In the last week, two Uzbek bloggers have been punished for what the state views as problematic speech. That the two are quite ideologically different illustrates the state’s unease with what it perceives as extremes, whether progressive or conservative.
On January 26, Fozilxoja Orifxojaev, a Muslim blogger, was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison for a Facebook post, which as RFE/RL reported, “discussed if it was appropriate for Muslims to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious holidays.” He was found guilty of “distributing or displaying materials containing a threat to public security and public order using mass media, telecommunications, or the Internet.”
Orifxojaev was arrested in June 2021 following a public altercation with another blogger and cleric, Abror Abduazimov (who uses the name Abror Mukhtor Ali). Orifxojaev reportedly confronted Abduazimov at the mosque where he was preaching and called the pro-government blogger a “hypocrite.” Orifxojaev was charged with hooliganism and sentenced to 15 days in jail. But after the 15 days he was not released; instead the state charged him with with using the internet to threaten public security.
Abduazimov also factors into the case of the other blogger: Miraziz Bazarov.
Bazarov is a blogger and rights activist who provocatively criticized the state and called for the decriminalization of gay sex in Uzbekistan, referring to it as a personal matter. In March 2021, he was assaulted and savagely beaten by still-unidentified attackers shortly after a mob of men chanting “Allahu Akbar!” disrupted a gathering of K-pop fans organized by Bazarov, believing it to be an LGBT gathering.
While Bazarov was in the hospital recuperating from an open leg fracture, a concussion, and other injuries, the Interior Ministry all but blamed him for the attack. In a statement, the ministry referred to the crowd of men as a “group of our citizens who considered [Bazarov’s] calls as an insult… [and] created a situation compromising public safety by staging mass disorders.”
Others piled on, characterizing the attack as a consequence of Bazarov’s speech.
Soon after, two dozen people filed for slander charges against Bazarov, among them Abduazimov, another blogger, and a schoolteacher. The teacher was offended at a TikTok Bazarov released in October 2020 in which he said “school is the place were elderly female slaves and losers teach children to be slaves and losers.” The blogger was placed under house arrest. Last week the trial took place in a single day, with Bazarov convicted of slander and sentenced to three years of restricted freedom.
Taken together these cases illustrate the circumscribed space available for free speech in Uzbekistan and the state’s heavy role in policing speech.
In December, Human Rights Watch called for the state to drop the charges against Orifxojaev. The organization wrote: “Expressing in a Facebook post a religious view about whether Muslims can or should congratulate people of other faiths on their religious holidays may be contentious to some, but it is certainly not a crime, and moreover, is speech protected by international human rights norms.”
Speech always has consequences: People may think you’re a jerk or a bigot; they might not want to read your blogs or hire you. This is the reality of living in a society; society judges your choices. But criminalizing speech and involving the state in policing opinions or tolerating crimes (such as assault) against those whose opinions the state doesn’t like is where open societies draw a line.