Over the past 15 years, more than 600 civil society activists have been subjected to politically motivated persecution in Uzbekistan. At least half of these have been tortured and imprisoned, and a significant number have fled the country. In total, just ten of the activists outlined in this essay maintain a presence in their native country.
Their capacity to defend the principles of human rights, seek accountability from authorities and demand answers from the government are guaranteed, de jure, by Uzbekistan’s Constitution. In reality, countless hurdles exist to prohibit third sector organisations from conducting their activities, while in parallel checks still exist on journalists. Countless amendments in the law, make de facto exercise of the rights to free speech a dangerous pursuit. In spite of the proven risk to physical safety, new activists continue to emerge regularly. This trend is not, and must not, be mistaken for the emergence of a pluralistic society in the aftermath of Karimov’s dictatorship, or of a will to tolerate greater freedom of expression, listen to criticism or tolerate accountable governance in the Uzbekistan of today. Uzbekistan still has some of the same problems that the country’s people have experienced for more than three decades. The experiences of torture, enforced disappearance, extrajudicial killing and forced labour exist in Uzbekistan today.
My human rights work began during my emigration from Uzbekistan in 2000. My first acquaintance with Uzbek human rights activists took place through the internet, because many of them were not allowed to leave Uzbekistan for years. For some time we could communicate only through e-mail, and a forum on the website ‘Fergana.Ru’. There were no social networks at that time, and the speed of the internet did not allow communication via Skype, or similar mediums, as it would today. When, in 2000, I learned from human rights activist Agzam Turgunov about the fate of the former Mayor of the city of Mubarek and member of the first Parliament of Uzbekistan, Murad Juraev, my work as a human rights activist became the life calling which I continue to pursue today.
Juraev was accused of preparing acts of terrorism in Turkey and attacking the constitutional system. Juraev had not committed these crimes. His true reason for imprisonment was for supporting leaders of the political opposition, and openly criticising dictator Islam Karimov’s regime for the massacre of students in University City. Juraev had also criticised subjects that have been proven true since he first drew attacks from the regime for speaking about them. One topic that became a particularly pervasive criticism of Karimov’s regime was the use of child labour in cotton fields and for the practice of political repression. Juraev was one of the first activists to speak of Uzbekistan’s use of forced labour. He is not, nor will be, the first to experience torture. Juraev stood for the duration of that first court hearing because he could not sit down due to burns all over his body.
The prosecution was unable to produce evidence for the charges, but nevertheless, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Juraev’s story shocked me, and I began to openly support him and help his family during their ordeal. Juraev spent 21 years in prison – five consecutive terms, in one of which he was given a four-year prison sentence because he was cleaning carrots incorrectly in the prison kitchen. With the active participation of international human rights organisations, including the European and American diplomatic community, Juraev was released in November 2015 – when Islam Karimov was still alive.
Fortwoyears after release,Juraevsoughttherighttogoabroadforurgent medical care,buthewasnotremovedfromtheregime’s prisoner supervision schemeand was prevented from leaving Uzbekistan.Weoftencalled each other,andcorresponded regularly.WewerebothwaitingtomeetinGermany,wherehewas expected by doctorsfor hissurgery.InDecember2017,Juraevdiedofaheartattackinthearmsof his wifeHolbikaJuraeva,who throughoutall their yearsofmarriagebelieved inhimandtreatedhimwithgreatrespect.
Abror Juraev, Murad Juraev’s son, was fired from his job three years ago and when he asked for the reason for termination his boss replied: “You are the son of an enemy of the people.” Mirziyoyev has been presented to Western actors as a modern reformer. Yet, the use of a Stalinist term to dismiss a man from his job on basis of his father’s opposition, sets in sharp relief how human rights in Uzbekistan operate contrary to the laws of physics and international development. The reason for the dismissal of Abror Juraev due to the fact that he is the son of Murad Juraev, which suggests that the practice of “black lists” in Uzbekistan continues under Shavkat Mirziyoyev. And since such lists are compiled within the walls of the State Security Service of Uzbekistan (SGB), it indicates that the Uzbek special services are not yet ready to uproot the legacy of the Stalin NKVD. So while civil rights organisations across the world continue to discuss how the path of human rights can be shaped and improved, Uzbekistan uses terms for dissent coined during the Russian Civil War, and methods of interrogation believed effective by medieval societies.
Mirziyoyev did not respond to Murad Juraev’s appeals about the need to reform Uzbekistan’s administrative system. Mirziyoyev ignored his son’s, Abror Juraev’s, request for justice in the case of losing employment, too. But, lest this appear to be an isolated incident, I wish to make clear that countless human rights organisations concur on the prevalence of such practices in Uzbekistan, for all who express dissent. The personal examples I give hereafter are chosen because they provide important and specific testimony. But they are neither unique, nor isolated.
Agzam Turgunov was tried three times because he supported the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan (‘Birlik’) and voted in Uzbekistan’s first presidential elections for Muhammad Salih, the alternative candidate. Salih is a dissident poet and leader of the opposition ERK party. He has been in exile for 30 years and in Uzbekistan has seven criminal cases open against him. All those who communicated with him at some point (even on social networks, and to this author’s knowledge) were subjected to torture for their exchanges. Such attacks continue to occur under the presidency of Mirziyoyev. Akrom Malikov and Rustam Abdumannopov, both social media activists, were imprisoned, because they openly sympathised with Salih and kept his poems at home.
After the first eight years of our cooperation, Agzam Turgunov found himself on the list of imprisoned civil society activists. He spent almost ten years in prison, from 2008 to 2017. During one of his first interrogations, the investigator poured boiling water on him for refusing to sign the indictment. This, and other forms of torture, were inflicted upon Turgunov repeatedly. Members of the United Nations (UN) Committee on Torture recognised human rights defender Akzam Turgunov as a victim of torture and called on the Uzbek government to reconsider the sentence against him, but the Supreme Court upheld the verdict of the first instance, ignoring Turunov’s allegations of torture.
The first list of imprisoned Uzbek civil society activists was drawn up in November 2006, just days after the official registration of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, which we founded together with the poet Jodgor Obid, who lives in Austria and became the first Uzbek refugee who fled the regime of Islam Karimov. I handed this list to Pierre Morel, the European Union’s (EU’s) then Special Rapporteur on Central Asia. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also sent Morel their lists. Our consolidated lists then formed the basis of two resolutions before the European Parliament on Uzbekistan in 2009 and 2014. As an experienced French diplomat Morel actively raised the issue of the list of political prisoners in negotiations with Uzbek diplomats and has long been interested in the results of human rights monitoring in Uzbekistan, prepared by participants of our volunteer network in Uzbekistan. As far as I know, some 30 Uzbek prisoners were released with his active participation.
During our meeting with him in 2006, he said at the time that Uzbek political emigrants could become an effective lever of pressure on the dictatorship of Karimov, because we are safe and finally we can openly raise issues that are extremely dangerous to talk about inside Uzbekistan. Indeed, our organisation always raises issues that are extremely sensitive for the Uzbek regime. Ambassador Morel was also one of the initiators of the lifting of EU sanctions against Uzbekistan, imposed in October 2005 after Uzbekistan refused to allow an international independent investigation into the Andijan events (the mass shooting in May 2005). And then he helped to start a dialogue on human rights between the EU and the government of Uzbekistan.
In 2011, it was reported that the European Commission had secretly awarded a grant of 3,700,000 euros to the Republic Center for Social Adaptation of Children, headed by Islam Karimov’s youngest daughter, Lola Karimova. This fact caused great public outcry and became the basis for growing distrust in Morel, who began to defend the decision of the European Commission in favour of Lola Karimova. Morel’s visits to Uzbekistan became more frequent. He met with Islam Karimov, declaring this an achievement of a new level of dialogue on human rights. In the meantime, the arrests of civil society activists continued. Some political opposition activists and human rights activists have yet to emerge from hiding.
After the death of Karimov, thanks to external pressure via diplomatic channels, the process of releasing all civil society activists sentenced to imprisonment under the rule of Karimov was completed in 2018. In the past two years alone, Uzbekistan has adopted more than 2,000 new laws. Only three deal with the prevention of torture. Moreover, finally Uzbekistan began a process of discussion on the UN Human Rights Charter violation brought via clandestine forced labour initiatives which forced the people of Uzbekistan to harvest cotton.
Uzbekistan has now been visited by UN missions, EU delegations, the United States (US) and most international human rights organisations. These facts, at least on paper, imply that Uzbekistan has a strong regard for reform, and harmonisation of local law with international norms and treaty obligations. On paper, diplomats can be forgiven for believing that Uzbekistan is moving away from the horrific violations of human rights committed under Karimov, and beginning a tentative national discussion about setting right the past.
Yet after 13 years as Karimov’s Prime Minister, any informed party would have serious reservations about Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s commitment to changing the systemic practices of torture and imprisonment for which he was not only a passive observer, but one of the system’s leading figures. After three years in the Presidency, has the situation of civil society activists released from detention materially changed? Do independent activists enjoy freedom of expression, without fear of oppression? Have the new laws led to the development of fundamental rights and freedoms, or do they simply serve as a paper tiger to placate international actors critical of the President?
Looking through the pages of new online publications in Uzbekistan, I have not found a single article about human rights defender Agzam Turgunov. Nor have I heard mention of former Member of Parliament (MP) Samandar Kukonov. In fact, there is no mention of the cases I describe, in any single article, from Uzbekistan’s purportedly pluralist media – now believed by international observers to be free from self-censorship. So far only human rights defender Chuyan Mamatkulov from the Kashkadarya region was able to receive rehabilitation, others were refused.
There was no possibility of registration for the opposition parties Birlik or Erk. Both their leaders remain in exile. Agzam Turgunov made his fifth attempt to register his organisation ‘Human Rights House’, he had been already refused four times on formal grounds. One such ground, was that he was told that he had not correctly bound documents submitted. The documents had been bound correctly. Upon his raising of this matter, a written response was issued prohibiting the organisation’s creation, as the necessary fee had not been paid for the formation. The Ministry of Justice informed him that they will tell him when to pay the fee.
Is there an opportunity for political emigrants to return home? No, because the reform of the passport system allows all political dissidents to be stripped of their citizenship and the formal basis is that a citizen living abroad is obliged to register with the Embassy of Uzbekistan. This rule also applies to persons who have refugee status, which goes against a condition of the country providing international protection not to contact the state departments of Uzbekistan.
In addition, the practice of in absentia sentencing of critics of the regime, on the basis of which the property of political emigrants is confiscated and sold through an auction at symbolic value, has begun to develop. This process has become a source of corruption and illegal income for officials from investigative bodies, courts and court bailiff departments. As the analysis of the situation shows, criticism is still perceived by officials in Uzbekistan as a particularly serious crime and this practice began at the time when the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Uzbekistan was headed by Zakirjon Almatov. On his orders government forces used disproportionate and indiscriminate force during the Andijan events in May 2005, and as a result hundreds of civilians were killed and thousands fled the country. Almatov is one of 12 senior officials who were on the European sanctions lists introduced in 2005.
With Mirziyoyev’s rise to power, Almatov returned to the Uzbek Interior Ministry as an adviser to the Interior Minister and at the same time as a member of the Uzbek parliament. Isn’t it strange that Zakirjon Lamatov and Rustam Inoyatov – the former chairman of the National Security Service, who both coordinated political crackdowns on dissidents and the ruin of successful businessmen, retained their presence in the entourage of President Mirziyoyev?
I didn’t initially believe in Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s reforms, but for a while I cautiously waited for some change for the better. However, I later received a draft resolution of the US Congress on Uzbekistan, developed by American lobbyists under a contract with the Public Fund for Support and Development of National Mass Media established by Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s eldest daughter, Saida Mirziyoyeva, which pays lobbyists, including congressmen Kelly and Gonzales, $30,000 a month. Do the bloggers and journalists working with and helping to run the Public Fund think this is the most effective use of Uzbekistan’s public money?
When it was officially announced that Islam Karimov had passed away, a Euronews correspondent asked me: what would you like to say on the occasion of the death of the first president of Uzbekistan?  I said, “I am very sorry that dictator Islam Karimov escaped the Hague Tribunal and the same criminals like him came to power, depriving citizens of the right to democratic elections.” I am sure that real reforms can begin in Uzbekistan if the real investigations into crimes of Islam Karimov and the heads of law enforcement agencies under his direct control begin. So far there are no conditions for democratic presidential elections, as the majority of votes, like before, are provided by Khokims (heads of administrations). This process can begin only when human rights defenders and journalists will be able to carry out their activities legally, and this can be achieved with the active participation of democratic forces.
How can the West affect the development of positive changes in Uzbekistan? I am sure that only an adequate response is needed to the events in Uzbekistan and the actions of the Mirziyoyev government. It is necessary to completely get rid of flirting and the distribution of advances to those now in power, if the countries of the democratic community are interested in democratising Uzbekistan.
Are the EU and the US ready to build a foreign policy towards Uzbekistan in such a way to make the Mirziyoyev’s government be interested in introducing a national effective mechanism to fulfil its international obligations, to provide conditions for independent monitoring of human rights, without any restrictions on the activities of independent human rights defenders and international human rights organisations?
As a matter of urgency, it is important to strengthen the measures of responsibility the Uzbek authorities take for human rights violations, starting with monitoring the implementation of the recommendations of the UN Executive Committees on the payment of compensation to victims of torture and other citizens who are recognised by international experts as victims of human rights violations.
At the same time, it is important to strengthen the protection of human rights defenders who operate in particularly dangerous conditions, sometimes even life-threatening, and even though they are subjected to widespread discrimination, none of them have permanent medical or legal insurance, and the authorities continue to use provocations against rights defenders, threaten them with reprisals and restrict their human rights activities.
The government of Uzbekistan has been and remains interested in developing relations with democratic countries, and if the condition for the development of such cooperation will be the fulfilment of already adopted laws and ratified international conventions, then this will also create conditions for democratic elections.
Nadejda Atayeva is an Uzbek citizen living in France, where she has refugee status. Since 2006 she has been the President of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. For details about some of the cases raised in this essay please visit https://ahrca.org/uzbekistan.
 Since 2004 we have kept a database of all activists working in the country. There were 600. Over the years, some have died, some were tortured and stopped their work, some were imprisoned, released and stopped working, and some immigrated. In accordance with our data only ten currently remain in the country and are still active. This is based on count of activists from 2004 through to 2018 who were subject to political repression.
 John Iams, Student Protest Police Shootings in Uzbekistan, AP News, January 1992, https://apnews.com/da89dfe56538f77672959ab1567c331f
 European Parliament, Joing motion for a resolution on human rights in Uzbekistan (2014/2904(RSP)), October 2014, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+MOTION+P8-RC-2014-0166+0+DOC+XML+V0//EN
 Nadejda Atayeva, The European Union has allocated a grant of 3,7 million Euro to an organisation controlled by the daughter of Uzbek dictator, Nadejda Atayeva Blogpost, June 2011, http://nadejda-atayeva-en.blogspot.com/2011/06/european-union-has-allocated-grant-of.html; That’s how the Republic Center for Social Adaptation of Children was created – according to The Cabinet Resolution No. 419 of 7.09.2004.
 Foreign Lobby, Uzbekistan sells ‘change’ campaign with second PR hire in six months, June 2020, https://www.foreignlobby.com/2020/06/22/uzbekistan-sells-change-campaign-with-second-pr-hire-in-less-than-a-year/; For examples of the work done see: Bridgeway Advocacy, Creating a More open Society in Uzbekistan, NSD/FARA Registration Unit, March 2020, https://efile.fara.gov/docs/6799-Informational-Materials-20200318-1.pdf
 Euronews (in English), Putin expresses condolences after death of Uzbek President Karimov, YouTube, September 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5y0rhJQ7Vo&feature=emb_logo