Stalled legal reforms, continued restrictions on freedom of speech, and authorities’ heavy-handed response to protests in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan contributed to the decline of Uzbekistan’s human rights record in 2022. Authorities targeted outspoken and critical bloggers with criminal charges, and obstructed the work of independent human rights groups. Consensual same-sex relations between men remained criminalized. Impunity for domestic violence, ill-treatment, and torture is the norm.
An alliance of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), trade unions, and business associations found no evidence of systemic forced labor in Uzbekistan’s 2021 cotton harvest, and in March announced an end to the long-standing international boycott of Uzbekistan’s cotton.
In June, the government published proposed constitutional amendments, including a provision that would enable the president to remain in office for another two seven-year terms. Uzbekistan’s political system remains authoritarian.
Conduct of Police and Security Forces
At least 21 people were killed and over 270 were injured in early July in Uzbekistan’s autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, following protests over proposed constitutional amendments that began on July 1 in Nukus, the regional capital. Then-United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on July 5 called on authorities to “immediately open a transparent and independent investigation.” United States and European Union officials also called for an investigation.
Human Rights Watch found that law enforcement officers used excessive force in response to the largely peaceful demonstrations in Karakalpakstan, leading to serious injuries and unlawful deaths of multiple participants. Police initially detained more than 500 people, including the activist, Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, who had first called for protests. It is not known how many people remain in detention at time of writing.
Criminal Justice, Torture
A serious lack of accountability for torture and ill-treatment persists. Following the Karakalpakstan violence, media reported allegations of ill-treatment and torture of some detainees and interference with detainees’ access to lawyers and family members. On July 15, the Uzbek government established a commission headed by Uzbekistan’s Ombudswoman to investigate human rights violations, but its composition means it is not independent of government influence.
Review of the draft criminal code, which retains many rights-violating articles, stalled throughout 2022.
Authorities continued to ignore a May 2021 opinion issued by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention calling for the immediate release of Kadyr Yusupov, a former diplomat imprisoned in January 2020 for five-and-a-half years on charges of treason. In December 2021, Yusupov was transferred to an open prison.
Freedom of Speech
Authorities continued to imprison bloggers in 2022, as respect for speech and media freedoms further declined. Journalists faced harassment and prosecution. Defamation and insult, including insulting the president, remain criminal offenses. On January 21, a Tashkent court convicted the blogger Miraziz Bazarov on criminal slander charges and imposed restrictions on his freedom of movement for three years. In April, the Supreme Court upheld the blogger Otobek Sattoriy’s six-and-a-half-year prison sentence on dubious extortion charges.
On January 26, the Muslim blogger and government critic Fazilhoja Arifhojaev was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison on charges of threatening public security for reposting and commenting on a social media post about whether a Muslim should congratulate non-Muslims on their religious holidays. His sentence was upheld on appeal.
On February 3, a Khorezm court sentenced Sobirjon Babaniyazov to three years in prison for insulting the president online. Valijon Kalonov, a 52-year-old government critic from Jizzakh who had called for a boycott of the 2021 presidential elections, is being held in a psychiatric hospital in the Samarkand region, after a court ruled in December 2021 he should undergo compulsory psychiatric treatment.
On July 1, police arrested the Karakalpak journalist Lolagul Kallykhanova on accusations of encroaching public safety after she publicly spoke out against proposed constitutional amendments. At time of writing, she remained in detention.
Uzbek authorities appeared to have disrupted internet access in Karakalpakstan starting June 27, with a complete shutdown from July 1. Internet Outage Detection and Analysis, a network traffic measurement tool, reported that the internet in Karakalpakstan was intermittently cut from July 1 to 3.
Uzbek authorities hinder the work of independent NGOs with excessive and burdensome registration requirements. Authorities made no effort in 2022 to pass the stalled draft NGO code, but on June 13 passed a decree requiring local NGOs that receive foreign funding cooperate with a state-appointed national partner, ensuring state control over project implementation. Agzam Turgunov, founder of the independent rights group Human Rights House, submitted his tenth application for registration in October 2022, and at time of writing was awaiting response.
Uzbek authorities persisted in their refusal to restore full legal status and rights to more than 50 people, including human rights defenders, who, since 2016, had been released from prison after having served politically motivated sentences.
Freedom of Religion
Muslims who practice their faith outside state controls continued to be targeted by authorities with spurious religious and extremism-related criminal charges. Authorities also persisted in forcing some Muslim men to shave off their beards.
In July, a Bukhara court sentenced Bobirjon Tukhtamurodov to 5 years and 1 month imprisonment for participating in a banned religious organization. Other Muslims, including Oybek Khamidov, Khasan Abdirakhimov, and Alimardon Sultonov, were imprisoned on extremism related criminal charges in 2022. According to Forum18, an international religious freedom watchdog, citing a communication by the Tashkent police, two dozen Muslims were arrested in February on extremism related charges.
In September, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended in its annual report that Uzbekistan be placed on the United States’ special watch list for violators of religious freedom. USCIRF reported that the Uzbek security agents pressured rights defenders not to meet with them during an April visit to Uzbekistan.
Domestic violence remains largely unaddressed in Uzbekistan. In its February conclusions on Uzbekistan, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women noted concern about the “high incidence of gender-based violence against women” and called on the government to explicitly criminalize domestic violence, effectively investigate and punish perpetrators, and strengthen victim services and protection, amongst other recommendations.
On June 21, UNICEF representative in Uzbekistan Munir Mammadzade expressed concern over violence perpetrated against women and children, which it deemed commonplace, and called for an end to impunity and access to improved protection and family support services.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
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 under Article 120 of the criminal code. According to the National Centre for Human Rights, a government body, 25 of 36 people convicted in 2021 under Article 120 are serving prison sentences.
In late August, the Internal Affairs Ministry proposed a new law requiring compulsory medical examinations of so-called “dangerous groups,” namely men who have sex with men, sex workers, and drug users, to test for HIV.
Counterterrorism and “Extremism”
In March, reporting on her visit to Uzbekistan that concluded in December 2021, the UN Special Rapporteur for Protecting Human Rights while Countering Terrorism Fionnuala Ní Aoláin found that Uzbekistan’s “broad and vaguely defined” definitions of terrorism and extremism impinge on fundamental rights. She expressed “deep concern” about fair trial guarantees and the use of so-called “expert” evidence in counterterrorism and extremism cases.
Separately, she commended the Uzbek government for repatriating more than 500 nationals from northeast Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Most are women and children who are family members of Islamic State (ISIS) suspects. Human Rights Watch surveys with parents, teachers, and social workers of repatriated children found that many of the children are attending school and reintegrating quite well.
On March 10, the Cotton Campaign announced that its monitors observed no systemic forced labor in the 2021 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan, although individual cases of forced labor and some coercion and interference by local authorities persisted. As a result, the campaign ended a 11-year-old pledge by over 330 international companies not to use Uzbek cotton in their products. The lack of independent trade unions and NGOs to monitor labor rights violations undermines the progress Uzbekistan has made so far.
Key International Actors
Following its February 2022 review of Uzbekistan, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed concern about the inability of civil society organizations to operate freely, and the intimidation, harassment, violence, and stigma against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people in Uzbekistan, among other concerns.
On her visit to Uzbekistan in June, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed commended Uzbekistan’s president on the country’s reform path. According to the UN, human rights were among the topics Mohammed raised during the visit.
In March, European officials conducted a monitoring visit to review Uzbekistan’s progress fulfilling its obligations under the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP+) unilateral trade preferences, a schemed conditioned on the ratification and implementation of core human rights treaties. The officials addressed human rights and rule of law concerns, paying particular attention to “registration of NGOs and Trade Unions and anti-discrimination.”
During its Human Rights Dialogue with Uzbekistan in March, the EU raised concerns on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, registration of NGOs, and anti-discrimination, and called for prompt investigations of attacks against bloggers and protesters. On July 6, the EU and Uzbekistan formally concluded negotiations for a new Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which provides for cooperation on human rights and fundamental freedoms, among others.