Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 19, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

There are hopeful signs that Uzbekistan could shed its reputation as one of the worst human rights abusers in the world, but activists say it still needs to do more.

It’s time for a reality check on Uzbekistan’s reforms. Almost two years on from Shavkat Mirziyoyev taking the presidency in September 2016, some of the Central Asian country’s key international partners are reassessing relations. They would do well to focus on the realities of human rights in Uzbekistan, as well as the government’s ambitious reform plans.

By all accounts things are getting a little frenzied in Tashkent. On a recent visit, we heard from government staff and international officials about the hundreds of laws, presidential decrees, and roadmaps being drawn up to reform Soviet-era regulations on various human rights issues and many topics beyond. Civil servants are working round the clock. “We don’t sleep anymore,” one Uzbek official told us.

All the activity has certainly made a difference. There are signs of hope that Uzbekistan could shed its reputation as one of the worst human rights abusers in the world. Several dozen political prisoners have been released. New laws – if effectively implemented – could be modest steps toward a more independent judiciary and freer civil society. And local media has become more lively, with topics previously seen as taboo getting an airing.

Yet this narrative should not overshadow another: The Uzbek government remains highly authoritarian, the security services retain huge power, free elections and political pluralism are distant dreams, and there are still thousands of people in prison on politically motivated charges.

Both aspects should inform reassessments by Uzbekistan’s partners. European Union member states are expected to agree soon to mandate the European Commission to start talks with Tashkent on an “enhanced” Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is working on a new Uzbekistan strategy for future engagement.

In June the United States upgraded Tashkent from Tier III to the less critical Tier II “watch list” in the State Department’s annual trafficking report, which assesses Uzbekistan’s efforts to combat forced and child labor in the cotton fields. The U.S. is also reviewing Uzbekistan’s stance on religious freedom.

Some diplomats in Tashkent contend that the Uzbek government’s “direction of travel” on human rights is more important than the appalling nature of the journey’s starting point. Yet reality checks on Uzbekistan’s torture in detention, forced labor in the cotton fields, and free expression show that the trip will be long.

Torture and other ill-treatment is endemic in Uzbek prisons. Human Rights Watch in 2011 found electric shock, asphyxiation, and beatings. In startlingly frank comments, the head of the Supreme Court, Kozimjon Komilov, admitted last month that evidence obtained by torture had regularly been used in court. “We have indeed closed our eyes to this sensitive issue for many years,” he said.

A November 2017 law bans using torture-tainted evidence in court. But there are few signs that torture has stopped, as the recent case of a journalist, Bobomurod Abdullayev, shows. He was arrested in September 2017 – a full year after Mirziyoyev took power – and charged with plotting to overthrow the state. The openness of his Tashkent trial drew credits including from Human Rights Watch, but the torture he suffered is chilling. Abdullayev was brutally beaten, kept naked in a freezing cell, and not allowed to sit down or sleep for six days. Although the judge who oversaw Abdullayev’s criminal trial called in May for an investigation into the torture he suffered, no meaningful action has yet been taken.

Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov said in May that there would be “no impunity” for officers who use torture. And in June several security agency officers were jailed for their role in the death and torture of a Bukhara entrepreneur, Ilhom Ibodov. Yet Uzbekistan has yet to take structural steps to address the issue, including ratifying and carrying out a key UN anti-torture protocol and allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to conduct independent prison monitoring. Those would be important steps forward.

In a speech at the United Nations General Assembly last year, President Mirziyoyev acknowledged for the first time the decades-old practice of usingforced labor and pledged steps to abolish it. The government says it is determined to enforce a ban on forced labor by civil servants, doctors, nurses, and teachers, to create an incentive for mechanization and the use of paid labor to harvest the cotton crop.

When we met in her Tashkent apartment, Elena Urlaeva, an Uzbek human rights veteran, was quick to emphasize the significance of a genuine, regular dialogue between government officials, the International Labor Organization, and rights activists on the issue of forced labor that was unimaginable two years ago. But Urlaeva says she still expects that hundreds of thousands of civil servants and others will again be forced to pick cotton in the harvest starting in September.

There is also much light and shadow in Uzbekistan’s experiment with greater freedom of expression. The president has urged the media not to hold back in addressing urgent social issues. As Human Rights Watch has found, some local journalists are covering sensitive issues such as forced labor and corruption that were previously taboo. They have also helped bring to the fore cases of injustice or wrongdoing by officials that have spurred unprecedented debate on social media and in some cases, remedial action. Bakhodir Eliboev, a human rights activist and blogger from Rishtan, says there are now up to 400 bloggers in Uzbekistan. “There could be a thousand within a year,” he said.  

Yet much of the media remains under state control, and censorship is the norm. Journalists self-censor, unclear where the “red lines” are. Several pioneering online outlets such as kun.uz, xabar.uz, and qalampir.uz, were mysteriously blocked for a period last month.

It is a step forward that Voice of America’s correspondent received accreditation last month, but the government is still blocking the same for the BBC, which got the green light a year ago to appoint a local reporter, and others. Keeping a lid on genuine free expression and independent media remain government cornerstones. This should worry Tashkent’s international partners.

The government’s reform efforts undoubtedly face real challenges. These include too few well-trained civil servants, and local officials whose mentality has been shaped by decades of authoritarian rule. Ministries are hungry for know-how and best practices from Europe, the U.S. and other industrial economies (much less so from China and Russia). “We get several requests a week,” one Western diplomat told us.

This offers a clear opportunity for these partners to ensure that, as support for Tashkent increases, they also make clear their expectations on improvements in the rule of law and basic freedoms, with possible consequences for continued support if real changes do not occur.

In this way the realities of human rights for ordinary people in Uzbekistan would come more in line with the government’s ambitious plans.