The scene outside a Tashkent courtroom where two journalists are on trial is at once festive and tragic. Uzbekistan’s embattled human rights defenders, long harassed by the late Islam Karimov’s repressive government, gathered in numbers not seen for years alongside local reporters, international journalists, and diplomats. Camaraderie was in the air as newly freed activists and journalists like Akzam Turgunov and Muhammad Bekjanov showed up in solidarity.
With Human Rights Watch back inside an Uzbek courtroom for the first time in years, we saw Daniil Kislov, editor of the Fergana News website who was visiting Tashkent after 14 years in exile, alongside reporters from officially registered media outlets – gazeta.uz and kun.uz – whose very presence two years ago would have been inconceivable.
After hugs and greetings, we remembered our somber reason for attending. In September security services detained freelance reporter Bobomurod Abdullaev, torturing and prosecuting him on politically motivated charges of a “conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional order.” Then they detained blogger Hayot Nasreddinov and two others on the same charges, torturing at least two of them. Abdullaev testified how security services officers stripped him naked, denied him sleep for days, beat him with a computer cord, and threatened to rape his wife and daughter. His detention shows terrible abuses continue even as the government appears to pursue reforms.
The reunion is a sign of tentative change taking place in the 18 months since Shavkat Mirziyoyev became president. Mirziyoyev has introduced some key reforms, releasing at least 26 political prisoners and relaxing restrictions on freedoms of association and expression.
In contrast to Karimov-era trials, the judge has allowed the defendants to testify without interference, stating that all are innocent until proven guilty, and granted a motion to conduct an independent forensic examination into Abdullaev’s torture claims. But in a throwback to the “old” Uzbekistan, the medical exam did not confirm signs of torture by conveniently ignoring the dates when security services had Abdullaev in their custody.
While it’s anyone’s guess how this crucial test of free speech in Uzbekistan ends, the fact that so many came to bear witness gives us hope.