Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Uzbek Blogger Flees After Release from Psychiatric Facility

Nafosat Olloshkurova’s decision to leave Uzbekistan reflects just how far the state has yet to go with its reforms, particularly regarding free speech.

Catherine Putz
Uzbek Blogger Flees After Release from Psychiatric Facility
Credit: freestock.ca

Uzbek blogger Nafosat Olloshkurova, who was detained in a psychiatric facility for three months in 2019, has left Uzbekistan to seek asylum in Europe. Olloshkurova’s case puts on display the sharp edges surrounding Uzbekistan’s much-heralded reform program. 

In late September 2019, Olloshkurova — who blogs under the name Shabnam Olloshkurova — was detained by police as she monitored the march of journalist and poet Mahmud Rajabov from Khorezm to Tashkent. Rajabov intended to march to the Uzbek capital and petition the government to drop a pending criminal case against him and complain about pressure from internal affairs personnel.

In late April 2019, the Internal Affairs Ministry opened a criminal case against Rajabov, alleging that he smuggled extremist materials into the country. The state’s case is rooted in Rajabov’s possession of books written by opposition politician Muhammad Salih and his brother, journalist Muhammad Bekjanov, who was released after 18 years in prison in 2017

Olloshkurova was given a 10-day administrative arrest for “petty hooliganism.” During her detention, Olloshkurova claims she was subject to severe harassment. In comments to RFE/RL, Olloshkurova says she was was punched and kicked and forced to strip naked before a group of male police officers. She says they threatened to rape her. Olloshkurova went on a hunger strike to protest her treatment; the authorities moved her to psychiatric facility after a court declared her mentally unstable. The abuse continued as she went through “treatment” at the psychiatric facility. According to Eurasianet, the clinic diagnosed her “as being in a psychopathy-like state of paranoia.”

On December 28, Olloshkurova was released. But her reunion with her parents and two young children was tainted by the fact that, as Amnesty reported, “Despite her release, Nafosat will remain under psychiatric observation.”

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Olloshkurova stated on Facebook on January 19 that her decision to flee Uzbekistan was motivated by a visit made to her apartment by Levon Ambartsumov, chief psychiatrist at the Uzbek Health Ministry. She was not at home at the time.

According to various reports, Olloshkurova was accompanied to the airport in Tashkent by Abdurakhmon Tashanov, head of the Ezgulik human rights group, a representative of the U.S. Embassy, and a lawyer, Umid Davlatov.

On January 21, the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent tweeted a statement: “Blogger Nafosat Ollashukorova left Uzbekistan of her own accord. The U.S. Embassy was fortunate to be able to meet with her before she left and will continue to follow her case closely… The U.S. strongly supports #FreedomofSpeech- vital for any society to flourish. Pres Mirziyoyev says critical media is essential for public control of government and success of his reform program. Journalists should be allowed to do their work, not threatened or harassed.”

Indeed, President Shavkat Mirzioyev has made a number of strong statements in recent months about the press and freedom of speech, particularly following a November incident in which the Mayor of Tashkent, Jahongir Artikhojayev, was recorded threatening journalists. But Artikhojayev remains Tashkent’s mayor and the Prosecutor General’s office decided against pursuing criminal charges. Mirzioyev lambasted officials for resorting to “old” ways and threatened sacking for those who couldn’t catch up with the times, but did not directly comment on the issue. Once again, the words at the top are right — but the implementation at the ground level leaves much to be desired. 

Olloshukurova’s case is a sad reminder of precisely how far Uzbekistan has yet to go in accepting the discomfort engendered by a society with a free press. To go a step further, it’s a shame that Olloshukurova has had to leave Uzbekistan — because her voice was a valuable signal for the state’s attention to issues that matter to people. Throwing bloggers and journalists in psychiatric facilities won’t stop the entire community from reporting and writing; and it’ll ultimately only drive Tashkent mad.