mirziyoyev came to power, they agreed on certain points for the development of bilateral relations, and Mirziyoyev is now faithfully fulfilling these agreements.

 For example?

 Let's see what has changed. What is striking first of all are not the positive changes in people's lives through reforms that are visible, but, for example, the signing of a number of agreements with
Russia through which the project for the construction of a nuclear power plant and the entry of Uzbekistan into the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) which  make Uzbekistan dependent on policies of the Kremlin. Under President Karimov, foreign policy towards Russia was fundamentally different. And now we are being put in a yoke by manoeuvring and convincing us of the benefits of a common economic area, promises of an improvement in the situation with labour migrants and other benefits. But in fact, those citizens of Uzbekistan who have lived abroad for many years, who believed in Mirziyoyev’s reforms and returned to Uzbekistan, are now actively leaving the country again. Many of them realized that Mirziyoyev’s personnel policy is weak. Moreover, he himself has been slowing down the announced reforms, as his energy is primarily directed towards fighting against “internal forces”. Mirziyoyev got involved in the process of reprisals against prosecutors, officers of the National Security Service and so on. He launched a hunt for people who allegedly tried to organise an attempt to overthrow him. The number of those who are prosecuted is growing exponentially, trials are being held behind closed doors.

In this situation, objective and reliable information is not available to the public, and Mirziyoyev’s actions do not always look logical and consistent.

Mirziyoyev, it would seem, is implementing the resolution of the European Parliament of 2014, which clearly stated the need for the release of the citizens of Uzbekistan, whom the international community sees as political prisoners. These are religious figures, human rights activists, journalists and representatives of the Uzbek intelligentsia who suffered for freedom of expression.

And over the past years, thirty-six representatives of civil society have already been released from penal institutions, meanwhile two individuals, who were mentioned in the list of the resolution of the European Parliament, have died (one of them died in custody, the other two years after his release).

However, many are still not released. For instance, Rukhiddin Fakhriddinov, who was listed in the resolution, still remains in custody. He was abducted in the south of Kazakhstan by Uzbek special services in 2005, along with other followers of Obid Qori Nazarov, a prominent religious leader, whom the SNB attempted to assassinate in February 2012.

Moreover, the process of releasing political prisoners, which began under Karimov and continues under Mirziyoyev, is used by PR specialists as an example of the “liberalism” of the new president. However, many people have not been released yet.

— Do you not agree with this?

—  In my opinion, this is just a bright label to attract the attention of the Western media. It is a tool to manipulate public opinion in the West. Moreover, under Mirziyoyev, there have been cases of new political prisoners.

Another issue under discussion in Uzbekistan - forced labour in the cotton sector - has ceased to be prohibited. A hotline has been created, where one can report illegal labour by phone. This information is available to representatives of the ILO (International Labour Organisation - Ed.), who are in Uzbekistan permanently and are actively responding to incoming reports. However, the ILO’s position is not always objective, as they are interested in maintaining a presence in the country and are aimed at cooperation with the government. And the assessments of civil society activists and independent observers often justifiably do not coincide with the position of the government and the ILO.

I support the view that it is too early to talk about lifting sanctions on Uzbek cotton, because there are very few systemic changes. Again, students are found in the cotton fields. Yes, new online publications in Uzbekistan are already writing on this subject, without fear of persecution - this is a positive point. But no one has been punished for cases of death during the cotton harvesting, investigations concerning the list of children who died during the cotton harvests of previous years,which we submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee five years ago and published on our website, have not been resumed.

On the whole, it is too early to talk about the eradication of modern forms of slavery in Uzbekistan. This problem can only be solved in a comprehensive way, eradicating the super centralised nature of the cotton sector management, which creates a demand for forced labour, by improving working conditions and safety measures - not only in the sector of cotton growing, but also throughout the country. It is also time for the state to take measures to reduce occupational diseases and provide conditions for the development of independent trade unions.

— Which stratum of Uzbek society is most vulnerable today?

— Any person in Uzbekistan has been and remains vulnerable, because the adopted laws are not implemented, as before, corrupt connections work more efficiently than the principles of the Constitution of Uzbekistan.

A significant part of the population is the owners of houses and apartments, many of which have suffered from the practice of large-scale demolitions of their property and the inability to obtain affordable social housing or adequate monetary compensation.

One of the most vulnerable groups of citizens is LGBT people. They are exposed to risks to their lives solely because they are “different”, despite the fact that their relationships are consensual. Even their relatives begin to cooperate with law enforcement bodies if they find out that one of the family members is associated with LGBT people. I am dismayed at the cruelty of cases of murder  homosexual people in Uzbekistan! The law enforcement agencies deal with such cases extremely passively, which only intensifies aggression.

This problem now requires a legal open discussion to decriminalise Article 120 of the Criminal Code, under which people are not only detained for consensual same-sex relationships, but also subjected to discrimination, which even leads to the murder of LGBT people.

Moreover, Article 120 is used in the fight against activists, by threatening to apply it if one does not cooperate with the special services, since the evidence of a “witness” is sufficient to support the use of this Article.

No less painful is the problem of the mass revocation of citizenship of Uzbekistan. We are studying this problem, and I am finding massive violations of human rights. Firstly, the process of revocation of citizenship of persons living abroad takes place in absentia and does not provide for the right of defence and appeal. Moreover, citizenship is revoked not by a judicial decision, but on the basis of a presidential decree. Why is the decision to revoke the citizenship made by the executive branch? This is a violation of the Constitution of Uzbekistan, committed by the Guarantor of human rights and freedoms - the so-called “reformer”, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. And for many reasons, this process of revocation of citizenship looks like a crime committed by the state, since it is carried out on the basis of the Decree of the President of Uzbekistan - contrary to the Constitution. We have reliable information that indicates that persons, whose citizenship has been revoked, face mass confiscation of property that is appropriated at a very low cost by officials, as well as the “boss” of the Uzbek mafia, “Salimbay”, and his entourage. For example, an apartment worth USD 250,000 was acquired by an associate of Salimbay for USD 400. Our organisation has more information on such facts.

Therefore, I believe that the “change” in Uzbekistan is a propaganda screen, which is hiding resolved, underground problems that have become a source of human rights violations.

— There is an opinion that censorship of the Uzbek media has become not as severe as it was under Karimov. Is it true?

— Many new publications have appeared In Uzbekistan in recent years, but they are increasingly reporting about their closure due to the fact that they supposedly somehow did not cover this or that topic. A website called TUGRI.UZ was recently closed. The persecution of authors of critical materials has begun. For example, charges were brought against Mirzo Subkhanov, a blogger from Samarkand.

Strengthening of the control over the expansion of the country's information field on the Internet is currently ongoing. For example, we began to notice that the content of conversations of activists who communicate via Telegram or Signal messaging platforms somehow becomes known to the special services. It is my understanding that this situation is being studied by independent information security experts.

— But these messaging platforms are recognised around the world as the safest ones!

— There are three opinions: either the Uzbek special services somehow learned how to wiretap them, the activists are using them incorrectly, or those special services’ cars that the activists notice under their windows are crammed with wiretapping equipment.

The practice of maintaining a “black list” of politically unreliable people has not gone away. I am sure that it still exists, despite the fact that Uzbek authorities announced two years ago that such lists were eliminated. But they are formed as part of the operational-search activity in Uzbekistan, which is conducted with procedural violations of national legislation, and anyone listed faces restrictions of his rights.

 In what way?

— For example, they restrict access to participation in discussions organised by the UN and diplomatic missions. Whereas previously activists living outside Tashkent were removed from buses or detained on charges of administrative violations, today they are either simply not allowed to leave their homes or taken to a restaurant for an “urgent” conversation – they are getting “creative” , but the meaning of these tactics is  the same - to do everything possible to prevent the  “politically unreliable” (according to the security forces) activist from participating in the event attended by foreign guests.

At the same time, there are positive aspects - international independent experts have begun to be admitted into the country, UN missions are visiting Uzbekistan, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has resumed its work. This is very good, because UN representatives have the opportunity to monitor on the ground how human rights are respected and how Uzbekistan is fulfilling its international obligations in this field.

At the same time, organisations such as Human Rights Watch, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and others have not been successful in resuming the work of their representatives in Uzbekistan and constantly monitor human rights in this country. Uzbekistan has not granted Human Rights Watch accreditation. There is only one reason for this- the lack of political will, which allows Uzbek officials to find more and more pretexts for refusal.

The International Red Cross has not yet resumed its visits to penitentiary institutions (the mission left Uzbekistan in 2013). And whereas a year and a half ago we were receiving reports from our sources in Uzbekistan that the number of prisoners was being reduced, that repair works were being carried out in prisons, now we are receiving  shocking reports of suicides, discrimination against persons convicted on religious grounds, about torture and slave labour of prisoners. Meanwhile, there are still no mechanisms for promptly responding to the facts of torture. Recently, we received reports of cases of suicide and slave labour in prison No. 5 (formerly prison No. 64/47). Can you imagine how much pressure people are subjected to in this prison, that, unable to withstand it, they choose to be burned alive by jumping right into a furnace in the brick factory?!

Therefore, I repeat, there are changes, but very superficial, half-hearted, slippery ones, which appear to change things, but in general the situation and the political regime remain the same. The reason is obvious – the lack of conditions for the development of civil society, political opposition and free democratic elections.

— Why is this happening? Is this a deliberate policy of the president or an indicator of his weakness?

— Mirziyoyev was brought up by the system of the Communist Party of the USSR and the dictatorship of Islam Karimov. This explains his intolerance towards critics and the opposition, his absolute dependence on the Uzbek clans and such “dinosaurs” of Uzbek politics, as, for example, Rustam Inoyatov and Zelimkhan Khaidarov. That is why he still has not condemned the crimes committed under the dictator Islam Karimov.

I have no confidence in Mirziyoyev, since he returned Zakirjon Almatov, to power. Almatov was the former Minister of Internal Affairs, under whose leadership in 2005 government troops massacred the people of Andijan. It is under the leadership of Almatov that the practice of commissioned criminal cases and abuse of Interpol mechanisms  began in Uzbekistan. Since the 1990s, Almatov , in cooperation with Salimbay, a mafia "boss", coordinated raids to seizeproperty and used the investigative department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs to ruin those who refused to pay bribes. I draw this conclusion on the basis of the evidence gathered. In my opinion, Zakirjon Almatov and Rustam Inoyatov should be included in the global “Magnitsky list”. If Shavkat Mirziyoyev does not have enough resources to protect Uzbekistan from the criminal influence of these persons, then leverage of external democratic pressure should be used.

Let me give you another fact - for three years Mirziyoyev has not given a single interview or a single press conference. At the same time, his press service, in my view, is trying to legalise censorship by holding press conferences behind closed door and setting the agenda for media coverage.

It is also interesting that the Internet users that are the most active in social networks, even those who do not have their own blogs, are now called “bloggers” by Uzbek judges. This means that the courts do not understand the difference between bloggers and activists in the social media, which leads to inadequate punishments, including punitive psychiatry, for the expressed opinions.

At the same time, the level of education of many Uzbek officials is extremely low, and the authorities themselves recognise this. For this reason, funds were allocated from the national budget for a new department, where employees of state bodies are taught ethical standards and how to express their thoughts. I hope that the head of the administration of the Ferghana region, Shukhrat Ganiev, who particularly stands out for his wild behaviour and assault of his subordinates, will soon undergo  training there.

It is hard for me to imagine such a person in power, for example, in France or Sweden, but in Uzbekistan Ganiev enjoys the patronage of the President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and, in collusion with representatives of the Prosecutor’s Office and the State Security Service, continues to intimidate and ruin entrepreneursI am sure that Mirziyoyev is tolerant of the governors of the Ferghana and Andijan regions only because they are able to secure votes for him in the parliamentary and presidential elections. And what kind of reforms is Mirziyoyev capable of, given that he was brought up by the communist regime and has not found the strength to forego his privileges in these three years, avoiding declaring his income in every possible way, whereas his close circle has amassed more than Gulnara Karimova, daughter of the late dictator Islam Karimov.

 Today many talk a great deal about the fight against corruption in Uzbekistan. What is going on there?

—  I would say that rather I am witnessing an increase of corruption in Uzbekistan. Take for instance Tashkent City, a social program of residential construction, alone! It clearly exposed the fictitious nature of the announced reforms. Large scale violations of the social rights of ordinary people led to an increase in the mood of protest. People face injustice in courts, because the judiciary is still dependent on the executive.

— And what is wrong with the Tashkent City program?

— Large scale violations consist of the fact that adequate compensation is not being paid when demolishing houses, that is, the price for a demolished house most often turns out to be symbolic, as the property has been undervalued. Many residents of Tashkent found themselves in a situation where it was impossible to buy anything not only in Tashkent, but even outside the city with the money they received for their demolished houses.

In my view, the reconstruction of Tashkent has become a powerful source of corruption and violation of fundamental social rights, as evidenced by numerous cases of suicides and increased migration.

By the way, here it is appropriate to mention another widely publicised innovation of Mirziyoyev - the creation of online petitions to officials. There are a lot of complaints about them. Yes, sites are created, they are operational and there is a platform through which one can report violations. But the system does not work. Because when a citizen of Uzbekistan lodges a complaint with the President’s Office about a violation of rights by law enforcement agencies, his or her application is forwarded to the institution the complainant complains about. I do not see any point in explaining what follows next.

The lack of a conscientious approach to solving existing problems simply destroys people's trust in the current government.

Yes, Mirziyoyev is full of ideas, but his team reminds me of a pioneer squad. There are many initiatives, but few opportunities.

In addition, there are questions to which I cannot find answers yet.

President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyayev (on the left)
and "mafia boss" Salimbay shaking hands

The first, what kind of relationship does Mirziyoyev have with mafia boss” Salimbay? Why and how did the latter become one of the leaders of the National Olympic Committee?

The second concerns the active appointment and promotion of Mirziyoyev’s relatives in official power structures.

His elder son-in-law, Oybek Tursunov, until recently presented himself as the Deputy Head of the Department of Presidential Affairs of Uzbekistan and still uses the car of the Administration of the President of Uzbekistan.

His father, Batyr Tursunov, is the First Deputy Chairman of the State Security Service of Uzbekistan and the First Deputy Commander of the National Guard (the Commander of the National Guard is Bokhodir Tashmatov and he is also the head of the Presidential Security Service).

Oybek's older brother Ulugbek Tursunov is the Deputy Head of the Main Department of Internal Affairs in the city of Tashkent.

The younger son-in-law, Otabek Umarov, is the Deputy Head of the President’s Security Service.

Davron Ibragimov, Mirziyoyev’s brother in law is the father of Diora Usmanova - the widow of Babur Usmanov - the nephew of the Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov. Ibragimov was the director of the Chinabad oil depot. During the reign of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, he took control of all the oil depots in Uzbekistan, and now he and his team are regulating petrol prices. And they began calling him the “petrol king”.

Tell me, what kind of liberal modernisation of Uzbekistan and the fight against corruption can we talk about?

— Do you have any information about what is happening with the Karimov family?

— Gulnara was imprisoned on the basis of the court decisions of three closed trials, and, in my opinion, under the new president, she is jailed not for participating in corruption schemes, committing economic crimes and crimes in office and abusing her father’s power, but for the fact that she would be able to say many things about Mirziyoyev himself and her  ties with him.

The fact is that Gulnara received all state orders and budget funds for her companies and projects with the participation of Mirziyoyev, who at that time was the head of government. If these episodes are considered in a public trial, then the criminal actions of all members of the family of Islam Karimov, and the participation of Mirziyoyev in them will be clarified, which means that he will not be able to maintain his grip on power. Moreover, I think that these facts are trump cards in the sleeve of Rustam Inoyatov and Zelimkhan Khaidarov, people who were close to Islam Karimov and are well aware of the activities of Gulnara, Lola, Tatyana Karimova, and, of course, have accumulated incriminating evidence against Mirziyoyev. This is a lever of pressure, which even today allows Inoyatov to steadily move towards restoring his influential status and returning trusted people to their former posts.

In 2005, after the mass executions in Andijan, Zakirjon Almatov was included in the EU sanctions lists against Uzbekistan. And the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan, Sadyk Safaev, was included in the list of participants in the crimes of Gulnara Karimova. He currently holds the post of the First Deputy Chairman of the Senate of Uzbekistan. Almatov and Safaev are now in Mirziyoyev’s team.

And look at how the heads of the regional administrations behave? These are “small kings”, for whom literally everything is permissible - they can beat up their subordinates, shower them with foul language, and instead of adequate punishment, Mirziyoyev gives them state awards.

Therefore, I repeat, I do not believe in Mirziyoyev’s reforms. And the release of political prisoners who were imprisoned during the Karimov regime does not mean that liberalisation has begun in Uzbekistan, because everyone who has been released remains under pressure and threatened to be imprisoned again. None of them have been rehabilitated. Some already have faced charges for administrative violations.

For example, Agzam Turgunov, a human rights activist, has already been through three trials on charges of administrative violations. Only due to the active support of international organisations does he still manage to be free.

Why does he annoy the authorities so? Because he will not cease his human rights activism, he continues to submit reports about violations of prisoner’s rights to the Prosecutor’s Office and the Ombudsman’s office. By disturbing these departments with reports of torture, forced labour of state employees and prisoners, Turgunov is shaking up the stagnant bureaucratic swamp of Uzbekistan, demanding that officials begin to finally earn their salaries and serve the interests of citizens of Uzbekistan.

It is time for Shavkat Mirziyoyev to show some courage and answer some pressing questions.

— What questions would you ask him?

— About the constitutionality of his coming to power, about his policies, and not only the internal ones. Uzbekistan is no longer truly independent. He is, as well as members of the Mirziyoyev family, under the influence of Russian oligarchs. Rapprochement with Russia is contrary to the policy of Uzbekistan, which was established after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Why during the three years of Mirziyoyev’s reign did Uzbekistan’s foreign debt grow from five to twenty billion US dollars?

Why has not a single opposition party been registered in the country over these three years, and why are there no independent trade unions?

Human rights activist Agzam Turgunov has made four attempts to register a human rights organisation over the past year, and this is his tenth attempt in twenty years.

Why is Uzbekistan closed for political emigrants who would like to return to their homeland?

Is the President of Uzbekistan ready for the reaction the Uzbek people, whom he deprived of their citizenship during his leadership, who have all the constitutional rights to recover their citizenship and demand compensation for lost property, using international legal mechanisms?

What are the Uzbek authorities doing for their citizens who have left to work in Russia? How do they help them exercise their rights?

And further, for example, we still do not know what position Osh refugees are in - this topic is taboo. Are they extradited to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan after the start of active cooperation between the two states, or do they remain in Uzbekistan? If so, under what conditions, do they have documents, and which ones?

If we are talking about progress in access to information, is it not time to computerise educational institutions, rather than showing the speeches of Mirziyoyev filled with grand rhetoric on the Akhborot news programme?

Uzbekistan continues to practice slave labour and torture in places of detention, therefore protection from slavery and torture is an absolute priority. Why is this practice allowed to continue in the country?

Shavkat Mirziyoyev could go down in history as a reformer, but this, unfortunately, this has not yet happened.


Uzbekistan : reforming or redecorating?

This special issue prepared for the CIVICUS Monitor by the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (AHRCA) and International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), provides an overview reflecting some of the main developments in freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Uzbekistan from April 2018 to early October 2019.

In the past year and a half, the government under president Mirziyoyev has passed numerous new laws, decrees and regulations on a broad range of issues. Some expert sources estimate that around 2000 pieces of legislation have come into force since President Mirziyoyev came to power and the sheer volume has caused confusion and delays in implementation. The reform agenda is being implemented in a top-down manner, and currently lacks both shared understanding and ownership in the broader governmental administration as well as among citizens. In addition, the reforms are seen by national and international observers as being predominantly driven by economic considerations, a strategy which risks undermining much-needed political and human rights reforms in the judiciary, law enforcement, security and other key sectors.

From 17th to 21st October 2019, IPHR visited Uzbekistan for the first time since President Mirziyoyev came to power, at the invitation of the government. IPHR was able to discuss these reforms with relevant state representatives.

From 19th to 25th September 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Diego Garcia-Sayan, visited Uzbekistan for the first time. During his visit, he met President Mirziyoyev, representatives of the Ministry of Justice, the Prosecutor General’s Office and lawyers, as well as representatives of civil society, representatives of the academic community, UN agencies, donors and diplomats.

A statement released by the Special Rapporteur at the end of the visit concluded that despite some positive steps, “[s] ubstantial threats against judicial independence and the rule of law remain,” and referred to “the heavy and constant presence of the security services throughout society and Uzbekistan’s institutions”. The Special Rapporteur also recommended that Uzbekistan “take action to strengthen and improve the participation of civil society in the justice process”.

The Special Rapporteur will present a comprehensive report containing his findings and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2020.


The operating environment for NGOs remains highly challenging despite the government’s stated intent to allow space for civil society and human rights defenders to carry out their work. No independent human rights organisation has been able to register in the period under review. The only registered independent human rights organisation in Uzbekistan is the NGO Ezgulik (registered since 2003). National law prohibits the activities of unregistered NGOs and provides for both administrative and criminal penalties for involvement in such activities. There have been reports of harassment and intimidation by state officials towards lawyers who assist with attempts to legally register human rights NGOs.
For example, attempts by several human rights activists to register the NGO Restoration of Justice have been unsuccessful and are believed to have led to retaliation against the activists involved. On 28th February 2019 former political prisoners and human rights defenders Azam Farmonov, Dilmurod Saidov and Agzam Turgunov attempted to register the organisation but the application was rejected on the grounds that an additional state tax had to be paid and that the number of founders needed to be increased from the proposed five to ten. On 23rd May 2019, the three human rights defenders submitted a new application for registration. However, on 8th August 2019 they were notified that their request had been denied again. They will be allowed to submit a new application only after three months, in November 2019. 
On the positive side, President Mirziyoyev decreed in April 2018 that civil society should be consulted on draft legislation affecting it and introduced new regulations which stipulated that registered NGOs were no longer required to obtain government approval in order to conduct events. However, the new registration system, which came into force in January 2019, continues to require NGOs to inform the authorities about planned events 10 or 20 days in advance (the latter if activities involve international organisations). Additionally, it obliges NGOs to inform the Ministry of Justice of receipt of foreign funding. The burdensome state controls over NGO registration, funding and activities, coupled with ongoing restrictions on freedom of expression, continue to obstruct the work of NGOs in the country.
In November 2018 the Uzbekistani government held an international conference on human rights in Samarkand, the Asian Human Rights Forum, organised by the Presidential Human Rights Centre with the support of the UN and the OSCE. The conference offered a new platform for dialogue between the government, local civil society and international organisations to discuss ongoing challenges and ways forward in this area. Several national and international human rights organisations expressed regret at the lack of openness shown by the authorities towards engaging in constructive dialogue with local independent civil society groups, who were virtually excluded from the Forum.

Surveillance, intimidation and harassment of civil society activists and journalists

In the period under review, local independent civil society activists, journalists and human rights defenders have continued to face reprisals for their peaceful activities and many of the former political prisoners who were released from prison since President Mirziyoyevcame to power have been subjected to state surveillance.

The Uzbekistani State Security Services are reported to continue to keep and update lists with the names of former political prisoners and government critics, including civil society activists and journalists who have taking part in protest actions or social network petitions. Surveillance and harassment continue in relation to the people on these lists, including by local police officers and representatives of mahalla (neighbourhood) committees.

For example, since October 2018, human rights defenders Agzam Turgunov, Azam Farmonov and Dilmurod Saidov have reported regular state surveillance, phone tapping and intimidation. On 20th October 2018, IPHR representatives visited Tashkent and witnessed how unknown individuals dressed in plain clothes walked in front of Agzam Turgunov’s home. The same day Turgunov told IPHR that he had seen unknown people standing under his window, had been followed by cars as he moved around the city on public transport, and that he had been told by representatives of the local Mahalla committee that law enforcement officials were asking about him.

On 28th October 2018, as Turgunov travelled to Paris to attend the World Summit of Human Rights Defenders he was questioned in the airport by the authorities on his departure and return. The three human rights defenders have also reported being threatened by law enforcement officials: late in 2018, Dilmurod Saidov was warned that he would be subjected to enforced psychiatric treatment if he refused to cease his human rights work and on 25th March 2019, a security service officer who was watching Turgunov’s home told him he should be careful not to be knocked down by a car. The same month both Turgunov and Saidov reported being repeatedly prevented from leaving their homes by law enforcement officials surrounding the buildings where they lived.

On 11th September 2019, Turgunov was summoned by police and questioned for several hours - particularly as to whether he is in contact with the exiled leader of the Erk opposition party, and what he thought of this party.

In September 2019, during the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Diego Garcia-Sayan, several human rights defenders reported increased surveillance by the State Security Services (SGB). Agzam Turgunov was visited on 19th September by two SGB officers who asked him about his scheduled meeting with the UN Special Rapporteur and offered to drive him to the meeting. Formerly imprisoned independent journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev also reported that during the Special Rapporteur’s visit to Uzbekistan in September 2019 there was heavy surveillance by security officials who surrounded his home.

Politically motivated persecution

Trumped up administrative charges against civil society activists

Agzam Turgunov has faced three sets of administrative charges over the period under review: in August 2018 and in March and June 2019. He was charged, among others, with failure to comply with legal orders given by a law enforcement officer (Article 194 of the Administrative Code). The third time the court amended the charge to hooliganism. Domestic legislation in Uzbekistan provides that if a person has already been convicted twice on a particular administrative charge, the third offence of the same nature will automatically be considered a criminal offence and penalised accordingly. There is reason to believe that the charges have been brought in retaliation for Turgunov’s efforts to register the new human rights NGO ‘Restoration of Justice’ and to intimidate him and discourage his human rights work. 

On 30th August 2018, Turgunov was found guilty of failing to comply with the orders of a police officer after taking photos of peaceful protesters allegedly at a prohibited location, i.e. outside the Supreme Court. Turgunov claims he did not disobey orders but simply asked a man in plainclothes who Turgunov believed to be a police officer to show his police identification. Turgunov appealed the decision and at the appeal hearing on 30th November 2018, according to Turgunov and the defence witness, the judge insulted them and ordered law enforcement officials to detain them as he claimed they had disturbed the proceedings. They were released later that evening after international intervention. Both Turgunov and the witness lodged complaints about the judge’s behaviour.

On 30th March 2019, Turgunov received a court summons informing him that he was being charged with “defamation”, “contempt of court” and “failure to comply with the orders of law enforcement officials” (articles 41, 180 and 194 of the Administrative Code). The first two charges related to the events at the appeal hearing. Turgunov’s appeal against the sentence handed down on 30 August 2018 and his complaint about the judge’s behaviour are still pending.

On 4th June 2019, a Tashkent District Administrative Court found Turgunov guilty of hooliganism (Article 183 of the Administrative Code), and ordered him to pay a fine after he told a traffic inspector who had pulled over his son’s car, to stop shouting. Before each administrative fine reported here, Agzam Turgunov reports that his house was put under surveillance and he was visited by a representative of the mahalla (neighbourhood) committee, who was required to write reports about Turgunov’s behaviour for the law enforcement agencies.

The last year and a half have seen a gradual increase in transparency in Uzbekistan’s media landscape with increased news reporting and coverage in Uzbekistan by journalists and bloggers who work for registered online publications.
However, throughout much of 2018, the Uzbekistani authorities continued to restrict access to the websites of a number of independent media publications, including FerganaNews Ozodlik (the Uzbek service of RFE/RL), Eurasia net, AsiaTerra and Uzmetronom, as well as sites of some well-known international human rights organisations. A government decree adopted in 2018, which authorised the blocking of news media “promot(ing) extremist propaganda or hateful content online” without a court order, exacerbated concerns about access to independent news media. There is concern that this vaguely worded provision may be used to arbitrarily restrict access to online resources.

In April 2019, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, issued a statement calling on the authorities in Uzbekistan to end the blocking of media sites in order to ensure that important news and current affairs resources be made accessible to the public. Désir stated:
“I would like to reiterate to the state authorities that any blocking measures can only be justified in accordance with international standards, used only in exceptional cases, and be strictly proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued.”
In a positive development in May 2019, Komil Allamjonov, Director of the Agency for Information and Mass Communications under the Presidential Administration of Uzbekistan (AIMKA),publicly stated that he had looked into the issue of access to the websites of several news outlets and international human rights NGOs and restored full access to them, including: Voice of America, Amerika ovozi, the Uzbek BBC service, Deutsche Welle, Eurasianet, AsiaTerra, Fergana News, Uzmetronom, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters sans Frontieres, and others.

The stance taken by Komil Allamzhonov and the deputy director of AIMKA Sayra Mirziyoyev (eldest daughter of President Mirziyoyev) contrasts with the more passive position adopted by the national press centre and expressed at Presidential press conferences. AIMKA has created an effective mechanism for regulating information policy and, at the same time, media outlets and journalists can now access the official version of events and compare it with information from other sources.

News correspondents who received accreditation in 2019 included several foreign news correspondents from the British Broadcasting Company; BBC Monitoring (UK); Reuters (UK); The Economist (UK); Ferghana News agency, Voice of America; Eurasianet online (USA) and Agence France-Press (France).

Further, in recent years the internet has noticeably increased the ability to access information in Uzbekistan and promoted citizens’ interaction with independent sites, which provide a platform for civil society activists in the country and abroad, international partners and organisations. The internet has facilitated public discussion around pressing social issues including for example: demolitions of houses, extermination of stray animals, the situation for bloggers, the construction of a nuclear power plantas well as other more sensitive issues such as religion and protection of personal data.

Another interesting development was that statements made by international NGOs and Amnesty International’s Urgent Action of April 2019 regarding torture allegations against the former Prosecutor General Rashitjon Kadirov also led to a lively discussion on social media with an exchange of views on justice and international obligations. There is increased reporting in the media of pressing social problems and in February 2019 the General Prosecutor’s Office issued a press release on a suicide under investigation, reflecting a new level of transparency.
Trial of journalists Bobomurod Abdullayev, blogger Hayotkhon Nasreddinov and entrepreneurs Shavkat Olloyorov and Ravshan Salayev

From 7th March to 7th May 2018, an open trial was held in the Tashkent City Criminal Court of independent journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev, blogger and teacher Hayotkhon Nasreddinov, as well as entrepreneurs Ravshan Salayev and Shavkat Olloyorov, all accused of anti-constitutional crimes (under Article 159 Criminal Code), which are punishable by 20 years in prison. The charges were politically motivated and the trial attracted unprecedented attention from international media.

Bobomurod Abdullayev told the court that for many years he had written under the pseudonym “Usman Khaknazarov” about state corruption. He also described how he had been tortured during interrogation and investigation by senior National Security Service officials to get him to testify against incumbent President Mirziyoyevand political opponents such as the leader of the opposition party Erk, Muhammad Salih,and other critics abroad.

Judge Zafar Nurmatov ruled that Ravshan Salayev, Shavkat Olloyorov and Hayotkhon Nasreddinov be acquitted and released from custody immediately. In relation to Bobomurod Abdullaev, the judge ordered that the charge be reclassified from Article 159.4 (conspiracy to seize power or overthrow the constitutional order of Uzbekistan) to Article 159.3b (public calls to overthrow the constitutional order, ... committed by an organised group or in its interests), and sentenced him to three years of correctional labour. The judge then announced that Abdullayev would also be released as he had already served 221 days in pre-trial detention and that one day in pre-trial detention counts for three days in prison. The verdict was met with cheers and applause from spectators in the courtroom, including international observers and press representatives.

In 2018 Bobomurod Abdullayev and Hayotkhon Nasreddinov were awarded the Sakharov Order for Courage.

Defence lawyer Sergey Mayorov said that he was unhappy with the verdict: “I believe that Abdullayev did not commit a crime, and he should be compensated.” But, according to him, it is dangerous to appeal the sentence as he does not believe his client would get a fair appeal trial and this could result in a more severe sentence.

This is the first trial in 25 years where the judge acquitted and ordered the release of the defendants and repeatedly reminded the parties of the presumption of innocence.

However, since Bobomurod Abdullayev was released from detention he has been subjected to surveillance and harassment by Uzbekistani security services. He wishes to travel abroad for medical treatment and has submitted a request for a passport but the SNB have not yet given him an answer.

Continuing concerns about activists (formerly) imprisoned on politically-motivated charges

Since September 2016, 30 civil society representatives imprisoned on politically motivated grounds have been released from prison. The following civil society activists and journalists were released in the period under review: journalists Aziz Yusufov and Bobomurod Abdullaev,blogger Hayatkhon Nasreddinov, members of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU) Mehriniso and Zulkhumor Khamdamov,witness of the Andijan tragedy Dilorom Abdukodirova and member of the Human Rights Centre Mazdil Mazdum Fakhriddin Tillayev. 

Although all those released were targeted for political reasons and convicted on fabricated charges, Andrey Kubatin (see below) is the only one to date who was acquitted on appeal. Many are in need of rehabilitation and medical and psychological treatment after surviving torture, ill-treatment, prolonged moral and psychological pressure and separation from their loved ones. Many are still under state surveillance.

After his release in 2018 Tillayev wrote:
"I was beaten repeatedly and put in a punishment cell [solitary confinement]. I was not only humiliated, but forced to do hard physical labour, which destroyed my health: a hernia, gastrointestinal illnesses, ear infection and my nerves suffered… injustice will deplete any person.”
On 26th September 2019, academic Andrei Kubatin was released from detention after the Tashkent Regional Criminal Court acquitted him on appeal and allowed him to walk free from the courtroom. Turkologist Andrei Kubatin worked as a senior lecturer at the Tashkent State Institute of Oriental Studies and was arrested in 2017 after he gave copies of rare books from his library to an employee of the Turkish agency TIKA, who wanted to publish a travel guide for Uzbekistan. On 1st December 2017 Kubatin was found guilty of treason (Article 157 ofthe Criminal Code) and sentenced to eleven years’ imprisonment.

On 26th September 2019 the Uzbekistani Ombudsman issued a statement on the court decision, welcoming Kubatin’s release and rehabilitation and explaining that the Ombudsman’s Office had sent appeals in the case to the Prosecutor General’s Office and attended appeal proceedings.

According to local human rights organisations, four civil society activists, who were convicted on politically-motivated grounds following unfair trials, remain behind bars. These are: author and critic Akrom Malikov, political scientist Rustam Abdumanopov, producer Mirsobir Khamidkoriyev and theologian Rukhiddin Fakhriddinov.

Fakhriddinov was forcibly returned to Uzbekistan, arrested immediately upon arrival and tried in a closed court without legal representation. The religious scholar is currently serving the remaining period of his sentence in the maximum-security colony 64/17 in Chirchik. There are serious allegations that Fakhriddinov was subjected to torture during his interrogation in 2005. There are also allegations of torture against his family members, including his daughter.

Rukhiddin Fakhriddinov and producer Mirsyar Khamidokriyev were imprisoned under former President Karimov, but critic Akrom Malikov (author of publications under the pseudonym "Abdulloh Nusrat") and political scientist Rustam Abdumanopov, were imprisoned since President Mirziyoyev came to power.

Updated statistics on political prisoners were published at the time of an EU delegation visit to Uzbekistan in April 2018.

Restriction on freedom of movement and deprivation of citizenship

In a positive move, from 1st January 2019, Uzbekistan abolished the procedure for issuing “exit permits” (stickers in the passport confirming a person is permitted to travel abroad). Citizens will be able to apply for biometric passports for foreign travel which will be valid for 10 years.

However, the authorities continued to use different methods to deny permission to travel abroad to human rights defenders and others in order to silence criticism. Among those affected in the period under review were Shukhrat Rustamov, Dilmurod Sayyid and Timur Karpov.

In June 2019, the authorities refused to issue a passport to the photographer and human rights activist Timur Karpov. He explained on YouTube that on 8th April 2018 he submitted his application to the passport office and expected to get a response within 21 days (as provided by law).In June he learned that he had been refused a passport, with the official written refusal explaining the grounds as “it is unadvisable to issue a foreign passport” and referring to a clause in the Presidential Decree stating that passports are not issued to persons who provided false information in their applications.

Only after the intervention of the Director of the Agency for Information and Mass Communications Komil Allamjonov was Karpov given permission to travel abroad.

Deprivation of citizenship

There are concerns that, on the pretext of a reform of the passport system, many Uzbekistanis living abroad who are critical of the Uzbekistani authorities may be deprived of their citizenship. Deprivation of citizenship is provided for by Presidential Decree “On the loss of citizenship of the Republic of Uzbekistan” [No. PF-4624 of 16 June, 2014 Указ президента. The Law on Citizenship provides in Article 21.2 that a person living permanently abroad who has not been on the consulate lists of citizens registered as living abroad for over three years without good reason, will lose their rights to citizenship.

The law is being used against persons who are outspoken in their criticism of the authorities and victims of politically motivated persecution by Uzbekistan. Many of them report that they have had their Uzbekistani citizenship revoked, have not been informed of the decision or given a chance to appeal. AHRCA and IPHR are aware of at least 40 recent cases.

Many are additionally put on international Interpol wanted lists on charges brought in retaliation for their criticism, sometimes after court decisions which are issued in absentia. There are also cases of confiscation of property based on court decisions issued in absentia, although the statistics on such cases are not publicly available and only a handful of cases have been made public.

Currently the following people are known to have been deprived of citizenship in the period under review:Radio Ozodlik correspondents (Uzbek service of RadioFree Europe/ Radio Liberty) brothers Shukhrat, Khurmat Babadjanovand their brother Kudrat, who is editor of the news website Eltuz, the human rights activist Tolib Yakubov and former citizens Mukhiddin Kurbanov, businessman Bobur Hassan, Zakir Aliyev, Kuzibay Kurbanov, Rafik Ganiev, member of the Human Rights Organisation “Ezgulik”, Mukhiddin Kurbanov, member of the opposition party “Birlik” and Bobur Hassan, brother of the leader of the opposition party “Birdamlik” living in the USA who attempted to return to Uzbekistan (in August 2018 respectively) but were deported.

Update on the case of Zhasur Ibragimov - medical student who was beaten to death in 2017

As previously reported in the CIVICUS Monitor, in 2017 the tragic death of medical student Zhasur Ibragimov led to a public outcry. He died on 1 June 2017 after being beaten up outside Borovsky Medical College in Tashkent by his classmates. An online petition “Punish those responsible for the death of Jasur Ibragimov” collected 20,431 signatures.

The online news agency Ferghana.ru reported that the organiser of a rally in support of Zhasur’s parents that took place on 4th June 2017 was subsequently punished and had to pay a fine for organising an unsanctioned protest without the advance permission of the authorities, as required by national law in violation of international standards. The Department of Internal Affairs in the Mirabad District of Tashkent opened a criminal case against Islambek Tulyaganov, one of the six persons alleged to have participated in the attack on Zhasur. He was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment after being found guilty of grievous bodily harm, but was released from prison on parole in December 2018.The other five alleged perpetrators participated in the case as witnesses and were not penalised.

On 25th September 2019, Mirzo-Ulugbek Inter-district Civil Court began hearing the claim for material and moral damages by Zhasur’s parents who claimed 650 million Uzbek soms (70 thousand USD).Zhasur’s parents announced they would donate the amount they are awarded in compensation to the charity Ezgu Amal, which provides assistance in the treatment of seriously ill children.

Peaceful Assembly

Uzbekistan has witnessed an increasing number of peaceful protests during the period covered by this report although not all have been able to take place without interference from the authorities.

Arrest of journalist Mahmoud Rajab, his family and friends during protest

On 22nd September 2019, police in the western city of Khorezm detained journalist Mahmud Rajab and about 20 of his relatives and friends, including two young children and a four-month-old baby. The group had been walking in the direction of the capital Tashkent, some 930 km from Khorezm, to meet with the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Uzbekistan, Pulat Babadzhanov to protest at “lawlessness” in the Khorezm region. However, after walking 50 km they were detained by police and fined. Rajab and Nafasat Olloshkurova were held for ten days’ administrative detention, charged with violating the law on holding rallies and public gatherings in Uzbekistan.

In April 2019, a criminal case was opened against Mahmoud Rajab relating to importing several books by the secular opposition politician Muhammad Salih and his younger brother, former political prisoner Muhammad Bekjanov into Uzbekistan. There is no official ban on materials written by these authors, and their names do not figure on the list of forbidden materials compiled by the government. If Rajab is found guilty, he faces five to ten years in prison.

On 3rd October 2019, Mahmud Rajab was released after his term of administrative detention expired but Nafosat Ollashukurova was not released. She was instead placed in a psychiatric clinic in the Urgench district. A representative of Bagatsky district Ministry of Internal Affairs confirmed this fact on 4th October, and said that the prosecutor’s office had sanctioned the forced hospitalisation. However, Nafosat Ollashukurova’s father Boltaboy says that his daughter has never suffered from mental illness.

Protests at demolitions

On 28th April 2018, Dekhansky market in the Guzar district in the Kashkadarya region was demolished by the authorities and the traders were expelled. A group of traders staged a protest, demanding that local authorities stop the demolition as it would affect their livelihoods.Three women who were protesting for a long time fainted. The law enforcement officers reportedly took those traders who took photos of the protest to the police station, and confiscated their mobile phones.

On 16th September 2019, residents of 18 demolished houses in the Balykchy district of the city of Andijan staged a protest outside the district administration building, demanding compensation.They stated that they had been promised that if they agreed to the demolitions they would be given compensation.

Miners’ strikes at Shargunkumir mine

On 14th and 15th August 2019, almost 200 miners from Shargunkumir coal mine reportedly went on strike in the Saryasinsky district of the Surkhandarya region. They currently earn some 100 USD per month and demanded higher salaries. The strikers claimed that the company management was stealing from the Shargunkumir company – including seven tons of diesel fuel and building materials. Company representatives met the strikers and announced that some staff had been given the sack. 

Previously, workers would have been afraid to demonstrate publicly but since President Mirziyoyev has come to power they are emboldened to speak out. However, participants in public demonstrations continue to be noted by the authorities on the so-called “black lists” and can face discriminatory restrictions on freedom of movement and others in the future.