Yesterday, it rained forever; today, the mud is deep and treacherous. We’re in Uzbekistan, two years after the death of the dictator.
It took us about a half hour to drive to this small village from Qarshi, a district capital in the south of Uzbekistan, a small city with a big reputation as a military and security services stronghold. That’s after a three-hour drive from Samarkand and two-hour train journey from Tashkent. This place is not exactly the end of the world, but it is pretty remote – the next-to-last exit on the road to Afghanistan.
We’re getting a bit lost in the warren of sloppy dirt roads in the village, our phones have no signal, and in the low mist and gloom of a freezing November morning, it’s impossible not to think back to where we were just 36 hours before.
A giant disco ball was spinning over folk dancers, as two bands – one traditional Uzbek, one classical Western – took turns playing from opposite ends of an enormous banquet hall decorated in what can only be described as a neo-caravanserai style. Everything was big and shiny and loud: one-hundred-and-ten percent hospitality in a kind of Silk Road Las Vegas. The tables for the 300 or so VIP guests from around the world were piled high with delicacies: dried fruits, nuts, salads, sliced meats, fish, fried chicken, cheeses, pickled treats… And that was only the starter. Next came grilled meats, samsas (pockets of tastiness akin to samosas or pasties), and then plov, Central Asia’s sheep-fat-turbo-charged answer to risotto, and finally, a sweet slice of cake and fruit.
Our Uzbekistan government hosts spared no expense for this two-day “Asian Forum on Human Rights” in Samarkand. They booked out the high-speed train from Tashkent for guests the night before, and guest buses had police escorts as they travelled through the city, with traffic cops holding up cars at every intersection to allow us unrestricted passage.
Being treated like VIPs is a highly unusual – even uncomfortable – feeling for human rights activists in Uzbekistan. For more than two decades under the brutal dictator Islam Karimov, who ruled the country from 1991 when the country declared independence from the Soviet Union until his death in 2016, the government would not have even tried to be friendly. The old regime just about tolerated our existence for the first part of his rule, but then our organization, Human Rights Watch, was kicked out in 2011, the last in a long line of nongovernmental groups and international media to be forced out of the country since the mid-2000s. And for local human rights defenders, the situation was far worse. Many were jailed and tortured.
But this is the new government of president Shavkat Mirziyoyev, more than two years after Karimov’s death, and officials were keen to show us a welcoming face, to demonstrate that things are now changing in Uzbekistan.
As with all our research trips to the country since August 2017, when Human Rights Watch was granted access to the country after the long absence, this visit and meetings with Uzbek activists and government are meant to determine how much of this change is real and how much of it is for show.
The conference hall itself was a walled-off compound, recently built, where dignitaries made lofty speeches with noble sentiments that few could disagree with. As with so many such international gatherings, panels had too many people (and too many men) pontificating rather than engaging in any real conversation.
The guests at the forum, along with the residents of Samarkand, were eagerly anticipating the imminent arrival of Mirziyoyev, who was scheduled to address the Asian Forum—a reason for the heightened security measures around the city and at the event and another sign of the ascendancy of “human rights” in comparison to “the old Uzbekistan.” We were told that Mirziyoyev was called to another engagement at the last minute, though, and his speech was read aloud to the forum guests, touting the importance of engaging with civil society. The forum concluded with a “Samarkand Declaration” of good intentions on human rights.
But the real action was not in the chandeliered plenary hall but in the chandeliered lobbies. International human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were given unprecedented access to some very high-level Uzbek officials. Normally, Uzbekistan’s top government people are not exactly easy to reach; securing a phone number to their office or the email address of a trusted assistant is often absurdly difficult. But in Samarkand for two days, you could just grab people and start a conversation with them – although some of them still wouldn’t give their contact details to human rights activists.
The Asian Forum was the face of the country the Uzbek government wants to present to the world: open, reforming, progressive. It’s the narrative of a country turning a corner, not only willing to discuss human rights but leading the way by holding an international conference on it.
Government officials say they do not want this conference to be a one-off. They’re eager for it to be a process. Speaking in public and to us in private, key officials spoke about holding this forum again every two years, expanding it to include more groups and even starting a process to have an Asia-wide regional human rights body like Europe, the Americas and Africa all have.
It all seems a bold turn-around. For decades, Uzbekistan has been near the top of everyone’s list of the world’s worst human rights abusers, lumped together with countries like Eritrea and North Korea. “Long-Closed Uzbekistan Opens Up to the World,” was how a Voice of America (VOA) headline summarized the narrative that has driven Uzbekistan the past two years, including this conference.
But here’s the thing: while many people in Uzbekistan use a VPN (virtual private network) to circumvent government internet control, those without one couldn’t read that headline or that article, because VOA is still blocked in the country, just like dozens of other outside news websites, including the websites of some of the groups the government invited to the forum. This isn’t exactly consistent with the government’s new “openness” narrative.
Perhaps more disturbing, at the Asian Forum, there was a distinct lack of human rights activists from Uzbekistan itself. Few were even invited, and those who were received notice only a day or two in advance that they’d be welcome, whereas some international guests had months to plan. Some activists in the capital, Tashkent, told us they suspect that Samarkand was chosen as the location for the meeting deliberately to keep them away, and others were detained in Samarkand when they tried to attend the forum, and promptly put on buses with a police escort back to Tashkent.
It is important to note here, however, that there are examples of large, international gatherings in the “new” Uzbekistan where human rights defenders have been able to freely challenge the government line. Indeed, the day before the Asian Forum, we had front row seats at a raucous event organized by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Tashkent to discuss the prevalence of forced labor in the country’s cotton fields—a scourge that has plagued Uzbekistan for decades and grew into the world’s largest case of government-organized forced labor under Karimov.
At the ILO event, we watched as some of the country’s fiercest independent rights activists, Elena Urlaeva, Malohat Eshonkulova, and Azam Farmonov, called authorities to account over the continued mobilization of hundreds of thousands of people to do the back-breaking work of cotton harvest. The Uzbek officials at the ILO-hosted event sat and listened as the rights activists spoke out at a public forum—something that may not sound out of the ordinary in nearly any other country but is revolutionary for Uzbekistan.
Allowing more openness for human rights defenders to speak freely is helpful, of course, but if things are truly to improve in Uzbekistan, the government will need to start listening to them as well.
Chuyan Mamatkulov’s village house outside of Qarshi is a simple set of rooms surrounded by a large, muddy, post-harvest garden following late-November rains. It’s far from the glitz of the Asian Forum, but Uzbek hospitality is the same regardless. We sit on the floor, as is traditional in Central Asia, around tea, nan bread, plates of nuts and sweets, bowls brimming with fermented yogurty yumminess, and something almost salsa-like made from tomatoes. If you want to eat farm-to-table organic with minimal carbon footprint and zero food miles, you’re in the right place.
Our host is equally down-to-earth and speaks with an honest intensity. Mamatkulov has the impressive distinction of being the only person who ever tried to bring legal charges against Karimov, the former president. Mamatkulov is not a lawyer, but there used to be a pathway for such public-generated court actions (a loophole since closed), and listening to him detail his cases, we’re both thinking he sounds like a legal scholar. His command of Uzbek law is as sharp as a shard of glass.
The politically controlled courts didn’t ever let him get very far with his complaints, of course, but even so, the way the regime responded to Mamatkulov’s legal efforts helped him demonstrate everything about the inhumanly destructive nature of the system under Karimov. The authorities sent the police to plant drugs on him and arrest him, and he was handed a lengthy prison sentence.
Mamatkulov was sent to the notorious Jaslyk prison colony. All prisons in Uzbekistan are appalling, but Jaslyk has a reputation as the worst of the worst. It’s known as, “The House of Torture” and “The Place of No Return,” where authorities have employed brutal forms of torture, including in one case, boiling a person alive. Our research from the early 2000s documented how the bodies of some people imprisoned on politically motivated charges were returned to their family members with the most horrifically disfiguring injuries.
From the moment Mamatkulov arrived at Jaslyk, he was tortured. He got out of the vehicle and was made to run a gauntlet of guards beating him as he tried to make his way to the building. When he was shown to his cell, the floor of it was two centimeters deep in a chlorine solution, and there was nothing to sit on. He had to stand for an eternity with his feet and legs swelling from the chemicals and his eyes tearing from the fumes. These are both familiar stories we’ve heard from others who were sent to Jaslyk.
That’s what human rights campaigners mean when they say torture is “systematic” in Uzbekistan. We’re not talking about a few bad prison guards; we’re talking about intense, institutionalized sadism.
How do you even begin to change a system in which people have been doing things like this to their fellow human beings for decades?
Mamatkulov spent years in Jaslyk and other prisons before being released in 2018 under the new president. If you ask how he assesses the tentative reforms Uzbekistan has undergone over the past two years, as a free man, he can tell you that, whatever their overall effect nationally, they have certainly been life-changingly positive for him and his family.
Still, those years that the repressive state stole from him, separating him from his wife and from their two daughters – those are years that none of them can ever get back. And the authorities still refuse to admit any mistake in framing him and jailing him in the first place. This is more than just a question of honor, too. It had practical consequences for Mamatkulov: technically still having a criminal record in the eyes of the state, he was restricted in the jobs he could have and the benefits he could seek.
A few weeks after our visit, however, in an unprecedented development for Uzbekistan, Mamatkulov finally successfully cleared his name, after winning a key victory at the Supreme Court. He was the first former political prisoner to win the right to a new trial and will now seek to hold the officers and prosecutors who unlawfully jailed him accountable.
And, of course, he is busy working on other rights cases for other organizations, using his amazingly self-taught legal skills to find ways to seek justice for victims.
We step out in the yard to stretch our legs and get some fresh air. Mamatkulov’s wife, Dilorom, appears with plates full of hot lamb and onion samsas, fresh from the outdoor tandoor oven. Even the vegetarian among us couldn’t resist, eating the tasty dough and onions around the meat. They are hands-down the tastiest thing we have eaten in a week in the country.
We return to Qarshi full of nourishment and of admiration for the dogged, detail-driven persistence we’ve just seen on display.
There is no denying that Uzbekistan is changing. Under President Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan has seen some notably positive – and very real – changes, including the release of some political prisoners, the relaxing of certain restrictions on free expression, and the removal of citizens from the security services’ notorious “black list.” The government has let researchers from groups like Human Rights Watch come into the country again after cancelling our registration and denying our staff visas for seven years. We had four staff in Uzbekistan in November – the largest contingent in a decade – and we’re now able to hold talks with human rights defenders around the country and meet with some relevant officials. All of this was unimaginable three years ago.
And yet, three activists we met on this trip had unwelcome visits from the security services the day after we met with them. Some got chilling reminders along the lines of: “Nice children you got there. It’d be a shame if anything happened to them…”
Given disturbing incidents like this, it would be tempting to say that nothing’s really changed in Uzbekistan, and the government’s reform effort is all a superficial show to wow the world without fundamentally changing the abusive core nature of the state. But that would be oversimplifying what’s happening here.
It’s pretty safe to say that almost no official’s hands are clean in Uzbekistan. Most of the government figures we’ve been meeting didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. They had top-level jobs under the abusive Karimov dictatorship. But now, you could at least argue, some of them may be trying to change things – from the inside and from the top.
After only two years, it’s not remotely conceivable that they have the entire apparatus on their side just yet. We have been told there’s a group within the hated security services that is dead-set against reforms, some for ideological reasons, perhaps, but many because they are concerned about losing their personal power.
So why are the secret police hassling or threatening a human rights activist for meeting with us? Did they do it because that’s simply been the default position in Uzbekistan for decades? Or did an order come from the highest level of the government? Or from somewhere else down the chain of command? Or from someone possibly even deliberately trying to discredit the reformist leaders at the top?
No state is a monolithic actor, and in an authoritarian state that after 25 years has lost the only leader it’s ever known, it is difficult to say what’s bubbling under the surface. For sure, there are powerful people who will resist reforms.
Officials who enjoyed high ranking in the social hierarchy under the repressive system may not welcome change. Those making a profit from the cheap and free labor that Uzbekistan’s prison-industrial complex provides, for example, may be reluctant to embrace democracy and human rights any time soon. Authoritarianism, like any other political system, creates and maintains its own entrenched constituencies who see change as a threat, and time will tell how many and how embedded those constituencies in Uzbekistan are.
Even among those at the top who are reformers, there are some with dark histories that might make them instinctively reluctant to open things up too much, lest those histories become a topic for public discussion. Taken altogether, the odds might look long, but other countries have managed a peaceful transition away from authoritarianism. In our conversations with rights defenders, former political prisoners and survivors of torture, we drew parallels with some of the efforts in various post-authoritarian countries to bring real accountability for past abuses, such as South Africa, Chile, and places closer to home such as the Czech Republic and the Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania.
Judging from those experiences elsewhere, identifying progress or backsliding in Uzbekistan over the coming months and years will mean intensively detailing the human rights situation on the ground. Hearing what officials promise at international forums is fine, but you need to talk to normal people where they live, and you need to listen to the people who have suffered most.
The man who holds the record as the world’s longest imprisoned journalist is standing by the side of the road just like anyone else waiting for a marshrutka, the essential yet often overcrowded mini-buses that dart along the chunky roads of the former Soviet Union and keep daily travel affordable.
But he’s waiting for us, and we pick him up and drive to the nearest choihona, one of the thousands of roadside tea house rest stops that you find in Central Asia. We pull a table into a patch of late autumn sun and sit down with our famous guest, Yusuf Ruzimuradov.
Publishing a banned opposition party newspaper in 1990s Uzbekistan, Ruzimuradov was well aware of the risks. When things became too worrying in 1994, he and his colleague, Muhammad Bekjanov, escaped to Ukraine and continued publishing their newspaper, Erk (Freedom), abroad.
But international borders did not stop Uzbek security services, in 1999 kidnapping both of them and throwing them on a plane back home, where they were tortured and rushed through a dark joke of a trial.
A lawyer for Ruzimuradov told Human Rights Watch at the time that he and his five co-defendants were held incommunicado and tortured in pretrial detention to extract confessions. Ruzimuradov signed a statement that they had been subjected to electric shocks; beatings with batons and plastic bottles filled with water; and temporary suffocation, called the “bag of death.” He also reported that authorities threatened to rape their wives.
Finally, in late February 2018, Ruzimuradov was freed, following Bekjanov’s release the previous year, both beneficiaries of the new government’s mercy. In a heartfelt appeal we filmed at that tea house in the last glimmers of long-shadowed sunlight that day, Ruzimuradov thanked Mirziyoyev for his release, while still calling for human rights activists to keep up the pressure, and highlighting the need for the authorities, “to allow freedom of speech, and provide for a healthy political opposition and free media.”
Ruzimuradov speaks to the camera and to us with a noble grace, a dignity and a composure that seem almost unreal, given the nearly two decades of unbearable suffering he endured in some of the most horrific prison camps on Earth. He hasn’t lost his good looks, nor his ability to smile despite everything. He even gives a shrug of a laugh when he calculates the number of bricks he loaded onto trucks, working as slave labor over his many imprisoned years. It must have been at least ten million bricks, he figures, “all with these hands.”
As with Mamatkulov, the regime stole much of Ruzimuradov’s life, in this case 19 years. His wife divorced him while he was inside and moved to the US after threats from Uzbek authorities. This is clearly the most difficult issue for him right now. The memory of her surely must have helped sustain him at some low points in prison, but while he was forcibly stuck in a two-decade time-warp, her life had moved on. He’s not giving up on winning her back, but his heartbreak is clear.
The repressive state did this to him. To both of them. And to thousands upon thousands of others in Uzbekistan.
The number of such stories seems endless here. We have been able to meet a few of the better-known political prisoners who have been released, and we’ve met with the families of some still imprisoned. But there are so many more who are under the radar, still locked up for absolutely no legitimate reason.
There’s Akzam Turgunov, the founder of Mazlum Human Rights Center in Tashkent, who was also a prominent member of the Erk party. He served several sentences and suffered unspeakable tortures, including having boiling water poured over his back at a police station. He has thankfully been released and now continues to fight for those still inside, yet the authorities continue to harass him. The very night we met him, we saw three plain clothes security services agents assigned to follow him hanging around in our hotel lobby.
Or consider Samandar Kukanov, a former member of parliament who served nearly 24 years in prison. He says that’s second only to Nelson Mandela in length of time served as a political prisoner in our era. (Mandela served 27 years, and though Human Rights Watch doesn’t keep a full list, his claim to such an undesirable title seems reasonable.)
In May, Kukanov filed an appeal with the Tashkent Regional Court to review his criminal sentence. Shortly thereafter, the court summoned Kukanov and informed him that the case would be re-opened. But in September, Kukanov received a letter from the court informing him that the “materials of his criminal case” had been “destroyed in accordance with established procedure” on April 6, 2017, by the Tashkent Region State Archive. On this basis, the letter said, his requests for “full rehabilitation” could not be reviewed.
There’s the independent journalist Bobomurod Abdullaev, who was detained for nine months in 2017 and 2018 on trumped-up charges of seeking to overthrow the government and tortured, including being forced to stand for six days in a detention cell and endure beatings on his hands and body. In a sign of the changing times, in the end Abdullaev was not sent to prison but only fined and given a one-year suspended sentence.
Now rebuilding his life with his family, Abdullaev has renewed his passion for music. In the months since his release he has produced several amateur music videos on his YouTube channel, including his most recent song, “Iymon asiri” (prisoner of conscience), dedicated to Uzbekistan’s former and current political prisoners.
And then there are the desperate families trying to get their loved ones released.
We met with Malika Kosimova, the mother of Ravshan Kosimov, unjustly imprisoned since 2008. Kosimov had been a promising young army cadet when he was sent to the United States for a prestigious exchange program. His brief association with the West cost him dearly when he returned to Uzbekistan. He was promptly arrested, tortured, and accused of and sentenced for treason for no other reason than having spent time in the United States.
Earlier we met with Feruza Jumaniyazova, whose husband, Andrei Kubatin, was convicted of treason and handed an 11-year sentence in December 2017, reduced to 6 years on appeal. The treason charges against Kubatin, a senior instructor at Tashkent State Institute for Eastern Studies and an expert on Central Asian, Iranian and Turkic peoples and history, are based on allegations that he sent scanned copies of rare academic manuscripts to a group of foreign scholars in Turkey and elsewhere.
Following his conviction, a group of 50 well-known academics from the US, Russia, the UK, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Germany wrote an open letter addressed to President Mirziyoyev urging him to personally pardon Kubatin. The letter stated that Kubatin had no access to state secrets and was engaging in routine educational exchange by sharing manuscripts with foreign scholarly institutions.
The more questions you ask, the more victims you find, and the more you realize just how many families in Uzbekistan have been profoundly affected, even devastated, by the repression that occurred with so much impunity over the past quarter century. There are still thousands of people imprisoned on politically motivated charges. Most are religious prisoners, punished for nothing more than worshiping in a way the state deems inappropriate.
In this country of some 33 million, it’s probably fair to say that nearly everyone is no more than a friend or an uncle away from a terrible story of unlawful arrest, torture or imprisonment.
There is however at least one thing that both former political prisoners and today’s government officials agree on: Regardless of how genuinely reformist and progressive the top politicians are – and that’s still a big question in itself – it’s people further down the chain of command who actually deal with the public every day. And those lower officials have known nothing but abusive authoritarian practices for decades.
In the human rights world, we talk about how states have ultimate responsibility for upholding rights in a country. That’s where the authority, and thus the accountability, lies.
But while that sounds reasonable legally, in the context of abusive state institutions that are deeply divided, the reality looks messier. For example, the authorities are legally obligated to investigate and prosecute anyone suspected of engaging in torture. But in Uzbekistan, that would cover a very large number of officials, and who’s going to do that? The police who themselves may have participated in torture? While it is true that President Mirziyoyev’s government has prosecuted and sentenced a few individuals for torture in the last year, the limits of a speedy transition become clear pretty quickly.
Yet, it would also be all too easy for those in power to use that as an excuse for foot-dragging. “We have to be careful and move slowly,” may sound sensible, but not to those who lost years of their lives under Karimov, nor to anyone who had to stand in chlorine in Jaslyk.
The international buzz about Uzbekistan is largely a simplistic assessment along an imagined spectrum of reform, as if changes proceed linearly and only in one dimension – democratic freedoms, yes or no. But the political situation is so much more complex than that. Power politics between competing elite groups may be more important, and things like human rights merely instrumentalized by one of the competing inner circles.
Diplomats in Tashkent reflect those ambiguities. Some seem relieved that the government is loosening the grip as reforms allow them to pursue new business opportunities without fears of being criticized for dealing with a brutal government. For others, there is a sense that the authorities could be pushed a bit more. But everywhere, ambitions are low.
As human rights activists, we can muse about these issues, but ultimately, we can only judge on visible results. Government intentions and international forums don’t matter much, and political in-fighting even less. We do research, and we look for real progress on the ground.
In these terms, the whole argument about the reforms being a glass half full or half empty is very premature. The current situation in Uzbekistan is more like a few drops of water in a glass sitting in a room full of very thirsty people.
The victims of Uzbekistan’s decades of abuses are the ones thirsting most for change, and they have practical and immediate concerns. Getting the remaining political prisoners freed tops the list, followed by rehabilitation – getting unjust past convictions quashed, so that those who are released can lead more normal lives.
Families of political prisoners would also like the government to stop blocking Facebook and YouTube, two tools they have been using to spread the message about their loved ones’ plight. (There are fresh reports these two sites have just been unblocked, though other sites remain inaccessible without VPN.)
At some point, the victims and their families might also like to see a documentation center, a museum and a monument to the thousands of political prisoners unjustly jailed, tortured and killed in the miserable penal colonies of Uzbekistan.
The real impetus for change comes from the victims and the families themselves, as they increasingly find their voice and push for these changes as much as possible. The government may be wary of moving too fast, but the survivors of their prison camps are fearless.
The top-down reform efforts may eventually get some help from these bottom-up activists. It’s not going to be easy to basically work with your former jailers, but if Uzbekistan is going to move forward, it’s going to take a lot more than a handful of cautious politicians.
An abridged version of this article appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books.