Uzbekistan’s president-elect Shavkat Mirziyoyev casting a ballot at a polling station during the presidential election on December 4, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters
Three years since Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev assumed power following the death of authoritarian leader Islam Karimov, he has taken some concrete steps to improve the country’s human rights record. In early August, in ordering the closure of the notorious Jaslyk prison – long a symbol of Uzbekistan’s torture epidemic and imprisonment of government critics – Mirziyoyev fulfilled a demand United Nations human rights bodies first issued 17 years ago.

This spring, breaking with decades of censorship of the internet, the authorities lifted a ban on several critical websites. And the government’s key representative on the media recently all but conceded that social media and bloggers are now some of Uzbekistan’s most important arbiters of public opinion.

These moves, combined with the removal of currency restrictions, easing of visa restrictions for visitors from many foreign countries, and a warming of ties with Uzbekistan’s Central Asian neighbors, have contributed to a sense of hope among many ordinary Uzbeks about the possibility for change not witnessed in decades.

At the same time, the government remains firmly authoritarian. Thousands of people, mainly peaceful religious believers, remain in prison on false charges. The security services retain vast powers to harass and detain perceived critics and genuine political pluralism seems decidedly out of reach. Outbursts of public anger about mass demolitions that are part of urban renewal projects and the resulting forced evictions across the country are posing a challenge to authorities.

Other looming human rights tests – such as parliamentary elections set for December, ongoing corruption, stamping out torture and forced labor in the cotton industry, gender inequality, and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people – will reveal a great deal about the ultimate direction the Uzbek government decides to take on its oft-repeated promises of reform.

Release of Political Prisoners: Tip of the Iceberg

Since September 2016, Uzbek authorities have released about 50 people imprisoned on politically motivated charges, including human rights activists, journalists, and peaceful opposition activists. Those released include Yusuf Ruzimuradov and Muhammad Bekjanov – two of the world’s longest imprisoned journalists, jailed for 19 and 18 years, respectively – and peaceful political dissidents like Samandar Kukanov, Uzbekistan’s first vice chairman of Parliament after independence. Kukanov, unlawfully imprisoned for 23 years, had been one of the world’s longest held political activists, after Nelson Mandela.

The release of these 50 people was not random. They are the ones whose unlawful imprisonment the U.S. government, European Union, and human rights groups had been publicly raising for years, illustrating that even in the hardest cases pressure does – eventually – work.

Prison authorities have also reportedly released from prison hundreds of independent Muslims – who practice Islam outside strict state controls – but this is impossible to verify. The authorities have not provided any list of people serving sentences on extremism and related charges, making it difficult to confirm the numbers of those released.

In March 2018, the authorities told Human Rights Watch that they had stopped applying Article 221 of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code regarding “violations of prison rules.” The article had been used for years to arbitrarily extend the sentences of political prisoners. Since late 2017, the authorities have also removed over 20,000 citizens from the security services’ “blacklists.” People on these lists, suspected of extremism, were regularly summoned for questioning and restricted in their ability to travel internally and abroad.

While the releases raised hopes that the government is serious about political reform, the authorities have not provided former political prisoners with avenues for legal redress, including overturning unjust convictions, or access to adequate medical treatment even though many remain in terrible health due to their decades-long ordeals. Some released activists, like Kukanov and rights defender Chuyan Mamatkulov, have challenged their unjust convictions in court. While Mamatkulov succeeded in obtaining a new trial, in July the Supreme Court rejected Kukanov’s effort to quash his conviction, ruling that “all charges in the case… had been proven.”

Uzbekistan has not given any indication that it will pursue a meaningful strategy of truth and reconciliation that would lead to the legal rehabilitation of those freed. Without a meaningful national dialogue about past abuses, it is hard to see Uzbekistan making the leap forward toward greater democracy.

Reform in this area also needs to include amendments to Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code provisions on extremism, which are commonly used to criminalize dissent (articles 159, 216, 244-1, and 244-2 of the Criminal Code). Uzbek human rights defenders, including many former political prisoners, along with international rights groups have called on the authorities to bring these provisions into compliance with Uzbekistan’s international human rights obligations.

Security Services: Old Habits Die Hard

In March 2018, Mirziyoyev issued a decree transferring responsibility for a range of issues from the National Security Service (SNB) to the Interior and Defense Ministries.  This decree came after the January 2018 dismissal of SNB Chairman Rustam Inoyatov, one of the most powerful officials in Uzbekistan, and head of the Security Service since 1995. The SNB was renamed the State Security Service (SGB) and has already had two chairmen since Inoyatov’s ouster.

But the security services show no signs of going quietly and have continued this year to use treason (article 157) and other related national security statutes to detain and prosecute so-called enemies of the state – a tactic that largely defined Karimov’s paranoid rule.

One example is the case of a retired Uzbek diplomat, Kadyr Yusupov, 67, who served as the country’s head of mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), among other positions, until his retirement in 2009. In December 2018, Yusupov was admitted to the hospital with serious injuries following an apparent suicide attempt. Security service officers detained him from his hospital bed in Tashkent on treason charges. He has been held at the Tashkent security services pretrial detention facility ever since.

Security service officers refused to allow Yusupov’s attorney or family to meet with him for nearly five months, forcing him to say he didn’t want his attorney’s services. Yusupov’s attorney only regained access to him in April following public statements of concern by rights groups. Yusupov’s relatives told Human Rights Watch that during the first four months of his detention officers psychologically tortured him, entering his cell two or three times a day. They threatened that if he did not admit guilt, they would rape him with a rubber baton, rape his wife and daughter, and arrest his two sons.

Yusupov’s attorney has petitioned Uzbekistan’s general prosecutor regarding the alleged torture and other due process violations but has not received a response. Yusupov’s trial began in Tashkent on June 23 and, as with several ongoing cases concerning charges of treason, is closed to the public. 

Then there is the case of Andrei Kubatin, a professor of Turkic studies, imprisoned since December 2017 on fabricated charges and also tortured in detention. His crime? Allegedly sharing publicly available historical documents with a Turkish cultural attaché. Kubatin’s case – around which numerous scholars have rallied – shows that despite some efforts by Mirziyoyev to rein in the security services, they continue to play an outsized role in the life of the country.

In addition to Yusupov and Kubatin, thousands of people, most of them peaceful religious believers, remain jailed on extremism charges. But there are also other categories of prisoners on politically motivated charges: Akrom Malikov and Rustam Abdumannapov, scholars; Mirsobir Hamidkariev, a film producer; Aramais Avakyan, a fisherman; Ruhiddin Fahriddinov (Fahrutdinov), an independent religious cleric; and Ravshan Kosimov, Viktor Shin, and Alisher Achildiev, soldiers.

Media More Free, Civil Society Still Restricted

Freedom of speech and the media have improved under Mirziyoyev but remain restricted. With 56 percent of the population under age 30 and increasing numbers of mobile internet users, both Uzbek- and Russian-language online media are experiencing a period of growth. Some pioneering outlets like kun.uz and gazeta.uz are covering sensitive issues such as forced labor and corruption that were previously taboo, helping bring to the fore cases of injustice or wrongdoing by officials. Yet some media remain under state control and self-censorship is still widespread.

Last December the government restored access to YouTube and Facebook, which had been blocked for various periods in 2018. In May, the government unblocked at least 11 independent websites that had been inaccessible for over a decade, including Eurasianet, Fergana News, Human Rights Watch, and the BBC’s Uzbek service. In the past two years, Eurasianet, Voice of America (Amerika Ovozi), and the BBC’s correspondents have all received accreditation. However, Ozodlik, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, remains inaccessible and its correspondents unable to operate openly in Uzbekistan.

The OSCE’s special representative on freedom of the media, Harlem Desir, welcomed the move to provide accreditation to some news outlets, but said that the government should unblock Ozodlik and all other inaccessible sites.

On several occasions Mirziyoyev has urged the media not to hold back in addressing urgent social issues. But in three years as president he has yet to hold a single press conference. He should. Publicly facing journalists in a setting where they could engage with him freely on critical questions would be an important way to send the message that freedom of expression will be protected.

Less dynamic than the steps taken in Uzbekistan’s media environment have been the government’s tentative moves to ease the registration and operation of independent civil society organizations. In 2018 and 2019, the Justice Ministry announced new regulations on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), ostensibly designed to relax registration procedures and the government’s control over these groups’ activities.

One positive move was to eliminate the rule that nongovernmental groups could keep funds in only two state-approved banks. But the government has made no move to overturn a highly restrictive 2015 law requiring NGOs to receive advance permission to conduct virtually any activity or meeting. NGOs tell Human Rights Watch that this particular provision has a chilling effect on their work and infringes on the rights to freedom of expression and association.

The new justice minister, Ruslan Davletov, has adopted a more open posture with these independent groups, but the Ministry has yet to register any new human rights organizations, including any working on sensitive civil and political rights. In fact, the government has not registered a single local rights organization since Ezgulik (Compassion) in 2002.

The Ministry has twice rejected an application from recently released rights defenders – Azam Farmonov, Agzam Turgunov, and Dilmurod Saidov – to register a group called Restoration of Justice. The group would focus on criminal justice reform and legal rehabilitation and social integration for people who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

Barriers to NGO registration have also affected international organizations. While Human Rights Watch has been able to freely visit the country and conduct research since August 2017, it remains unable to register due to a 2011 Supreme Court decision that remains in effect, which liquidated our previous presence. Local rights activists have urged that decision be set aside.

Anything You Want…Except LGBT

Following the UN Human Rights Council’s May 2018 Universal Periodic Review, a process to review the human rights status in each member country in turn, Uzbek officials highlighted to Human Rights Watch the significant number of recommendations it accepted from other countries related to improving its human rights record. One of the few issues on which it summarily rejected recommendations was the rights of LGBT people. Alongside Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan is one of only two post-Soviet states where consensual sexual relations between men are still criminalized, carrying a prison sentence of one to three years (article 120).

Sadistic hate crimes against LGBT people, especially beatings and torture of men perceived to be gay, occur with regularity in Uzbekistan and are often recorded and posted online. In August, an Istanbul-based LGBT activist, Shohruh Salimov, along with others in the community sent a public video and letter to Mirziyoyev asking him to scrap article 120 and protect the safety and lives of LGBT people.

Instead of investigating or denouncing the numerous reported attacks, Salimov told Human Rights Watch that police visited his relatives in Tashkent and threatened to arrest him. He now fears going home. Other activists Human Rights Watch spoke to in Uzbekistan remain in the shadows due to their fear of being arrested, ostracized, and disowned by their families and friends. Criminalization, police repression, and violence against LGBT people need to end if Mirziyoyev truly aims to move Uzbekistan beyond its dark past. Uzbekistan should amend its homophobic legal framework and send a clear message of tolerance.

Will the Real Parliament Please Stand Up?

There is no shortage of human rights problems Tashkent should urgently address – from combatting torture, to addressing domestic violence, and continuing to reduce forced labor in the cotton fields. But several rights challenges loom in the near term that, if addressed meaningfully, could be transformed into genuine opportunities for change.

The upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for late December, are the first opportunity since Mirziyoyev’s own election in 2016 to make good on his administration’s claims that it wants a more assertive, independent legislature able to govern as a truly representative body. Human Rights Watch has interviewed several young people, including women, who hope to run for parliament in these elections. Some of them predict that the more vibrant social media environment, especially the proliferation of popular Telegram channels, will lead to a more competitive electoral process.

But they hold no illusions, since the Uzbekistan in which they came of age has never held elections regarded as free or fair by independent international monitors. Were the government to remove the ban on opposition or independent candidates and parties from entering the race, it would send a message that these elections, and thus the incoming Oliy Majlis (Parliament), will be a decisive break with the past. The OSCE plans to send an election observer mission and will be watching closely.

Property Rights Swept Aside

Another pressing issue is the rising public anger over hastily conducted mass demolitions that seem to crisscross the entire country, ostensibly carried out as a campaign of urban renewal and beautification. The government’s campaign has led some residents to take desperate measures.

On July 20, for example, the owner of a two-story store and workshop set for demolition in the village of Yakkabog in Uzbekistan’s southeastern Qashqadaryo province doused the deputy district head, Mansur Tuymaev, with gasoline, and set him on fire when he arrived to supervise and participate in the demolition of the building.

Ozodlik reported that anger against Tuymaev and house demolitions conducted with little to no compensation or notice had been seething for months in the community. A few days later, more than 1,000 people demanding compensation for their demolished homes blocked a road in northwestern Khorezm province to fend off attempts by police and soldiers to disperse them.

While these were some of the most dramatic manifestations of discontent, spontaneous protests and acts of self-immolation have popped up everywhere from Karakalpakstan to Fergana. Uzbekistan’s constitution and other laws guarantee the right to private property, protect against arbitrary interference with this right, and even guarantee government support in obtaining housing.

As with other issues, Mirziyoyev’s response to the uproar over demolitions has been to contrast himself with the harsh public persona of his predecessor, portraying himself as a man of the people. At a recent cabinet meeting Mirziyoyev berated the governors of several regions:

I read users’ comments on the internet about the demolition of homes in the Rishtan district… People cry in the comments. It isn’t your photograph that is featured there. It’s mine! Have you no shame? Giving your idiotic orders to demolish homes. Before you tear up any homes, you’d better take your own head off first! … You’ve brought shame to all of Uzbekistan! … I gave you the money… so that you would improve the district but also first that you would get the people’s permission.

The Uzbek government should ensure that homeowners, residents, and business owners who have been forcibly evicted get fair and adequate compensation for the loss of their property and costs incurred due to the forced evictions. Uzbek authorities should immediately take steps to provide residents who were denied compensation, or who were left homeless because of infrastructure and beautification projects, access to an effective judicial entity capable of promptly and fairly awarding them their compensation and any other appropriate remedy.

From Positive Steps to Institutional Reforms

Three years into Mirziyoyev’s presidency, hundreds of laws, presidential decrees, and roadmaps have been drawn up to reform Soviet-era regulations on various human rights issues and many topics beyond. All the frenzied 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.

In some ways the Uzbekistan of 2019 would be unrecognizable to the country that existed a little more than three years ago. But darker, ongoing abuses like the torture suffered by Kadyr Yusupov inside the security services’ detention facilities or further house demolitions that ignore fundamental due process and property rights threaten to derail the notion of an opening Uzbekistan.

The test now before Tashkent is to transform the modest steps already taken in the right direction into lasting human rights protection, moving from one-off actions to enduring structural improvements. The Uzbek government should acknowledge past abuses, provide avenues for redress, and send a clear message that peaceful criticism of government policies will be genuinely valued in Uzbekistan.

The best way international actors like the United States, EU, and international financial institutions can promote lasting improvements in Uzbekistan as this process of change unfolds is by pursuing a policy of principled engagement with Tashkent. They should encourage positive changes on the ground by expanding strategic forms of technical assistance, including support for independent civil society and educational exchanges. But it is crucial for these countries to remain vigilant about Uzbekistan’s vast human rights challenges and continue to press in public and in private to make concrete improvements.