Independent media on trial: A new wave of arrests against Karakalpak protestors5 min read

 In Analysis, Central Asia, Civil Society
On 17 March, 39 defendants awaited sentencing for their involvement in the 2022 protests in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan region. In the preceding two months, 61 other protestors had been handed heavy sentences and jail time for similar offences. 

As they waited for the verdict, it was apparent they would likely all be charged regardless of their pleading. While the trial was more open than most in Uzbekistan, having been live streamed to the public, there still seemed to be a lack of transparency around the proceedings in the courtroom. According to observers, the defendants appeared to have suspiciously similar stories, pointing the finger at the same man for starting the protest, Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov.

Protests first broke out in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, on 1 July 2022. These demonstrations were a response to proposed constitutional amendments that would strip the Karakalpakstan region of its right to seek independence. During the protests, harrowing images appeared online of men covered in blood being dragged down the street and police beating unarmed protestors with batons. There were also reports of stun grenades, rubber bullets, and a water cannon being used against civilians. By the end, more than 21 were dead and hundreds more wounded.

Miscarriage of justice

Human rights activists around the world have been calling for a thorough investigation of the police response to the protests, arguing that it was incommensurate with the actions of the protestors. According to Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, “Uzbekistan owes it to the victims to properly investigate how this happened and to hold accountable those responsible for serious violations.” The brutality of the police response was visible even during the subsequent trials months later — one defendant was confined to a wheelchair after losing part of his leg to a stun grenade deployed during the protests.

In an attempt to show accountability for the use of police brutality, prosecutors charged three law enforcement officers with misconduct. However, these have been the only arrests made, although dozens of police officers were recorded assaulting and killing civilians. Authorities have claimed that they will continue to investigate the use of weapons by police, though it is unlikely this will result in any more arrests. While the police are not being held to account, those that engaged in the protests, even those who just posted online, have been indicted.

Transparent(-ish) proceedings 

Despite all the defendants being from Nukus, authorities decided to hold the hearings in Bukhara, nearly 600 kilometres away. There has been much speculation around this decision, with many considering it an attempt to prevent family members and supporters from attending. Authorities have claimed that the decision was made due to renovations being done to the courthouse in Nukus; however, there were many other courthouse options much closer to Karakalpakstan than Bukhara. While inaccessible to attend in-person for many people, the whole trial was live streamed. However, the quality was very low, likely due to a poor internet connection, making the proceedings difficult to follow. 

The charges against the protestors ranged from organising mass unrest and distributing materials inciting “social discord” to assault, illegal use of firearms, and torture. One of the more ridiculous charges was against a retiree for posting a video “urging residents to mass unrest” — he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Among the defendants was also the son of the first president of Karakalpakstan, who was sentenced to six years. He died in detention shortly after sentencing of a pulmonary embolism. While he and other protestors insisted that the conditions they were under were satisfactory and denied any allegations of torture, some, including Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, believe that his death was a result of police brutality.

Blame the media

One of the harshest sentences was given to lawyer and journalist Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, who received 16 years for plotting to seize power by disrupting the constitutional order, organising mass unrest, damage or destruction of property, resistance to a representative of the authorities, active participation in mass riots, embezzlement, and money laundering. Tazhimuratov was the only one on trial who pleaded actively against his sentence. His co-defendants instead pleaded for forgiveness in unison, while he sat distanced from them in the corner of the glass cage they were held in. Most of the defendants also blamed Tazhimuratov for misleading them and pushing them towards violence. 

Despite the severity of the charges against him, Tazhimuratov was not dissuaded from making his appeal. After listening to his co-defendants turn against him, he stated that he had not expected them to slander him, while also calling into question their claims that they were being treated well in detainment. He recalled his experience of being arrested, claiming he was beaten by police and lost consciousness several times during the ordeal, which violated his constitutional rights. The defence was extremely heated, and Tazhimuratov even made one witness, who claimed people were being paid to protest, cry, berating her until she confessed to lying.

Guilty of speaking out

By the end of the trial, it was clear that Tazhimuratov’s sentencing had more to do with his position than with his participation in the protest. He has long been an outspoken critic of the government. In the past, he even wrote a piece on the judge at his trial, accusing him of corruption, giving even more weight to suspicions over the move of the trial to Bukhara. Witnesses also repeatedly confirmed that they had not been drawn to the protests by him. Karakalpak activist Aqylbek Muratbai wrote that, “I’m convinced that arrests after Karakalpakstan protests aren’t carried out by Uzbekistan on principle of [who] ‘participated.’ They arrest everyone who was somehow engaged in civic activity & has respect among Karakalpaks. There is purposeful destruction of Karakalpak intelligentsia.”

In the end, all of those on trial were sentenced, though none for as long as Tazhimuratov, even those charged with illegal possession of firearms and torture. While the authorities attempted to portray a commitment to transparency there still seemed to be something amiss. Considering the main target were journalists, Muratbai is likely correct that this was an attempt to silence the vocal minority in Karakalpakstan. This theory seems even more likely when considering that the Uzbek government has been going after journalists since the country was established. Just a month after the first trial in January, another prolific critic of the government was jailed. While Tazhimuratov’s brother has promised they will appeal the sentence, it is likely that Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov will remain another victim of the country’s campaign against independent media.

Feature Image: Canva
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