Dear Shavkat Mirziyoyev, President of Uzbekistan,
Your re-election in the July 9 presidential poll is an important moment to look ahead to how the next seven years of your tenure can promote respect for human rights and build on your administration’s past achievements. We urge you at this critical juncture to commit to eradicating the gaps in human rights protection that still remain in Uzbekistan. This letter outlines several areas of human rights concern and proposes recommendations to improve Uzbekistan’s compliance with its international human rights obligations. Areas of concern include the lack of accountability for torture and excessive use of force in the 2022 Nukus protests; violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and religion; and inadequate protection against discrimination.
Your administration has announced a number of human rights reforms and taken other positive measures that have rightly been commended. We note the important steps the government has recently taken to strengthen protections for women by passing legislative amendments that criminalize domestic violence as a standalone offense and by introducing administrative liability for sexual harassment. The March 2022 amendments to the Civil Code include provisions that allow victims of torture or other ill-treatment to seek compensation from the state in civil courts, giving hope that these individuals will be able to obtain redress for the rights violations they have suffered. In 2021, Human Rights Watch acknowledged Uzbekistan’s long-awaited ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Since September 2016, Uzbekistan has released from prison “a substantial number of human rights defenders and journalists,” as was noted by the UN Committee Against Torture in 2019, and has closed the infamous Jaslyk prison. Uzbekistan has also eradicated systemic forced labor in the cotton harvest, though human rights issues remain in this area.
Despite these important steps, the Uzbek government still has a long way to go to translate into meaningful actions the human rights pledges made in the country’s National Human Rights Strategy of 2020 and the country’s obligations embedded in the international human rights instruments to which Uzbekistan is a party.
In 2019, the UN Committee Against Torture said it remained “deeply concerned” that “widespread” torture and ill-treatment was “routinely committed” in Uzbekistan. Human Rights Watch continues to document cases of torture and ill-treatment. in Uzbekistan and a serious lack of accountability persists.
For example in September 2021 police handcuffed Fazilhoja Arifhojaev, a Muslim blogger being held in detention, to a pipe and made him sit in a stress position for nearly 12 hours, causing him excruciating pain, according to his lawyer.
Following the Karakalpakstan violence in 2022, media reported allegations of ill-treatment and torture of some detainees and interference with detainees’ access to lawyers and family members.
On June 5, a court rejected an appeal by Daulet Tazhimuratov, a blogger and lawyer from Karakalpakstan, against his 16-year prison sentence for allegedly instigating protests and undermining Uzbekistan’s constitutional order in relation to the July 2022 events in Nukus. However, Human Rights Watch has seen no evidence that Tazhimuratov did anything but exercise his right to peaceful free expression. Authorities also failed to effectively investigate Tazhimuratov’s allegations of torture and ill-treatment while in custody.
The authorities have not launched the “transparent and independent investigation” into the Karakalpakstan events as called for by then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. What is more, the results of the government established commission headed by Uzbekistan’s Ombudswoman to investigate the events have still not been made public. During his March 2023 visit to Uzbekistan, Volker Türk, the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, reiterated the “call for a transparent and independent ‘after action’ review, including accountability for the loss of lives” in Nukus. Yet the victims of alleged ill-treatment and torture are still awaiting justice, as are the relatives of the 21 killed and the 270 injured through the alleged use of lethal and other force by police and security forces against the largely peaceful Karakalpak protesters.
The right to the freedom of speech in Uzbekistan remains a major concern. Respect for speech and media freedoms has further declined in the last year, journalists continue to face harassment and prosecution on spurious charges, and defamation and insult, including insulting the president, remain criminal offenses. According to Article 19’s Global Expression Score, in 2023 Uzbekistan ranked 133 out of 161 countries and 43 out of 49 countries at the global and regional levels respectively for its failure to guarantee freedom of expression. As recently as last month, a report by the Uzbek Forum, a non-governmental group, featured the cases of 10 bloggers, journalists, and social media activists who have faced threats, harassment, and prosecution; some remain in detention as of this writing, simply for doing their job and exercising their right to free expression.
Uzbekistan’s National Human Rights Strategy states that measures were being taken “to strengthen civil society institutions.” What is more, a national strategy for developing civil society was approved for 2021-2025, which commits to creating “necessary conditions for active participation of institutes of civil society in the public and public administration”. Yet civil society organizations continue to face excessive and burdensome registration requirements and deny registration to independent human rights groups, often on trivial grounds. Working without registration is prohibited.
Freedom of religion in Uzbekistan remains a serious human rights concern. Authorities continue to target Muslims who practice their faith outside state controls with spurious religious and extremism-related criminal charges. The 2021 religion law retains restrictive and rights-violating provisions. The definition of “extremism” remains overbroad and vague, and is used against people solely for their peaceful religious activity or expression. The mere possession of materials deemed “extremist” is grounds for prosecution. Authorities target, in particular, Muslims who practice their faith outside state controls with this charge, even when this does not involve the use, or intent to use, such material to incite or commit violent acts.
The number of prosecutions of people in Uzbekistan for sharing content which the authorities deemed “extremist” continues to grow. The recent sentencing of Jahongir Ulugmurodov, a 20-year-old student, to three years in prison for sharing a link to an Islamic devotional song is a case in point. Ulugmurodov’s conviction for sharing “extremist” material when there was no evidence that he used or intended to use it to incite violence violates his right to freedom of religion or belief. Authorities are imposing what seems to be administrative controls especially in cases related to former religious prisoners who have served their prison sentences in full. A prominent human rights defender from Uzbekistan, whom Human Rights Watch interviewed for its May 2023 report on religious freedom, estimates that “over 70 percent of former religious prisoners are subjected to administrative supervision.” People interviewed for that report, said that “the registration process remains burdensome and lengthy, and in some cases, the authorities continue to impose arbitrary registration requirements.”
In 2020, the UN Human Rights Committee recommended that Uzbekistan “adopt comprehensive legislation prohibiting discrimination … in all spheres, in both the public and the private sectors, on all the grounds prohibited under the Covenant, including … sexual orientation and gender identity or other status.” Two years later, the National Center for Human Rights of Uzbekistan reported that a bill “On equality and non-discrimination” was being drafted. This bill has not since been passed or offered for public review. Meanwhile, gay and bisexual men in Uzbekistan continue to face threats and extortion by both police and non-state actors, as well as arbitrary detention, prosecution, and up to three years’ imprisonment.
We offer the following short- and long-term recommendations to further enhance respect for human rights in Uzbekistan. These recommendations aim to build upon the positive steps your government has taken in recent years, to further strengthen your government’s compliance with its international human rights obligations, and to ensure continued progress towards a more inclusive and rights-respecting society.
- Ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
- Investigate all allegations of torture, other ill-treatment, and the use of deadly force and police violence during the events in Nukus, Karakalpakstan in July 2022. Conduct a transparent, effective, and genuinely independent ‘after action’ review of the events with a view to ensuring accountability for all human rights violations committed during the events.
- Take further measures to guarantee the right to freedom of expression, including of the press, both online and offline. Ensure that journalists, bloggers, and activists can operate without fear of reprisals, harassment, or prosecution for their peaceful expression.
- Foster an enabling environment for civil society organizations in Uzbekistan. Remove burdensome restrictions on registration of civil society organizations and create mechanisms for meaningful engagement and consultation between society organizations and the government.
- Adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that would prohibit discrimination on all grounds including based on one’s sexual orientation and gender identity and guarantee protection to everyone. Lift the existing ban on consensual homosexual relationships for men.
- Ensure that rights-violating provisions related to freedom of religion in the Criminal Code and in the 2021 religion law are amended in line with international human rights law. Specifically, amend the overbroad and vague definition of “extremism” to drop all criminal charges in cases involving the storage of materials deemed “extremist” that do not involve use, or intent to use, such material to incite or commit violent acts.
- Ensure the full implementation of the legislative amendments that criminalize domestic violence as a standalone offense and of the administrative liability for sexual harassment, and take necessary steps to ensure the effectiveness of these legal measures including training and awareness raising initiatives.
We firmly believe that the implementation of these recommendations will contribute to the long-term development, stability, and prosperity of Uzbekistan. By committing to a human rights-centered approach, you can inspire confidence, create a more inclusive society, and ensure the well-being and dignity of all Uzbek citizens.
Hugh Williamson, Director, Europe & Central Asia division,
Human Rights Watch