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Uzbekistan : reforming or redecorating?

CIVICUS 25.10.20192
This special issue prepared for the CIVICUS Monitor by the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (AHRCA) and International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), provides an overview reflecting some of the main developments in freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Uzbekistan from April 2018 to early October 2019.
  
In the past year and a half, the government under president Mirziyoyev has passed numerous new laws, decrees and regulations on a broad range of issues. Some expert sources estimate that around 2000 pieces of legislation have come into force since President Mirziyoyev came to power and the sheer volume has caused confusion and delays in implementation. The reform agenda is being implemented in a top-down manner, and currently lacks both shared understanding and ownership in the broader governmental administration as well as among citizens. In addition, the reforms are seen by national and international observers as being predominantly driven by economic considerations, a strategy which risks undermining much-needed political and human rights reforms in the judiciary, law enforcement, security and other key sectors.
  
From 17th to 21st October 2019, IPHR visited Uzbekistan for the first time since President Mirziyoyev came to power, at the invitation of the government. IPHR was able to discuss these reforms with relevant state representatives.
  
From 19th to 25th September 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Diego Garcia-Sayan, visited Uzbekistan for the first time. During his visit, he met President Mirziyoyev, representatives of the Ministry of Justice, the Prosecutor General’s Office and lawyers, as well as representatives of civil society, representatives of the academic community, UN agencies, donors and diplomats.
  
A statement released by the Special Rapporteur at the end of the visit concluded that despite some positive steps, “[s]ubstantial threats against judicial independence and the rule of law remain,” and referred to “the heavy and constant presence of the security services throughout society and Uzbekistan’s institutions”. The Special Rapporteur also recommended that Uzbekistan “take action to strengthen and improve the participation of civil society in the justice process”.
  
The Special Rapporteur will present a comprehensive report containing his findings and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2020.
     
Association
   
The operating environment for NGOs remains highly challenging despite the government’s stated intent to allow space for civil society and human rights defenders to carry out their work. No independent human rights organisation has been able to register in the period under review. The only registered independent human rights organisation in Uzbekistan is the NGO Ezgulik (registered since 2003). National law prohibits the activities of unregistered NGOs and provides for both administrative and criminal penalties for involvement in such activities. There have been reports of harassment and intimidation by state officials towards lawyers who assist with attempts to legally register human rights NGOs.
    
For example, attempts by several human rights activists to register the NGO Restoration of Justice have been unsuccessful and are believed to have led to retaliation against the activists involved. On 28th February 2019 former political prisoners and human rights defenders Azam Farmonov, Dilmurod Saidov and Agzam Turgunov attempted to register the organisation but the application was rejected on the grounds that an additional state tax had to be paid and that the number of founders needed to be increased from the proposed five to ten. On 23rd May 2019, the three human rights defenders submitted a new application for registration. However, on 8th August 2019 they were notified that their request had been denied again. They will be allowed to submit a new application only after three months, in November 2019.
  
On the positive side, President Mirziyoyev decreed in April 2018 that civil society should be consulted on draft legislation affecting it and introduced new regulations which stipulated that registered NGOs were no longer required to obtain government approval in order to conduct events.However, the new registration system, which came into force in January 2019, continues to require NGOs to inform the authorities about planned events 10 or 20 days in advance (the latter if activities involve international organisations). Additionally, it obliges NGOs to inform the Ministry of Justice of receipt of foreign funding. The burdensome state controls over NGO registration, funding and activities, coupled with ongoing restrictions on freedom of expression, continue to obstruct the work of NGOs in the country.
  
In November 2018 the Uzbekistani government held an international conference on human rights in Samarkand, the Asian Human Rights Forum, organised by the Presidential Human Rights Centre with the support of the UN and the OSCE. The conference offered a new platform for dialogue between the government, local civil society and international organisations to discuss ongoing challenges and ways forward in this area. Several national and international human rights organisations expressed regret at the lack of openness shown by the authorities towards engaging in constructive dialogue with local independent civil society groups, who were virtually excluded from the Forum.
  
Surveillance, intimidation and harassment of civil society activists and journalists
  
In the period under review, local independent civil society activists, journalists and human rights defenders have continued to face reprisals for their peaceful activities and many of the former political prisoners who were released from prison since President Mirziyoyevcame to power have been subjected to state surveillance.
  
The Uzbekistani State Security Services are reported to continue to keep and update lists with the names of former political prisoners and government critics, including civil society activists and journalists who have taking part in protest actions or social network petitions. Surveillance and harassment continue in relation to the people on these lists, including by local police officers and representatives of mahalla (neighbourhood) committees.
  
For example, since October 2018, human rights defenders Agzam Turgunov, Azam Farmonov and Dilmurod Saidov have reported regular state surveillance, phone tapping and intimidation. On 20th October 2018, IPHR representatives visited Tashkent and witnessed how unknown individuals dressed in plain clothes walked in front of Agzam Turgunov’s home. The same day Turgunov told IPHR that he had seen unknown people standing under his window, had been followed by cars as he moved around the city on public transport, and that he had been told by representatives of the local Mahalla committee that law enforcement officials were asking about him.
  
On 28th October 2018, as Turgunov travelled to Paris to attend the World Summit of Human Rights Defenders he was questioned in the airport by the authorities on his departure and return. The three human rights defenders have also reported being threatened by law enforcement officials: late in 2018, Dilmurod Saidov was warned that he would be subjected to enforced psychiatric treatment if he refused to cease his human rights work and on 25th March 2019, a security service officer who was watching Turgunov’s home told him he should be careful not to be knocked down by a car. The same month both Turgunov and Saidov reported being repeatedly prevented from leaving their homes by law enforcement officials surrounding the buildings where they lived.
  
On 11th September 2019, Turgunov was summoned by police and questioned for several hours - particularly as to whether he is in contact with the exiled leader of the Erk opposition party, and what he thought of this party.
  
In September 2019, during the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Diego Garcia-Sayan, several human rights defenders reported increased surveillance by the State Security Services (SGB). Agzam Turgunov was visited on 19th September by two SGB officers who asked him about his scheduled meeting with the UN Special Rapporteur and offered to drive him to the meeting. Formerly imprisoned independent journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev also reported that during the Special Rapporteur’s visit to Uzbekistan in September 2019 there was heavy surveillance by security officials who surrounded his home.
  
Politically motivated persecution
   
Trumped up administrative charges against civil society activists
  
Agzam Turgunov has faced three sets of administrative charges over the period under review: in August 2018 and in March and June 2019. He was charged, among others, with failure to comply with legal orders given by a law enforcement officer (Article 194 of the Administrative Code). The third time the court amended the charge to hooliganism. Domestic legislation in Uzbekistan provides that if a person has already been convicted twice on a particular administrative charge, the third offence of the same nature will automatically be considered a criminal offence and penalised accordingly. There is reason to believe that the charges have been brought in retaliation for Turgunov’s efforts to register the new human rights NGO ‘Restoration of Justice’ and to intimidate him and discourage his human rights work.
  
On 30th August 2018, Turgunov was found guilty of failing to comply with the orders of a police officer after taking photos of peaceful protesters allegedly at a prohibited location, i.e. outside the Supreme Court. Turgunov claims he did not disobey orders but simply asked a man in plainclothes who Turgunov believed to be a police officer to show his police identification. Turgunov appealed the decision and at the appeal hearing on 30th November 2018, according to Turgunov and the defence witness, the judge insulted them and ordered law enforcement officials to detain them as he claimed they had disturbed the proceedings. They were released later that evening after international intervention. Both Turgunov and the witness lodged complaints about the judge’s behaviour.
  
On 30th March 2019, Turgunov received a court summons informing him that he was being charged with “defamation”, “contempt of court” and “failure to comply with the orders of law enforcement officials” (articles 41, 180 and 194 of the Administrative Code). The first two charges related to the events at the appeal hearing. Turgunov’s appeal against the sentence handed down on 30 August 2018 and his complaint about the judge’s behaviour are still pending.
  
On 4th June 2019, a Tashkent District Administrative Court found Turgunov guilty of hooliganism (Article 183 of the Administrative Code), and ordered him to pay a fine after he told a traffic inspector who had pulled over his son’s car, to stop shouting. Before each administrative fine reported here, Agzam Turgunov reports that his house was put under surveillance and he was visited by a representative of the mahalla (neighbourhood) committee, who was required to write reports about Turgunov’s behaviour for the law enforcement agencies.
  
Expression
    
The last year and a half have seen a gradual increase in transparency in Uzbekistan’s media landscape with increased news reporting and coverage in Uzbekistan by journalists and bloggers who work for registered online publications.
   
However, throughout much of 2018, the Uzbekistani authorities continued to restrict access to the websites of a number of independent media publications, including FerganaNews Ozodlik (the Uzbek service of RFE/RL), Eurasia net, AsiaTerra and Uzmetronom, as well as sites of some well-known international human rights organisations. A government decree adopted in 2018, which authorised the blocking of news media “promot(ing) extremist propaganda or hateful content online” without a court order, exacerbated concerns about access to independent news media. There is concern that this vaguely worded provision may be used to arbitrarily restrict access to online resources.
   
In April 2019, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, issued a statement calling on the authorities in Uzbekistan to end the blocking of media sites in order to ensure that important news and current affairs resources be made accessible to the public.
 
Désir stated:
“I would like to reiterate to the state authorities that any blocking measures can only be justified in accordance with international standards, used only in exceptional cases, and be strictly proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued.”
In a positive development in May 2019, Komil Allamjonov, Director of the Agency for Information and Mass Communications under the Presidential Administration of Uzbekistan (AIMKA), publicly stated that he had looked into the issue of access to the websites of several news outlets and international human rights NGOs and restored full access to them, including: Voice of America, Amerika ovozi, the Uzbek BBC service, Deutsche Welle, Eurasianet, AsiaTerra, Fergana News, Uzmetronom, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters sans Frontieres, and others.
   
The stance taken by Komil Allamzhonov and the deputy director of AIMKA Sayra Mirziyoyev (eldest daughter of President Mirziyoyev) contrasts with the more passive position adopted by the national press centre and expressed at Presidential press conferences. AIMKA has created an effective mechanism for regulating information policy and, at the same time, media outlets and journalists can now access the official version of events and compare it with information from other sources.
  
News correspondents who received accreditation in 2019 included several foreign news correspondents from the British Broadcasting Company; BBC Monitoring (UK); Reuters (UK); The Economist (UK); Ferghana News agency, Voice of America; Eurasianet online (USA) and Agence France-Press (France).
  
Further, in recent years the internet has noticeably increased the ability to access information in Uzbekistan and promoted citizens’ interaction with independent sites, which provide a platform for civil society activists in the country and abroad, international partners and organisations. The internet has facilitated public discussion around pressing social issues including for example: demolitions of houses, extermination of stray animals, the situation for bloggers, the construction of a nuclear power plantas well as other more sensitive issues such as religion and protection of personal data.
  
Another interesting development was that statements made by international NGOs and Amnesty International’s Urgent Action of April 2019 regarding torture allegations against the former Prosecutor General Rashitjon Kadirov also led to a lively discussion on social media with an exchange of views on justice and international obligations. There is increased reporting in the media of pressing social problems and in February 2019 the General Prosecutor’s Office issued a press release on a suicide under investigation, reflecting a new level of transparency.
      
Trial of journalists Bobomurod Abdullayev, blogger Hayotkhon Nasreddinov and entrepreneurs Shavkat Olloyorov and Ravshan Salayev
  
From 7th March to 7th May 2018, an open trial was held in the Tashkent City Criminal Court of independent journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev, blogger and teacher Hayotkhon Nasreddinov, as well as entrepreneurs Ravshan Salayev and Shavkat Olloyorov, all accused of anti-constitutional crimes (under Article 159 Criminal Code), which are punishable by 20 years in prison. The charges were politically motivated and the trial attracted unprecedented attention from international media.
  
Bobomurod Abdullayev told the court that for many years he had written under the pseudonym “Usman Khaknazarov” about state corruption. He also described how he had been tortured during interrogation and investigation by senior National Security Service officials to get him to testify against incumbent President Mirziyoyevand political opponents such as the leader of the opposition party Erk, Muhammad Salih,and other critics abroad.
  
Judge Zafar Nurmatov ruled that Ravshan Salayev, Shavkat Olloyorov and Hayotkhon Nasreddinov be acquitted and released from custody immediately. In relation to Bobomurod Abdullaev, the judge ordered that the charge be reclassified from Article 159.4 (conspiracy to seize power or overthrow the constitutional order of Uzbekistan) to Article 159.3b (public calls to overthrow the constitutional order, ... committed by an organised group or in its interests), and sentenced him to three years of correctional labour. The judge then announced that Abdullayev would also be released as he had already served 221 days in pre-trial detention and that one day in pre-trial detention counts for three days in prison. The verdict was met with cheers and applause from spectators in the courtroom, including international observers and press representatives.
  
  
Defence lawyer Sergey Mayorov said that he was unhappy with the verdict: “I believe that Abdullayev did not commit a crime, and he should be compensated.” But, according to him, it is dangerous to appeal the sentence as he does not believe his client would get a fair appeal trial and this could result in a more severe sentence.
  
This is the first trial in 25 years where the judge acquitted and ordered the release of the defendants and repeatedly reminded the parties of the presumption of innocence.
  
However, since Bobomurod Abdullayev was released from detention he has been subjected to surveillance and harassment by Uzbekistani security services. He wishes to travel abroad for medical treatment and has submitted a request for a passport but the SNB have not yet given him an answer.
     
Continuing concerns about activists (formerly) imprisoned on politically-motivated charges
   
Since September 2016, 30 civil society representatives imprisoned on politically motivated grounds have been released from prison. The following civil society activists and journalists were released in the period under review: journalists Aziz Yusufov and Bobomurod Abdullaev,blogger Hayatkhon Nasreddinov, members of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU) Mehriniso and Zulkhumor Khamdamov,witness of the Andijan tragedy Dilorom Abdukodirova and member of the Human Rights Centre Mazdil Mazdum Fakhriddin Tillayev.
   
Although all those released were targeted for political reasons and convicted on fabricated charges, Andrey Kubatin (see below) is the only one to date who was acquitted on appeal. Many are in need of rehabilitation and medical and psychological treatment after surviving torture, ill-treatment, prolonged moral and psychological pressure and separation from their loved ones. Many are still under state surveillance.
  
After his release in 2018 Tillayev wrote:
"I was beaten repeatedly and put in a punishment cell [solitary confinement]. I was not only humiliated, but forced to do hard physical labour, which destroyed my health: a hernia, gastrointestinal illnesses, ear infection and my nerves suffered… injustice will deplete any person.”
On 26th September 2019, academic Andrei Kubatin was released from detention after the Tashkent Regional Criminal Court acquitted him on appeal and allowed him to walk free from the courtroom. Turkologist Andrei Kubatin worked as a senior lecturer at the Tashkent State Institute of Oriental Studies and was arrested in 2017 after he gave copies of rare books from his library to an employee of the Turkish agency TIKA, who wanted to publish a travel guide for Uzbekistan. On 1st December 2017 Kubatin was found guilty of treason (Article 157 ofthe Criminal Code) and sentenced to eleven years’ imprisonment.
  
On 26th September 2019 the Uzbekistani Ombudsman issued a statement on the court decision, welcoming Kubatin’s release and rehabilitation and explaining that the Ombudsman’s Office had sent appeals in the case to the Prosecutor General’s Office and attended appeal proceedings.
  
According to local human rights organisations, four civil society activists, who were convicted on politically-motivated grounds following unfair trials, remain behind bars. These are: author and critic Akrom Malikov, political scientist Rustam Abdumanopov, producer Mirsobir Khamidkoriyev and theologian Rukhiddin Fakhriddinov.
  
Fakhriddinov was forcibly returned to Uzbekistan, arrested immediately upon arrival and tried in a closed court without legal representation. The religious scholar is currently serving the remaining period of his sentence in the maximum-security colony 64/17 in Chirchik. There are serious allegations that Fakhriddinov was subjected to torture during his interrogation in 2005. There are also allegations of torture against his family members, including his daughter.
   
Rukhiddin Fakhriddinov and producer Mirsyar Khamidokriyev were imprisoned under former President Karimov, but critic Akrom Malikov (author of publications under the pseudonym "Abdulloh Nusrat") and political scientist Rustam Abdumanopov, were imprisoned since President Mirziyoyev came to power.
    
Updated statistics on political prisoners were published at the time of an EU delegation visit to Uzbekistan in April 2018.
  
Restriction on freedom of movement and deprivation of citizenship
  
In a positive move, from 1st January 2019, Uzbekistan abolished the procedure for issuing “exit permits” (stickers in the passport confirming a person is permitted to travel abroad). Citizens will be able to apply for biometric passports for foreign travel which will be valid for 10 years.
  
However, the authorities continued to use different methods to deny permission to travel abroad to human rights defenders and others in order to silence criticism. Among those affected in the period under review were Shukhrat Rustamov, Dilmurod Sayyid and Timur Karpov.
  
In June 2019, the authorities refused to issue a passport to the photographer and human rights activist Timur Karpov. He explained on YouTube that on 8th April 2018 he submitted his application to the passport office and expected to get a response within 21 days (as provided by law).In June he learned that he had been refused a passport, with the official written refusal explaining the grounds as “it is unadvisable to issue a foreign passport” and referring to a clause in the Presidential Decree stating that passports are not issued to persons who provided false information in their applications.
  
Only after the intervention of the Director of the Agency for Information and Mass Communications Komil Allamjonov was Karpov given permission to travel abroad.
  
Deprivation of citizenship
  
There are concerns that, on the pretext of a reform of the passport system, many Uzbekistanis living abroad who are critical of the Uzbekistani authorities may be deprived of their citizenship. Deprivation of citizenship is provided for by Presidential Decree “On the loss of citizenship of the Republic of Uzbekistan” [No. PF-4624 of 16 June, 2014Указпрезидента. The Law on Citizenship provides in Article 21.2 that a person living permanently abroad who has not been on the consulate lists of citizens registered as living abroad for over three years without good reason, will lose their rights to citizenship.
   
The law is being used against persons who are outspoken in their criticism of the authorities and victims of politically motivated persecution by Uzbekistan. Many of them report that they have had their Uzbekistani citizenship revoked, have not been informed of the decision or given a chance to appeal. AHRCA and IPHR are aware of at least 40 recent cases.
   
Many are additionally put on international Interpol wanted lists on charges brought in retaliation for their criticism, sometimes after court decisions which are issued in absentia. There are also cases of confiscation of property based on court decisions issued in absentia, although the statistics on such cases are not publicly available and only a handful of cases have been made public.
    
Currently the following people are known to have been deprived of citizenship in the period under review:Radio Ozodlik correspondents (Uzbek service of RadioFree Europe/ Radio Liberty) brothers Shukhrat, Khurmat Babadjanovand their brother Kudrat, who is editor of the news website Eltuz, the human rights activist Tolib Yakubov and former citizens Mukhiddin Kurbanov, businessman Bobur Hassan, Zakir Aliyev, Kuzibay Kurbanov, Rafik Ganiev, member of the Human Rights Organisation “Ezgulik”, Mukhiddin Kurbanov, member of the opposition party “Birlik” and Bobur Hassan, brother of the leader of the opposition party “Birdamlik” living in the USA who attempted to return to Uzbekistan (in August 2018 respectively) but were deported.
  
Update on the case of Zhasur Ibragimov - medical student who was beaten to death in 2017
   
As previously reported in the CIVICUS Monitor, in 2017 the tragic death of medical student Zhasur Ibragimov led to a public outcry. He died on 1 June 2017 after being beaten up outside Borovsky Medical College in Tashkent by his classmates. An online petition “Punish those responsible for the death of Jasur Ibragimov” collected 20,431 signatures.
    
The online news agency Ferghana.ru reported that the organiser of a rally in support of Zhasur’s parents that took place on 4th June 2017 was subsequently punished and had to pay a fine for organising an unsanctioned protest without the advance permission of the authorities, as required by national law in violation of international standards. The Department of Internal Affairs in the Mirabad District of Tashkent opened a criminal case against Islambek Tulyaganov, one of the six persons alleged to have participated in the attack on Zhasur. He was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment after being found guilty of grievous bodily harm, but was released from prison on parole in December 2018.The other five alleged perpetrators participated in the case as witnesses and were not penalised.
      
On 25th September 2019, Mirzo-Ulugbek Inter-district Civil Court began hearing the claim for material and moral damages by Zhasur’s parents who claimed 650 million Uzbek soms (70 thousand USD).Zhasur’s parents announced they would donate the amount they are awarded in compensation to the charity Ezgu Amal, which provides assistance in the treatment of seriously ill children.
    
Arrest of journalist Mahmoud Rajab, his family and friends during protest
  
On 22nd September 2019, police in the western city of Khorezm detained journalist Mahmud Rajab and about 20 of his relatives and friends, including two young children and a four-month-old baby. The group had been walking in the direction of the capital Tashkent, some 930 km from Khorezm, to meet with the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Uzbekistan, Pulat Babadzhanov to protest at “lawlessness” in the Khorezm region. However, after walking 50 km they were detained by police and fined. Rajab and Nafasat Olloshkurova were held for ten days’ administrative detention, charged with violating the law on holding rallies and public gatherings in Uzbekistan.
   
In April 2019, a criminal case was opened against Mahmoud Rajab relating to importing several books by the secular opposition politician Muhammad Salih and his younger brother, former political prisoner Muhammad Bekjanov into Uzbekistan. There is no official ban on materials written by these authors, and their names do not figure on the list of forbidden materials compiled by the government. If Rajab is found guilty, he faces five to ten years in prison.
    
On 3rd October 2019, Mahmud Rajab was released after his term of administrative detention expired but Nafosat Ollashukurova was not released. She was instead placed in a psychiatric clinic in the Urgench district. A representative of Bagatsky district Ministry of Internal Affairs confirmed this fact on 4th October, and said that the prosecutor’s office had sanctioned the forced hospitalisation. However, Nafosat Ollashukurova’s father Boltaboy says that his daughter has never suffered from mental illness.
  
Protests at demolitions
  
On 28th April 2018, Dekhansky market in the Guzar district in the Kashkadarya region was demolished by the authorities and the traders were expelled. A group of traders staged a protest, demanding that local authorities stop the demolition as it would affect their livelihoods.Three women who were protesting for a long time fainted. The law enforcement officers reportedly took those traders who took photos of the protest to the police station, and confiscated their mobile phones.
     
On 16th September 2019, residents of 18 demolished houses in the Balykchy district of the city of Andijan staged a protest outside the district administration building, demanding compensation.They stated that they had been promised that if they agreed to the demolitions they would be given compensation.
  
Miners’ strikes at Shargunkumir mine
   
On 14th and 15th August 2019, almost 200 miners from Shargunkumir coal mine reportedly went on strike in the Saryasinsky district of the Surkhandarya region. They currently earn some 100 USD per month and demanded higher salaries. The strikers claimed that the company management was stealing from the Shargunkumir company – including seven tons of diesel fuel and building materials. Company representatives met the strikers and announced that some staff had been given the sack.
  
Previously, workers would have been afraid to demonstrate publicly but since President Mirziyoyev has come to power they are emboldened to speak out. However, participants in public demonstrations continue to be noted by the authorities on the so-called “black lists” and can face discriminatory restrictions on freedom of movement and others in the future.