Article 29 of the Uzbek Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and the right to seek and disseminate information, as well as freedom of the press; however, the Uzbek authorities have maintained tight control over the media and independent voices. The country currently ranks 166th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2016 World Press Freedom Index.
The government has a well-established mechanism for curtailing freedom of expression. The authorities have used surveillance against human rights activists, independent journalists and government critics who speak out and voice their opinion or opposition to government policy. Such individuals are routinely subjected to police interrogations, arbitrary arrests and prosecution as well as imprisonment on trumped-up charges.
Though President Mirziyoyev has mostly followed late President Karimov’s heavy-handed rule, several government critics imprisoned on politically-motivated grounds have been released in the past few months. In October 2016, human rights defender Bobomurad Razzokov was released due to poor health, and a month later political activist, Samandar Kukanov, finally walked free after 24 years in prison. More recently, on 22nd February 2017, Muhammad Bekjanov, former editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Erk was released from prison. Fellow journalist, Yusuf Ruzimuradov, who was sentenced with Bekjanov, remains imprisoned after his sentence was arbitrarily extended in 2014 for allegedly violating prison rules. No news has been received about his condition for some time now. On 1st March 2017, independent journalist, Jamshid Karimov, nephew of the late President Karimov was released from the psychiatric hospital in Samarkand, where he had been forcibly and secretly held since 2006.
Though the release of political prisoners is a welcome development, many more remain under government control. Human rights defender Shukhrat Rustamov was diagnosed by Tashkent City Court as being “mentally incompetent” in August 2015 after he sent numerous complaints on human rights issues to the Uzbek authorities. For the last two years, he has been at risk of forcible incarceration in a psychiatric hospital. On 1st March 2017, well-known and outspoken human rights defender, Elena Urlaeva, was detained by law enforcement authorities and forcibly placed in a psychiatric clinic, without her relatives being informed.
Human rights activists’ monitoring and reporting on the forced labour used during the cotton harvest have come under particular pressure from the authorities. Activist Uktam Pardaev was given a three-year suspended sentence in retaliation for his work monitoring the conditions of labourers during the harvest. Another activist working in the same field, Dmitry Tikhonov, was forced to flee the country in 2016 due to persecution.Uzbekistan still requires exit visas for its citizens to travel abroad, and authorities often withhold these visas to punish those critical of the regime. Uzbek citizens banned from travelling abroad in recent years include human rights activists Shukhrat Rustamov, Said Kurbanov, Elena Urlaeva and Uktam Pardaev.
Human rights defenders and critics who have fled Uzbekistan also face ongoing pressure and intimidation from the Uzbek authorities, and many have reported receiving threats of reprisals against their relatives still living in Uzbekistan.
The Uzbek constitution ensures the right to freedom of association and a 2007 law protects the activities of non-governmental and non-profit organisations. This law also prohibits the government from interfering in the work of NGOs. Nevertheless, in practice, the right to freedom of association is strictly controlled and restricted by the government.
The authorities claim that there are over 6,000 NGOs operating in the country; however, an overwhelming majority of these are supported by or affiliated with the government. The few independent groups working on human rights issues continue to face serious obstacles, including cumbersome registration processes. While registration is mandatory, most of the few independent human rights groups in the country have been unable to get registered. The Code of Administrative Responsibility regulates NGOs and the authorities can fine and penalise domestic and international organisations that fail to obtain all the proper permissions to conduct their activities. In 2015, the UN Human Rights Committee criticised the “unreasonable, burdensome and restrictive requirements for registration and the other obstacles to the work of human rights NGOs” in Uzbekistan.
Uzbek authorities strictly control the independent practice of Islam. Restrictive legislation on religion regulates religious clothing, the possession of religious literature and places mosques under the de facto control of the state. Over the past two decades, the state has arbitrarily imprisoned thousands of Muslims and key independent religious leaders who practiced their religion outside strict state control. In recent years, authorities have become increasingly suspicious of migrant labourers returning from abroad who may have had access to information on Islam which is censored or banned in Uzbekistan, resulting in an increased number of arrests and prosecutions for alleged “extremism.”
Article 33 of the Uzbek constitution and the Law on the Guarantees of Citizens’ Electoral Rights protect the right to participate in meetings and demonstrations, which the authorities can only prohibit if there are security concerns. In 2014, however, the government tightened its control over participation in such events by issuing a decree with the requirements and procedures for organising public events with more than 100 attendees, such as conferences, religious celebrations and cultural or sporting activities. Non-compliance with the required procedures is punishable by fines and detention of up to 15 days.
The country’s history of protest is marred by injustice and excessive force. To date, the Uzbek authorities have yet to carry out an independent and impartial investigation into the events of 13th May 2005, when law enforcement and security forces indiscriminately fired at a crowd of protesters in Babur Square, Andijan. Demonstrators had peacefully gathered to voice their grievances over repressive government policies and economic hardships. According to officials, 187 people were killed, but unofficial estimates put the number at between 500 and 1500. None of the officials involved in the shooting have been brought to justice.
Within such a repressive environment, many citizens are fearful of the possibility that the government will again crack down on protests, and are therefore reluctant to participate in demonstrations. In January 2017, however, a group of elderly men and women took to the streets of Denov, a town in the southern Surkhondaryo Province, petitioning the government to issue their pensions in cash payments, rather than in debit cards.