Bobomurod Abdullaev thanked Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and the court which set him free Monday after sitting in detention for seven months on charges of an anti-government conspiracy and extremism.
“I am extremely glad that I have come out of there alive,” Abdullaev told reporters, “I thank Shavkat Mirziyoyev and the court.”
The Abdullaev trial — which also included blogger Hayot Nasriddinov, and businessmen Ravshan Salaev and Shavkat Olloyorov — was unlike any trial in Uzbekistan in recent memory. The charges were familiar — “conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional regime” — but the outcome was a surprise.
According to Gazeta.uz and Steve Swerdlow — a Human Rights Watch researcher — the defendants were released on Monday after the judge terminated the criminal case against them, with one small exception.
The charge against Abdullaev, who was accused of writing inflammatory articles under the byline Usman Haqnazarov, in particular was reclassified from “conspiracy to seize power or overthrow the constitutional order” to a lesser charge of making appeals for unconstitutional change of the government. The sentence for Abdullaev was set at three years of “correctional labor” rather than five years of imprisonment the prosecution was seeking. He was credited with time served, leaving about a year of community service remaining.
In a further step, the judge reportedly criticized the State Security Service (recently reorganized and renamed from the National Security Service, or SNB) for making mistakes and ordered an investigation. Abdullaev claimed to have been tortured by the SNB, and, in February, two SNB officers responsible for the case were reportedly fired.
The judge then in March granted a petition for Abdullaev to be examined for signs of torture. While the examination did not lead to the case’s dismissal, it was a dramatic departure from the norm in Uzbekistan when courts typically ignored all allegations of torture against the authorities.
This turn over events follows the removal of Rustam Inoyatov, who had headed the SBN for nearly 23 years, perfecting the police state in Uzbekistan under Islam Karimov. Karimov’s death in the fall of 2016, and Mirziyoyev’s rise to the presidency kicked off a series of reforms that have stirred hope in Uzbekistan.
Human rights advocates and regional observers, myself included, referred to the Abdullaev case as a test. Much of Mirziyoyev’s reform program has been economic or diplomatic in nature, rewiring how Uzbekistan interacted with its neighbors and international partners and focusing on its marketability as an investment destination in the region.
On the human rights and press freedom angle, some criticized slow movement. There have been undoubtedly positive steps made by Mirziyoyev: the release of some political prisoners, a decree (which the judge in the Abdullaev case referenced) regarding torture, the allowing of Human Rights Watch into the country, and now the conclusion — freedom — in the Abdullaev case.
There’s work still to be done to not only strengthen Uzbekistan’s law enforcement systems, including the independence of the judiciary, but also to address the impunity with which the country’s security services in particular operated for much of Karimov’s 27 years in power.
Nevertheless, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan is not Karimov’s Uzbekistan. There’s always the chance of backsliding, but for now forward movement must be celebrated.