Persecution of civil society intensifies amidst preparations for the Constitution amendment referendum in Uzbekistan5 min read
Police in Uzbekistan have detained around 20 activists and journalists in recent months. The Russian-language media-project Vot Tak reported that Nafosat Ollashukurova, a local human rights activist, was one of the latest to be detained — the security forces took her to the police station together with her husband and two daughters. Uzbek activists say repression is reaching a new level in the run-up to the Constitution amendment referendum.
On 15 March 2023, Tashkent security officers entered and searched the home of activist and human rights defender Nafosat Ollashukurova. Ollashukurova, her husband, and her two daughters were detained without any explanation and taken to the city of Jizzakh, 200 km from the Uzbek capital. For some 24 hours, their fate was unknown.
The next day, police released Ollashukurova’s husband, while she and her daughters were transferred to the Bagat District, Khorezm Province, placed under house arrest in her parents’ home, and forbidden to divulge any details of the case during the entire period of investigation.
Nafosat Ollashukurova was charged with defamation, insulting the president of Uzbekistan, undermining the constitutional order, and inciting mass unrest. Uzbek human rights activist Abdusami Rakhmonov told Vot Tak that local security forces are keeping a close eye on Ollashukurova’s family due to the fact that her husband is the son of prominent opposition figure Khidirnazar Allakulov.
In 2019, Nafosat Ollashukurova was accused of “creating conditions for an unsanctioned rally” and ordered by a court to be placed in a psychoneurological clinic for three months. After her release, she left Uzbekistan and sought political asylum in Ukraine, but the authorities rejected her application. However, the activist was unable to appeal against the decision due to the Russian invasion. Fleeing the war, Ollashukurova and her daughters escaped to Turkey, where she continued her activism, until local authorities also forced her to leave the country. At this point, Nafosat Ollashukurova was eventually pushed to return to Uzbekistan.
In a conversation with Vot Tak, Arseni Maximov, member of the association Rusos Libres España, notes that the case of Ollashukurova is not an isolated one. According to him, at least 20 bloggers and journalists have been detained over the past two months alone. They are accused of extortion and fraud and are denied access to lawyers.
Uzbek security services adopt their Russian colleagues’ experience
In January 2023, security forces detained Khurshid Daliyev, director of the news portal Human.uz, along with Muslim Mirzajonov, its editor-in-chief, on allegations of extortion. Similar charges were brought against blogger Abdukodir Muminov, who, according to his colleagues, had recently been investigating the business of the Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev‘s relatives.
“This is the intimidation of journalists, bloggers, and the entire civil society. For example, the Human.uz journalists were detained not as employees of the media outlet, but as administrators of the Kompromatuzb telegram channel. In other words, as private individuals not involved in journalism,” says human rights activist Abdusami Rakhmonov in an interview with Vot Tak.
Abdusami Rakhmonov left Uzbekistan back in 2010, when local security officials began persecuting his relatives for defending farmers’ rights. In the same year, Rakhmonov’s brother was imprisoned, while the activist was granted international protection by the ECHR in the Czech Republic.
Rakhmonov claimed that the Uzbek security services have recently resumed the intimidation of his parents – the last time they came to their home was on 1 April this year. The human rights defender believes that the security agencies are borrowing their Russian counterparts’ practices by persecuting undesirable Uzbek activists over alleged complaints from Uzbek citizens which, in reality, do not exist.
According to Rakhmonov, the Uzbek authorities are now doing everything possible to silence local opposition figures and to keep them from attracting attention to the political repression in the country. For example, Uzbek playwright and politician Sanjarali Imomov was detained just before he met with Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who was on an official visit to Tashkent.
In a conversation with Vot Tak, Bobomurod Abdullayev, an independent Uzbek journalist and former political prisoner, stressed that one of the main complaints about the country’s leadership today is the pro-Russian stance taken by the authorities. While Uzbekistan had previously remained neutral, during the celebration of Nowruz (the Iranian and Turkic peoples’ spring and new year festivities) on 21 March, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev spoke of the two countries’ historical ties and the need for mutual support.
“I think this statement was an overt message to the West that Uzbekistan will openly support Russia, regardless of anyone’s opinion. When any government takes a pro-Russian stance, it blatantly starts arresting independent journalists and bloggers. Our authorities believe that the principles of democracy and freedom of speech are Western values, which means they can be violated,” suggests Abdullayev.
Repressions as preparation for “nullifying” the presidential term
The Uzbek authorities, according to Rakhmonov, have succeeded in fully destroying all independent media in the country in recent years. Today, the state spends a lot of money on propaganda, including acquiring its own army of pro-government bloggers.
Bobomurod Abdullayev believes such preparations are linked to the approaching referendum on constitutional amendments. The journalist claims that the authorities are trying to either pressure or bribe opposition figures and activists. “If they do not stop and continue to criticise [the government and the president], the security forces build up administrative cases on utterly spurious charges,” Abdullayev said.
The vote on constitutional amendments initiated by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev will take place April 30, 2023. The scenario for this reform is similar to Russia’s. For example, one of the amendments calls for a de facto “nullification,” or resetting to zero, of Mirziyoyev´s presidential term, thus allowing him to remain in office until 2040. The Uzbek opposition calls for boycotting the referendum or voting against the amendments.
Abdusami Rakhmonov considers the intended amendments to the constitution to be aimed solely at strengthening the dictatorship of the incumbent President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
This article was originally published in Russian by Viktor Volkov on 10 April 2023 by the media Vot Tak. It was translated into English by Viktoria Kobzeva.