(Berlin) – Uzbek authorities have ramped up restrictions on media freedoms and kept opposition candidates off the ballot for the presidential election scheduled for October 24, 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. In releasing a question-and-answer document about the elections and human rights in Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch expressed concern that these developments compromise the fairness and integrity of the first presidential elections since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016.
“Uzbekistan has garnered significant international attention for pursuing a reform agenda, but recent human rights setbacks in the country, and the lack of any opposition or independent candidates in these elections, expose the limits of those claims,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Uzbekistan could have shown its genuine commitment to meaningful reforms by allowing presidential candidates who don’t share the government’s views to participate in upcoming elections – but it did not.”
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), the most important election monitoring organization in the region, has warned that Uzbekistan has not addressed a number of its longstanding recommendations. They include “those related to certain aspects of fundamental freedoms of association, assembly and expression, suffrage rights, citizen election observation and registration of political parties,” the organization said. The organization will monitor Uzbekistan’s elections.
Under Uzbek law, only registered parties are allowed to nominate candidates, denying broader political participation in this important vote, Human Rights Watch said. Two potential opposition candidates, linked to the opposition parties, Erk Democratic Party and the Truth and Development Party, had announced their intention to run for president earlier in 2021, but the authorities prevented them from becoming official candidates.
Both parties reported that their supporters have faced harassment and interference in the lead-up to elections. The Truth and Development Party actively tried to register with the Justice Ministry in the lead-up to the presidential election, but was denied registration. OSCE/ODIHR said in a report in May that the ban on independent candidates was “contrary to international [human rights] standards.” Four other candidates are on the ballot, all from pro-government parties, who are not considered a serious challenge to President Mirziyoyev’s hold on power.
In recent months the authorities have also increased restrictions on free speech and media freedoms. In March, Uzbekistan made insulting the president online a criminal offense. In August, authorities brought a charge based on this offense against a blogger and government critic, Valijon Kalonov, after he criticized the president and called for a boycott of the upcoming election.
Other independent bloggers who have been critical of Uzbek authorities or have spoken out against the upcoming elections have also faced spurious criminal charges. In May, Otabek Sattoriy, an independent blogger from Surkhandaryo region, was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison on dubious slander and extortion charges. The authorities are also pursuing slander charges against an independent blogger from Tashkent, Miraziz Bazarov, who had spoken out in favor of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, and earlier in 2021 criticized the upcoming election. The investigation in his case is ongoing and he remains under house arrest.
The question-and-answer document reviews aspects of the upcoming presidential election from a human rights perspective and analyzes the broader human rights context. It outlines key human rights issues such as restrictions on independent civil society, ill-treatment and torture in places of detention, forced labor, and limits on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
“Absent opposition and independent presidential candidates, and the lack of other reforms concerning fundamental human rights, this presidential election is another missed opportunity for the Uzbek government to make good on its reform promises,” Williamson said. “Uzbekistan’s leadership should ensure there is no further backtracking, but rather take urgent steps to ensure better human rights protections in Uzbekistan.”