(Berlin, January 31, 2023) – An Uzbekistan court on January 31, 2023, convicted all 22 defendants in a trial over July 2022 protests in the Karakalpakstan autonomous region, Human Rights Watch said today.
The key defendant, Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, was sentenced to 16 years in prison by a court in Bukhara. Fifteen others were sentenced to between 3 and 8 ½ years in prison. Six will serve noncustodial sentences with some restrictions on their activities. Uzbek authorities should comply with their legal obligations and investigate Tazhimuratov’s allegations during the trial of torture in detention.
“The guilty verdicts in the Karakalpakstan trial make political points but do nothing for the 21 people who died and many others who suffered serious injuries,” said Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Uzbek authorities have still not held anyone accountable for law enforcement’s unjustified use of lethal force in response to the July protests.”
Human Rights Watch has found that Uzbek security forces used unjustifiable lethal force and other excessive responses to disperse mainly peaceful demonstrators on July 1 and 2. The security forces inappropriately used small arms and various types of flash/bang grenades, weapons that can cause severe injuries and death when used recklessly.
The protests were against proposed constitutional amendments that would have removed from Uzbekistan’s Constitution Karakalpaks’ right to vote on independence in a referendum and a reference to the region’s sovereign status. The proposed amendments were later withdrawn. All but one of the defendants sentenced on January 31, a former police officer, were civilians.
After the protests were dispersed, Uzbek authorities initially detained over 500 people. For several months, the Prosecutor General’s Office did not provide any updated official information regarding the total number of people still in detention.
In a mid-December written response to a query sent to the Prosecutor General’s Office by the commission created by parliament in mid-July to investigate human rights violations during the protests, the Prosecutor General’s office said that in addition to the 22 defendants in the Bukhara trial, 39 others remain in pretrial detention, but did not provide further details about their alleged wrongdoing. In the communication, which the commission made public, the Prosecutor General’s Office also said that it is looking into the legality of the authorities’ use of force in a separate criminal case and has opened preliminary investigations into two of the deaths.
Prosecutors accused Tajimuratov, 43, a lawyer and journalist, of orchestrating “mass riots” in Karakalpakstan and attempting to seize power in collusion with other defendants, including Lolagul Kallykhanova, 33, a journalist and founder of the website Makan.uz, who was sentenced to eight years of “restricted freedom.” Both were charged with organizing mass riots, conspiring to overthrow the constitutional order, and distributing materials containing a threat to public security. At the sentencing hearing, the court announced that the charge of “causing intentional grave bodily injury” under article 104 of the criminal code had been withdrawn.
Tazhimuratov was also found guilty of alleged large-scale embezzlement and legalizing proceeds of a crime relating to news articles he had previously written. He was ordered to pay 228.8 million Soms (USD$20,200) in damages.
The charge against Tazhimuratov of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” harkens back to the era of President Islam Karimov, who died in 2016, when human rights defenders and others were sentenced to lengthy prison terms in politically motivated trials, Human Rights Watch said.
Tazhimuratov vehemently denied all the charges and maintained his innocence. Kallykhanova and the other 20 defendants fully or partially confessed and expressed remorse during the trial. The defendants have 20 days to file an appeal.
In the lead up to the Karakalpakstan events, Tazhimuratov and Kallykhanova repeatedly spoke out against the proposed constitutional changes. Tazhimuratov had called for a peaceful protest on July 5.
However, Human Rights Watch has not seen any comments by Tajimuratov or Kallykhanova in the lead up to the Karakalpakstan events that would constitute speech that could justifiably be criminalized under international human rights law. Expressing a political opinion and calling for peaceful protests is protected speech.
Tajimuratov’s allegations in court of ill-treatment and torture in pretrial detention also are a cause for concern, Human Rights Watch said. On December 1, Tazhimuratov testified that he was beaten by law enforcement, including with a stun gun, after he was initially detained on July 1, and then again on July 4, after he was detained again. He said that the police stood on his head, causing him to lose consciousness.
Uzbek authorities did not address his allegations during the trial, nor have they indicated whether they have opened an investigation. This raises serious concern that evidence tainted by torture or other prohibited ill-treatment may have been accepted at the trial in violation of multiple human rights norms, Human Rights Watch said.
Uzbekistan’s partners should press the government to set an independent and impartial investigation of the Karakalpakstan events, including investigating protesters’ and others deaths and severe injuries and the security force actions, including their use of weapons. These issues are central to ensure accountability for the human rights violations that occurred, Human Rights Watch said.
The United Kingdom, United States, and European Union previously called for an independent investigation as did the then-United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
“Uzbekistan wants to turn a page on what happened in July 2022, but the convictions of protesters do not address the key question of how 21 people were killed and so many suffered serious injuries,” Rittmann said. “Uzbek authorities should waste no time in bringing to justice the officials responsible for the use of unjustified lethal and excessive force.”