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Uzbekistan Should Free Imprisoned Lawyer

Court Releases, Reduces Sentences of 14 Other Karakalpakstan Defendants

 Defendants listen to the verdict in their trial on charges related to the July 2022 protests in Nukus, the main city in Karakalpakstan, at a court in Bukhara, Uzbekistan on January 31, 2023. © 2023 AFP via Getty Images

“Onward, Karakalpaks!,” shouted blogger and lawyer Daulet Tazhimuratov from his glass cage in the Tashkent courtroom on June 5, minutes after his appeal trial concluded and a judge left his 16-year prison sentence intact.

Fourteen other defendants standing trial with Tazhimuratov for alleged crimes in connection with July 2022 protests in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan’s autonomous region, had their sentences either reduced or converted to noncustodial “restricted freedom” terms. Eight of the defendants were released from the courtroom.

Karakalpakstan’s constitution states that Karakalpakstan is “a sovereign democratic republic” with the right to “secede from the Republic of Uzbekistan on the basis of a nation-wide referendum held by the people of Karakalpakstan.” Tazhimuratov’s position against constitutional amendments proposed in 2022 that would have stripped Karakalpaks of this right were not separatist, as the state argued, but constitutionally protected, his lawyer, Sergey Mayorov, explained to the court during the hearing. There is video evidence that Tazhimuratov called for peaceful protests, not instigated an uprising.

Human Rights Watch has not seen any comments by Tazhimuratov 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.

The difference between the court’s handling of the other defendants, all of whom expressed remorse for their alleged actions, and Tazhimuratov, who maintained his innocence and mounted an active defense in court, was stark.

Tazhimuratov did not get a fair trial. His guilty verdict hinged on court-ordered “expert” conclusions and witness testimony, which his lawyer, Sergey Mayorov, effectively challenged during his appeal. Mayorov detailed in court how the state-ordered “expert” analyses were carried out in violation of Uzbek law and noted that specialists who do not know Karakalpak language conducted linguistic and psychological analyses of Tazhimuratov’s speech. Authorities also failed to effectively investigate Tazhimuratov’s claims of torture while in custody.

After the hearing, Mayorov described the court’s decision to uphold his client’s 16-year prison sentence as “an absolutely unfair, unlawful sentence.”

In early July, Uzbekistan will go to the polls in snap presidential elections. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the incumbent who faces no real challengers, has positioned himself as a reformer who will usher in a “new” Uzbekistan, in which citizen’s rights are respected and upheld.

Tazhimuratov is due no less. His rights should be respected and upheld. He should be freed.

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