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New Uzbekistan, Old Tricks

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New Uzbekistan, Old Tricks

With so many activists in Uzbekistan once again behind bars, the president’s promises of reform ring increasingly hollow.

New Uzbekistan, Old Tricks
Credit: Photo 126780027 © Mirshod Tursunov |

As the government of Uzbekistan celebrates the election of its representatives to three international rights bodies in the last month, my attention is on the increasing number of activists, bloggers, and government critics the very same government has been trying to silence.

There was a time soon after President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016 when rights defenders and journalists – who had previously been imprisoned for nothing more than doing their jobs – were released. It seemed as if a “new” Uzbekistan was emerging: a country more open than it had been under former President Islam Karimov, more open to engagement, open to investment, and also, on occasion, open to reforms. 

But that was years ago, and old habits die hard.

What we’re seeing in Uzbekistan today is a police force and judiciary increasingly emboldened to arrest and prosecute activists and others who criticize the government, including Uzbekistan’s president. Parliament is considering a law allowing the authorities to designate as “undesirable” foreigners whose speech or actions are perceived to “threaten the sovereignty, integrity and security of the country, incite enmity, or humiliate the honor, dignity or history of the people” and ban them from the country for up to five years. 

We are seeing the reemergence of an Uzbekistan that jails rights defenders, bloggers, and government critics on overbroad or unfounded charges.

All while senior Uzbek officials have been elected to the U.N. Human Rights Committee and the governing bodies of the International Labour Organization and ECOSOC, the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council. 

Dilmurod Mukhitdinov, a human rights activist from Andijan, was arrested on April 30 on criminal charges of extortion and degrading the honor and dignity of a person. Other details relating to the allegations have not been made public, but there are concerns that his arrest is linked to his collaboration with Achchiq TV, a local news agency known for reporting critical of government. 

This is not the first time police have targeted Mukhitdinov, a human rights activist for over two decades. In May 2005, he was arrested during the post-Andijan crackdown on civil society in Uzbekistan and was sentenced to five years in prison in January 2006. He was released in February 2008.

At least half a dozen bloggers are behind bars, some prosecuted on dubious extortion charges, such as Olimjon Khaidarov, who was sentenced to eight years in prison in December 2023. Khaidarov is well-known in the Fergana region for his reports criticizing local authorities and for raising concerns related to alleged corruption and free speech. The ongoing crackdown on critical bloggers has had a chilling effect on freedom of speech in Uzbekistan. 

On June 7, the trial of Nargiza Keldiyorova, an activist and member of the human rights group Ezgulik, began in the Kashkadarya Region. The authorities have accused Keldiyorova of organizing teachers into a criminal gang to extort money from several people, for example by threatening to reveal negative information about the former director of a local school.

The prosecution also accused Keldiyorova of “terrorism” and “insulting the president online” for comments Keldiyorova made in private voice messages referring to protests in Kazakhstan and Karakalpakstan in 2022, and about Uzbekistan’s president, respectively. A state-ordered linguistic analysis of her comments related to those protests concluded that she was trying “destabilize the socio-political situation in Uzbekistan” although the comments were not made publicly. She faces no less than eight years in prison, if convicted. 

In March 2023, 40 journalists and others signed a letter to Mirziyoyev expressing concern about the intimidation, censorship, and harassment they faced. Others have announced their departure from journalism. There has also been a notable increase in the number of people jailed for criticizing the president online, a criminal provision that was introduced in 2020 and carries a maximum five-year prison sentence.

Human Rights Watch documented half a dozen such cases in the last year alone, including the criminal prosecution of a 19-year-old for a single comment he left on Instagram that a state-ordered expert analysis found to be “insulting and discrediting” of the president. He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in a penal colony.

Authorities in Uzbekistan have also ramped up efforts to silence activists from the Karakalpakstan region who have openly supported or called for its independence since the violent suppression of mostly-peaceful protests in July 2022. 

In December 2022, Saaditdin Reimov and Kungratbay Redzhepov were sentenced to four and seven years in prison, respectively, for “anti-constitutional activity” after supporting calls for peaceful protests. The lawyer and blogger Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, whom authorities accused of organizing the protests, is languishing in prison serving a 16-year prison sentence after being prosecuted on unfounded charges.

With so many activists in Uzbekistan once again behind bars, the president’s promises of reform ring increasingly hollow and the government’s efforts to have its representatives sit on international human and labor rights bodies seem little more than an attempt to whitewash the country’s image. 

Uzbekistan should immediately release any activists or journalists imprisoned on unfounded criminal charges and renew its commitment to upholding and protecting the right to freedom of expression.