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Events of 2023

A woman votes in an early presidential election in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on July 9, 2023.

© 2023 REUTERS/Stringer

Uzbekistan’s human rights record deteriorated in 2023, with a notable increase in the harassment and prosecutions of bloggers and journalists, a persistent lack of justice for human rights abuses committed during the Karakalpakstan events in 2022, and changes to Uzbekistan’s constitution that allowed President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to stand for re-election in snap presidential elections in July. Promised legislative reforms were further stalled.

The Justice Ministry continued to deny registration to independent human rights groups. Consensual same-sex relations between men remains criminalized, and impunity for torture and ill-treatment persists. In April 2023, Uzbekistan adopted legislative amendments criminalizing domestic violence and increasing protections for women and girls. Domestic violence remains a pervasive and serious problem.

Presidential Elections

Uzbekistan held a national referendum in March that ushered in a new constitution allowing President Mirziyoyev to run for two additional seven-year terms. After snap presidential elections on July 9, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) election monitoring mission noted that the vote “lacked genuine competition” and involved “significant procedural irregularities.” Authorities denied registration to the independent Truth, Progress, and Unity Party, preventing its leader, Khidirnazar Allakulov, from participating.

Accountability and Justice

On August 4, an Uzbekistan court sentenced two police officers to seven years in prison for torture and another to three years in prison for perjury and leaving a person in danger resulting in his death in connection with the Karakalpakstan events. No other law enforcement officers have been held accountable for the 21 deaths and many serious injuries that occurred during the events, nor has the parliamentary commission tasked with investigating human rights abuses reported its findings.

In two separate trials related to the Karakalpakstan events, a Bukhara court in January and March convicted 61 defendants, including lawyers and journalists, on “rioting” and other charges, and sentenced them to up to 16 years in prison. Of the 61 defendants, 15 were given non-custodial sentences. On appeal, 35 defendants had their sentences reduced. One defendant who had received a six-year prison sentence in January, Polat Shamshetov, unexpectedly died in custody four days after his conviction.

In early May, an Uzbekistan court convicted in absentia Aman Sagidullaev and Nietbai Urazbaev, ethnic Karakalpaks living in exile, on multiple charges, including attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. It sentenced them to 18 and 12 years in prison, respectively.

Torture and Ill-Treatment

Torture and ill-treatment persist as a serious problem. On March 21, 12 police officers were sentenced to 3 to 4 years in prison for torture after beating a 32-year-old man to death in pretrial detention in Shakhrihan district, Andijan.

The Karakalpak blogger and lawyer Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison, testified that law enforcement officers beat him in custody, including with a stun gun, and stood on his head, causing him to lose consciousness. Authorities failed to effectively investigate his claims of torture. Tazhimuratov’s lawyer, Sergey Mayorov, reported in mid-April and again in mid-September that Tazhimuratov continued to face abuse and restrictions in prison.

Authorities continued to ignore a May 2021 opinion issued by the United Nations 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.

Freedom of Speech

There was a serious decline in respect for freedom of speech and the media. In March, approximately 40 journalists and bloggers signed an open appeal to President Mirziyoyev raising concerns about censorship, pressure, and intimidation. Citing pressure, multiple bloggers and independent journalists announced in 2023 that they would cease their work. Defamation and insult, including insulting the president, remain criminal offenses. In October, a Samarkand regional court sent a 19-year-old to prison for 2.5 years for insulting the president online.

In May, Elmurod Odil, a blogger from Kashkadarya region, was sentenced to 15 days’ administrative arrest for hooliganism and disobeying authorities after he tried to film a meeting between silk farmers and local authorities. He claimed police beat him in custody.

Ferghana region police arrested the outspoken and critical blogger Olimjon Khaidarov in late July on charges of extortion. Slander and insult charges were added later. On December 1, an Uzbekistan court sentenced Khaidarov to eight years in prison and ordered his social media accounts blocked.

In early August, a Tashkent court sentenced Abduqodir Muminov, an investigative blogger, to seven years and three months in prison on multiple criminal charges, including large-scale extortion. At his appeal hearing, Muminov said he had been tortured in detention.

The blogger Otabek Sattoriy continued to serve a six-and-a-half-year prison sentence for alleged extortion. In February, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a decision in favor of Sattoriy, calling for his release and that he be provided reparations.

Civil Society

Uzbek authorities obstruct independent human rights activism. The Justice Ministry continues to deny registration to independent groups, including Human Rights House, an independent human rights organization in Tashkent, often on trivial grounds. Authorities made no effort in 2023 to pass a stalled draft code for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but they adopted new regulations on the receipt of foreign funding for NGOs.

Several people were barred from entering Uzbekistan, including journalist Shahida Tuleganova on April 5; Isokzhon Zakirov, an activist who had fled Uzbekistan under former President Islam Karimov, in March; and Galym Ageleuov, a rights monitor from Kazakhstan, in May.

The women’s rights activist Irina Matvienko temporarily fled Uzbekistan in May after receiving an anonymous death threat. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor noted her alarm and called on Uzbek authorities to “promptly [and] effectively investigate the incident.”

Uzbek authorities continue to deny legal rehabilitation to more than 50 people, including human rights defenders, who, between 2016 and 2019, were released from prison after having served politically motivated sentences.

Freedom of Religion

Uzbek authorities restrict religious freedom by preventing registration of religious communities, subjecting former religious prisoners to arbitrary controls, and prosecuting Muslims on broad and vaguely worded extremism-related charges. The last includes charges under Criminal Code article 244-1, part 3, for storing or sharing materials containing “religious extremist” content on social media networks. Jehovah’s Witnesses has made multiple attempts to register in Tashkent and Samarkand since 2021, all unsuccessfully. On Easter Sunday, April 9, police raided a Baptist church in Kashkadarya, detaining and beating several worshippers, according to the international religious freedom watchdog Forum18.

A Tashkent court sentenced the blogger Hojiakbar Nosirov to 15 days’ administrative arrest for “distributing material inciting religious hatred” after he claimed in a video that Muslims should not eat certain yogurt because it could contain carmine, a red coloring agent, and is therefore haram.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Consensual same-sex sexual conduct between men is criminalized with up to three years in prison. Police target gay and bisexual men and transgender women with arbitrary detention, prosecution, and imprisonment. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people face discrimination and harassment from state and non-state actors.

Uzbek police and courts have relied on the conclusions of forced anal examinations in prosecutions of gay men for consensual same-sex relations. Such exams are a form of violence and torture, according to the World Health Organization.

Women’s and Girls’ Rights

Violence against women and girls, including sexual violence, remains pervasive in Uzbekistan. In April, Uzbekistan adopted a new law amending Uzbekistan’s Criminal and Administrative codes that offers better protections for women and girls from abuse as well as strengthened measures to address child abuse. Domestic violence was made a standalone offense. The law increases sanctions for sexual violence, including against children, and introduces administrative sanctions for sexual harassment and stalking. Women’s rights activists helped to draft the bill, but some of their recommendations were rejected.

In June, the OSCE senior gender adviser concluded a three-day visit to Uzbekistan. She stressed in meetings with Uzbek officials the need to “strengthen accountability” and “punish perpetrators” of gender-based violence.

Forced Labor

Independent cotton harvest monitors found no evidence of systematic, government-imposed forced labor for the second consecutive year. Isolated incidents of forced labor and extortion in the cotton fields persisted. Restrictions on independent trade unions and rights groups continued to threaten Uzbekistan’s progress. Agricultural workers and farmers faced constraints on their right to organize and bargain collectively.

Key International Actors

In mid-April, the EU special representatives for human rights and Central Asia, Eamon Gilmore and Terhi Hakala, respectively, met senior Uzbek officials, including President Mirziyoyev, in Tashkent. They discussed media freedom, the Karakalpakstan events, and progress on ending torture and domestic violence.

After visiting Uzbekistan in March, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk urged an “after action” review of the Karakalpakstan events, calling for “accountability for the loss of lives.” Türk also called for the decriminalization of same-sex relations and better protections for media workers.

In June, the EU Sub-Committee on Justice and Home Affairs, Human Rights and related issues expressed concerns about increased government control over NGOs receiving foreign funding and raised several cases of harassment or detention of journalists, bloggers, and activists.

On September 19, United States President Joe Biden met with President Mirziyoyev on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly during the first US-Central Asia presidential summit, but he did not prominently raise rights concerns.

On October 2, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Uzbekistan expressing concern about constitutional provisions allowing the president to extend his time in office and Uzbekistan’s poor human rights record. The resolution called for a “genuinely independent, impartial and effective investigation into the events” of July 2022 in Karakalpakstan.

On November 8, Uzbekistan appeared before the UN Human Rights Council for its fourth Universal Periodic Review. States recommended that the Uzbekistan government address impunity for torture, ensure NGOs and journalists can work without harassment, and address violations of LGBT rights in law and practice, among other actions.