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Uzbekistan: Draft Criminal Code Offers Little Meaningful Reform

Abusive Provisions Persist; Proposal Fails Compliance with International Norms

Exterior of Barak-khan Madrasah in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. © Getty Images

(Berlin) – Uzbekistan should ensure that its new Criminal Code does not just tinker with some problematic provisions, but reflects meaningful reform, Human Rights Watch said today. The new Criminal Code should seek in good faith to comply fully with international human rights treaties to which Tashkent is a party.

While the draft law contains some moderate improvements, it also retains many provisions that violate the rights to freedom of speech, association, and religion. Others fall short of protections to which women, victims of torture, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people are entitled under international law.

“All eyes are on Uzbekistan following President Mirziyoyev’s pledge at the Human Rights Council to make human rights central to reforms,” said Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Now is not the time for a false start, but the time to make good on the president’s words and ensure that all abusive provisions are removed from the draft Criminal Code.”

Uzbekistan’s Prosecutor General’s Office, which was tasked with drafting the new Criminal Code, published the draft law on February 22, 2021 and made it available online for public discussion until March 9. The draft is expected to be submitted to Uzbekistan’s lower house of parliament, the Oliy Majlis, for consideration soon.

The draft contains some notable improvements, for example removing the offenses of “Illegal production, storage, import or distribution of religious materials” (current art. 244-3), “violating the religious organizations law” (current art. 216-2), and “violating rules for teaching religion” (current art. 229-2). Troublingly, these offenses which should be abolished as incompatible with respect for freedoms of expression, opinion, and religion will continue to exist as infractions under Uzbekistan’s administrative code.

On torture, the definition (draft art. 169) has been amended to address recommendations issued by the United Nations Human Rights Committee in January 2020 and the Committee Against Torture in May. However, deeply problematic provisions permit people convicted of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment to remain eligible for amnesty (draft art. 88) and both crimes are still subject to a statute of limitations (draft art. 75). And in cases in which parties reconcile, those responsible for inhuman and degrading treatment are exempt from criminal liability (draft art. 78).

The Uzbek government also still has further steps to take, which it should take, to ensure the full and direct applicability of the Convention Against Torture in national courts, Human Rights Watch said.

Other provisions in the draft Criminal Code are also incompatible with obligations in international human rights treaties to which Uzbekistan is a party. They should be amended or repealed accordingly, Human Rights Watch said.

The current version of the draft law retains criminal sanctions for “violating rules for holding meetings, including religious meetings and ceremonies, as well as rallies, street marches or demonstrations” (draft art. 284), and for “the unlawful formation of a public association or religious organization” (draft art. 282) with imprisonment for up to five years. These provisions should be removed and the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression, association, or assembly should not be criminalized.

International human rights groups and bodies have repeatedly called on Uzbekistan to amend Criminal Code provisions on extremism (current arts. 244-1 and 244-2), which have been used to criminalize peaceful dissent and freedom of religion and belief. The draft law only removes the reference to the “religious” nature of extremism in each article, but otherwise retains the provisions in full. The draft code does not provide a definition of what constitutes “extremism.”

In its May 2020 concluding observations, the UN Human Rights Committee expressly said that Uzbekistan should repeal art. 120, which punishes consensual sexual conduct between men with up to three years in prison. Yet, the draft Criminal Code retains the offense under art. 154, and reclassifies it as a crime against family, morality, and children.

Defamation and insult are retained as criminal offenses, despite President Mirziyoyev’s statement in 2020 that defamation would be decriminalized. Laws that penalize criticism of public figures are contrary to international law, and the fact that some forms of expression are considered insulting is not sufficient to justify restrictions or penalties, Human Rights Watch said.

The UN Human Rights Committee also said that Uzbekistan should make domestic violence an explicit criminal offense as part of the government’s efforts to prevent violence against women. However, the draft does not introduce domestic violence as a standalone offense. And while the draft code criminalizes the act of marrying a child, anyone under 18, the offense carries a maximum sentence of correctional labor for up to three years, but no prison time.

The draft Criminal Code retains the offense (draft art. 203) and increases sanctions for “incitement to national, racial, ethnic, or religious hatred.” The religious freedom watchdog, Forum18, has said that such provisions have been used in Uzbekistan against members of smaller religious communities. Criminal law provisions that protect against incitement to hatred should be narrowly and precisely drafted so as to target behavior which incites imminent violence, and are not susceptible to being used in an arbitrary and discriminatory way particularly against minorities or those who are not favored by the government.

Uzbek authorities should send the draft Criminal Code to the European Commission for Democracy through Law, also known as the Venice Commission, to review its compliance with international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said.

Uzbekistan’s international partners should urge the Prosecutor General’s Office and members of parliament to ensure that Uzbekistan’s new criminal code complies in full with Uzbekistan’s human rights obligations. The European Union should in particular make it clear that a full review of the criminal code in line with recommendations of top UN bodies is key for Uzbekistan’s eligibility for GSP+, a special trade incentive status tied to the ratification and implementation of human rights conventions.

“Unless the criminal code is further revised, abusive provisions will inevitably lead to arbitrary arrests and convictions for any number of actions that should be protected, while other key provisions against abuses will be left out,” Rittmann said. “Uzbekistan’s partners should press the Prosecutor General’s Office and parliament to seize this moment and ensure revision of the Criminal Code isn’t an opportunity squandered.”

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