This special update prepared for the CIVICUS Monitor by the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, provides an overview reflecting some of the main developments in freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Uzbekistan during 2021.
In his first term of office, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has taken much publicised steps to improve Uzbekistan’s image in the eyes of the international community by announcing a programme of judicial reform, improving legal safeguards against torture, releasing over two dozen political prisoners and human rights defenders, allowing some visits by international observers and human rights organisations and significantly revising legislation.
In June 2020, the National Strategy of Uzbekistan on Human Rights was approved by Presidential Decree. The strategy sets out action plans and monitoring mechanisms on human rights issues including on the prevention of torture. This decree joins a swathe of human rights and justice related legislation passed since President Mirziyoyev came to power. Although some of the stated plans provide a framework for improvements in the human rights situation in the country, it is of utmost importance that the laws are implemented in practice and that civil society and international bodies and media outlets are allowed enough freedom to effectively monitor developments on the ground.
Currently, there are several key areas which give cause for concern: judicial independence continues to be routinely undermined by the executive branch of power; President Mirziyoyev’s government continues to refute credible reports of torture and ill-treatment; past abuses have not been addressed; local human rights defenders, independent journalists and bloggers and others who voice criticism of the government continue to be at risk of reprisals; and consensual homosexual adult sex is an offence in Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code.
Pressure against opposition activists ahead of presidential elections
According to official information, incumbent President Shavkat Mirziyoyev won the presidential elections held in Uzbekistan on 24th October 2021 by more than 80 percent of the vote. As highlighted by international observers, the elections were characterised by the lack of meaningful competition. While only officially registered political parties were allowed to put forward presidential candidates, no genuine opposition parties have succeeded in obtaining registration in the country and were therefore unable to nominate candidates for the elections. At the same time, opposition activists were harassed and intimidated in the run-up to the presidential elections.
Khidirnazar Allakulov, chair of the new opposition party ‘’Truth and Progress’’, who publicly announced his intention to stand in the presidential elections in autumn 2020, reported facing internet trolling, surveillance and other intimidation, including being detained for questioning and physically attacked by unknown perpetrators. During a media interview in late October 2021, he said that he had been forced to suspend his political activities due to pressure against him and his relatives. The Ministry of Justice denied registration to his party because of its alleged failure to gather the number of signatures required by law. However, many of its supporters reported that they withdrew their signatures after being threatened with reprisals by state bodies and representatives of makhalla (neighbourhood) committees.
Makhmud Davronov, former deputy chair of the “Truth and Progress’’ party and co-chair of another newly founded opposition party (“Free Motherland”), told AHRCA about a series of acts of harassment aimed at discouraging him from continuing his political activities.
In one incident, on 5th June 2021, he was apprehended by police as he was travelling by bus to Tashkent to attend a party meeting and taken to a remotely located police facility, where he was held for three hours and subjected to intimidation. He has been held under surveillance and has repeatedly received anonymous phone calls with threats, warnings and insults. A few days before the presidential elections, he learned that he had been banned from leaving the country because of alleged utility debts – in early November 2021 this ban was lifted, but he erroneously remained on the government’s list of people failing to pay their gas and water bills.
Jahongir Otajonov, a well-known singer, was subjected to pressure after he announced plans to join the presidential race in January 2021 and subsequently received backing by the unregistered opposition party Erk. Among other intimidation, he reported being summoned for interrogation by the police and threatened with reprisals against his family members unless he stopped his political activities. Due to the pressure he faced, he dropped his presidential bid in July 2021.
However, he later faced renewed intimidation related to his political engagement. In October 2021, he was barred from leaving the country because of his alleged failure to pay child support, an accusation he said was false. He also reported receiving new threats against his relatives.
Expression and Association
The operating space for civil society remains seriously restricted in Uzbekistan, despite some reform steps taken by the current authorities. In March 2021, President Mirziyoyev approved a “Concept on Development of Civil Society in 2021-2025” and a road map for its implementation. The documents set out actions to improve the legal framework for civil society organisations (CSOs), CSO partnership with state structures, state support for CSOs, and CSO oversight over state bodies’ activities. Although the adoption of this package was welcome, its impact in practice will depend on the steps taken in its follow up. It is also of concern that the concept and road map were drawn up without meaningful consultation with local civil society stakeholders and that they fail to address several issues of key importance for NGOs in Uzbekistan, including the considerable obstacles facing new NGOs trying to register as legal entities, excessively complex reporting requirements for NGOs and the need for NGOs to notify and obtain prior state approval before receiving foreign grants or conducting events.
Although the government publicly claims that there are over 10,000 NGOs now operating in Uzbekistan, closer examination reveals thatthemajorityofsuch organisations are infact government-organised non-governmental organisations (GONGOs).The Uzbekistan Independent Institute for Formation of Civil Society reported that 66 per cent of groups are GONGOs, with nearly half of them established by government decree. On the other hand, independent civil society initiatives, and in particular those which focus on human rights, usually struggle to obtain official registration.
The process of registering new NGOs remains fraught with difficulties, and several independent NGOs have repeatedly been denied registration on grounds that appear to be politically motivated.
For example, human rights defender and former political prisoner Agzam Turgunov has received eight rejections since February 2019 when attempting to register his human rights NGO (first under the name Restoration of Justice, later Human Rights House). In August 2021, the Ministry of Justice refused Turgunov’s eighth application for registration, claiming that he had failed to submit two copies of the organisational mandate and proof of having paid the registration fee, although Turgunov and his lawyer maintained that they submitted all required documents and receipts. The previous rejections have also been based on unsubstantiated or unclear grounds, and the ministry has frequently cited alleged minor technical mistakes when returning Turgunov’s application documents, finding new objections after the applicants have diligently addressed those previously raised. The latest refusal prompted Turgunov and his co-founders to file a lawsuit against the Ministry of Justice because of its failure to grant registration to their organisation. However, the Tashkent court to which the lawsuit was submitted refused to review it ‘’on formal grounds’’, a decision that the group appealed in late October 2021. In the same month, Human Rights House submitted a new request for registration.
Restrictions on Freedom of Expression: bloggers targeted
Although there have been certain improvements with respect to media and internet freedoms since President Mirziyoyev came to power, the free speech climate remains restrictive both on- and offline. In accordance with amendments to the Law on Informatisation adopted in March 2021 the owners of online resources are required to ensure that these resources are not used for the dissemination of ‘’knowingly false’’ information, ‘’defamatory’’ information, or other information defined as impermissible through vaguely worded language. The failure to promptly remove such information, if detected, might result in access to the online resources in question being restricted. The dissemination of “false” information, as well as defamation and insult are all punishable under the current Criminal Code, including through online channels.While slander and insult can no longer result in imprisonment, the separate crime of insulting the president is punishable by up to five years in prison, and the dissemination of ‘’false’’ information about COVID-19 and other infectious diseases carries a penalty of up to three years in prison.
The practice of blocking of websites continues, and the election observation mission led by the ODIHR identified over 60 websites of local and international media outlets, services and human rights organisations that were inaccessible throughout the presidential election campaign. At the beginning of November 2021, the state agency in charge of oversight in the area of telecommunications restricted access to Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Telegram and other social media and messenger platforms, accusing them of failing to store user data on servers located in Uzbekistan, a requirement introduced under a law adopted in January 2021. This move caused an outcry, resulting in the head of the agency being dismissed on the president’s orders, and access to the platforms being restored. However, Twitter, TikTok and some other platforms, to which access had previously been restricted on the same grounds, reportedly remained unavailable.
Ahead of the presidential elections in October 2021, growing intimidation and harassment of journalists and bloggers was reported. Among others, journalists working with the Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, whose site remains blocked in the country, received a series of online threats, including rape threats. Moreover, several outspoken bloggers have been targeted for prosecution in recent months.
Blogging on corruption and other issues sensitive to people in power remains a dangerous profession in Uzbekistan. In accordance with amendments to the Law on Informatisation adopted in March 2021, the owners of online resources, including bloggers, are required to ensure that their resources are not used for the dissemination of ‘’knowingly false’’ information, ‘’defamatory’’ information, or other information defined as impermissible through vaguely worded language. The failure to promptly remove such information, if detected, might result in restrictions to the access to the online resources in question. In an alarming development, outspoken bloggers have been targeted for prosecution in several recent cases.
Blogger Miraziz Bazarov is currently facing slander charges, believed to beaimed at punishing him for exercising his right to freedom of expression. As an active and well-known blogger, Bazarov has repeatedly criticised the authorities, includingfor the lack of transparency and public control over the government’s use of COVID-19 related loans, and the double standards amongst officials in relation to LGBTQI+ people. The investigation against Bazarov was first opened in late April 2021, when he was placed under house arrest. Five months later, on 27th September 2021, he was officially charged with slander (under Criminal Code article 139), which is punishable by fines of the equivalent of over 10,000 EUR, up to 400 hours of community work or three years’ restriction of his freedom of movement. The police claimed to have received numerous complaints about Bazarov’s social media posts, and the charges against him were formally based on a state-ordered expert assessment of a video in which he criticised a Tashkent school and its teachers. On 7th October 2021, the criminal case against Bazarov was sent for further investigation and his term of house arrest was extended until 29th November 2021. During his house arrest, the blogger has been prohibited from using social media and communicating with others except for in emergency situations.
Prior to facing investigation for slander, on 28th March 2021, Bazarov was physically attacked by masked men as he was walking in Tashkent, sustaining injuries for which he required a month-long hospital treatment. The police opened an investigation into the attack, but there are concerns about its impartiality and effectiveness. Bazarov had previously received violent online threats, for which no one has been held to account.
In another case of concern, on 10th May 2021, a district court in the Sukhodarya region in southern Uzbekistan sentenced blogger Otabek Sattoriy to six and a half years’ imprisonment on charges of “slander” and “extortion” (articles 139 and 165 of the Criminal Code). There are credible allegations that the charges against Sattoriy were fabricated to punish him for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression. On his Telegram and YouTube channels, the blogger had repeatedly accused representatives of local authorities of corruption. The initial charges against Sattoriy relate to a reported act of provocation in December 2020, in which he was attacked and his mobile phone was broken as he visited a local market to report about food prices. Sattoriy wrote a complaint to the police but the perpetrators, who were reportedly associated with the director of the market, persuaded him to agree to reconcile, promising to buy him a new phone. Minutes after receiving the new phone, the blogger was detained and accused of extortion. Subsequently, additional charges were brought against him on the basis of complaints from individuals whom he had previously accused of corruption. Bazarov was convicted following an unfair trial during which no evidence of his guilt was presented and the court failed to take into account statements made by the defence, including Sattoriy’s claims that he had been tortured and ill-treated in pre-trial detention.
Individuals who publicly criticise the authorities also remain at risk of persecution. For example, on 8th October 2021, human rights defender Klara Sakarova was summoned by police for a discussion, during which she was accused of ‘’being a government critic’’, ‘’provoking people’’ and ‘’inciting people to unrest’’. She was also threatened with administrative charges of noncompliance with the legal demands of a police officer, an offence punishable by up to 15 days’ administrative detention. Sakarova is the sister of the late political prisoner Andrey Kubatin, and since his death in October 2020 she has been engaged in efforts to ensure that those responsible for his imprisonment on trumped-up charges and for his death are brought to justice.
Concerns about provisions contained in the draft Criminal Code
A new draft Criminal Code was made public in February 2021 and currently remains under consideration in parliament. A number of its provisions are highly problematic in the light of Uzbekistan’s international human rights obligations. The code introduces criminal punishment for disseminating ‘’false’’ information (Article 319) and for “violating the rules on holding meetings, rallies, street processions or demonstrations” (Article 284), whose application could result in undue restrictions of freedom of expression and assembly. The draft code also retains punishments for “illegal exit or entry’’ (Article 289), in violation of citizens’ right to freedom of movement. In addition, the draft code retains criminal punishment for ‘’public insult or slander’’ of the president and consensual sexual relations between men. Like the current Criminal Code, the new draft code often lacks clear definitions and terminology, opening the door to arbitrary interpretation and application restricting human rights.
Lawyers under pressure
In another alarming development, independent lawyers have come under increasing pressure in Uzbekistan in recent months, as several lawyers have been threatened with the loss of licences or other repercussions because of their work on politically sensitive cases. Lawyers working on such cases are also frequently the target of online trolling attacks, believed to be orchestrated by the authorities. Among the lawyers subjected to trolling campaigns and other forms of intimidation are Sergey Mayorov, who has worked on the case of Miraziz Bazarov (see more above), and Allan Pashkovskiy, who has provided legal assistance to several torture victims. Lawyer Umidbek Davlatov received threats of violence and was subjected to an attempted attack by unknown perpetrators following a court hearing where he defended blogger Otabek Sattoriy (see more above).