What the arrest of a prominent Karakalpak activist tells us about not-so-new Uzbekistan’s transnational repression10 min read

 In Analysis, Central Asia, Civil Society, Read

At the request of Uzbek authorities, blogger and civil rights activist Aqylbek Muratbai (Muratov), who hails from Uzbekistan’s autonomous region of Karakalpakstan but has resided in Kazakhstan for the past 20 years, was arrested by police at his home in Almaty on the evening of 15 February. This detention comes over a year and a half after chaotic protests broke out in Karakalpakstan, demonstrating once again that any reforms in Mirziyoyev’s authoritarian Uzbekistan will not open society up to political dissent or ethnic minority voices.

“He had been preparing me for a long time for the fact that he would be detained,” Muratbai’s sister, Fariza Narbekova, a Tbilisi-based journalist, told Lossi 36. But the moment itself nonetheless came as a surprise: “It is impossible to be prepared for the fact that your brother will be detained.”

The case against Aqylbek Muratbai

The Uzbek government’s case against Muratbai is based on two alleged crimes, for which he could face a long prison sentence, according to documents issued on 28 October and 20 November 2023 by Lieutenant Uzbakaev, an internal affairs investigator of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, to which Lossi 36 has had access.

The first charge hinges on three videos posted by Muratbai on 9, 10, and 11 October 2023. These videos feature a speech delivered by fellow Karakalpak activist Koshkarbay Toremuratov during an OSCE conference held that month in Warsaw. The investigation concluded that the content of these videos contained “ideas of religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism.” Muratbai had helped prepare these speeches.

Only days after the conference, Uzbek special services threatened Muratbai’s uncle in the city of Navoi in southwestern Uzbekistan. On 25 October, the Consulate General of Uzbekistan in Almaty put pressure on Muratbai, asking him to “soften the tone” when discussing human rights issues in Karakalpakstan. But it has taken two years for Uzbekistan to build a case against Muratbai. His sister believes the reason why Karakalpakstan officials have waited to launch the criminal prosecution is because Muratbai refused to give up his activist work. Fellow civil activist Zhangeldi Dzhaksymbetov maintained that “the Uzbek authorities don’t have reasons to detain us, they find them,” and added: “Why didn’t they arrest Muratbai when I was arrested? Because they hadn’t found a good reason yet.”

The second charge against Muratbai rests on two videos posted on 29 October, in which he called for a commemoration on 13 November to mark the 500 days since the suppressed demonstrations in Nukus of July 2022, and spoke in support of Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, a human rights defender who was sentenced to 16 years in prison for allegedly having instigated said unrest.

In an interview with Barys Media on 6 February, Muratbai argued that the main objective behind the Uzbek authorities’ prosecution of Karakalpak activists is “simply the destruction of the most educated, the people who can formulate their demands – roughly speaking, the intellectual elite of the nation.” Human rights experts echo Muratbai’s own observations. Gulnoz Mamarasulova, a human rights activist who represents the Sweden-based Association of Central Asia in Uzbekistan, told Lossi 36 that “the exertion of pressure on Karakalpak activists and human rights defenders can be seen as part of a systemic approach to stifle dissent and ensure a monolithic presentation of national unity and government policy.” Rachel Gasowski, Central Asia director at the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), confirms that Uzbekistan is “trying to silence criticism and questions that resonate with many residents of Karakalpakstan.”

Muratbai’s arrest is remarkable not only because of his wide reach and ability to raise awareness on his home region in English, but also because of his moderate political stance. He warned that “further persecution” of Karakalpak activists “will only lead to an aggravation of the situation in Karakalpakstan and to the strengthening of the Karakalpak national movement.” He feared that the republic would destabilise once its frustrated inhabitants “finally get tired of waiting for dialogue with the Mirziyoyev regime in Uzbekistan and will begin to call for more radical actions.” However, Muratbai’s calls for a “dialogue on the rights of the Karakalpak people” have fallen on deaf ears in Tashkent, as Gasowski points out.

Legal limbos and torture risks

Prior to Muratbai’s case, five Karakalpak activists were detained from September to November 2022 by Kazakh authorities. After spending twelve months behind bars, the Kazakh court failed to reach a decision on extradition and they were released. Their requests for political asylum in Kazakhstan, meanwhile, were denied, though they have since started the process of appealing this sentence. With a still-valid extradition request from Uzbekistan hanging over their head, this has placed these Kazakhstan-based Karakalpak human rights activists and community leaders in a dire legal limbo.

Muratbai’s case is likely to follow the same pattern. After his detention, Muratbai was granted temporary asylum-seeker status, valid until 23 May, according to his lawyer. On 18 March 2024, the prosecutor’s office in Almaty decided to extend his arrest up to twelve months.

Yevgeny Zhovtis, head of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights in Almaty, explained to Vlast why Kazakhstan takes this ambivalent position: The country avoids sending asylum seekers back to their country of origin, where they face danger, but at the same time avoids straining relations with its neighbour, in this case Uzbekistan. This way, the Kazakhstani authorities “are playing for time” until the Karakalpak activists can possibly flee to a third country.

Gasowski explains that IPHR is “concerned” that, if Muratbai is extradited to Uzbekistan, he will “face torture and long-term imprisonment.” Human Rights Watch has closely monitored detention centres and prisons in Uzbekistan, revealing repeated instances of ill-treatment and torture, which are still a widespread, unpunished practice in the country. Despite finding some instances in which police officers were investigated and held accountable, most reported cases are not investigated. Several detainees have described their experiences of ill-treatment and physical abuse in detention.

If, unlike other Karakalpaks arrested in Kazakhstan, Muratbai is extradited, “only lawlessness awaits him,” fellow activist Dzhaksymbetov said. Gasowski concurs: Muratbai would “not have a fair trial because of the lack of judicial independence in Karakalpakstan,” she stated. These concerns are shared by Mamarasulova: “While reforms have been initiated in Uzbekistan to improve the judicial system and human rights practices, there remain concerns about the fairness and transparency of trials, especially in politically sensitive cases.” 

Karakalpakstan and the Karakalpak diaspora amid authoritarian upgrading

Due to deeply-entrenched fears of separatism, Tashkent is particularly nervous about critical voices addressing the demonstrations in Karakalpakstan in July 2022, which were sparked by a proposed constitutional amendment that would strip the entity of its sovereign status and its right to secede from the rest of Uzbekistan.

After the protests were violently quelled, leaving 21 people dead, the Uzbek government backtracked on the constitutional amendments to Karakalpakstan’s status, and promised large investment packages to combat the dire living conditions in the autonomous republic. Even if the situation in Karakalpakstan now seems to have stabilised, IPHR’s Gasowski observes that it is “not so much quietude” but “an eerie silence” that remains.

Between November 2022 and June 2023, 58 people involved in the July protests were sentenced over the course of five trials. Polat Shamshetov – incidentally the son of quasi-independent Karakalpakstan’s first president – was sentenced to 6 years in prison, but died in pre-trial detention. Others were sentenced to prison terms between 4 and 12 years, or to punishment not related to deprivation of freedom. Many sentences were reduced, but not activist and journalist Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov’s, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison for conspiring to overthrow Uzbekistan’s constitutional order and organising violent riots, among other charges.

Intimidation and threats by security officials remain prevalent in Karakalpakstan. During a mission to Karakalpakstan in October 2023, human rights organisation Freedom for Eurasia found that relatives of victims of the violent protests of the preceding year had been threatened by law enforcement and told not to speak with the visiting experts. The few family members of Karakalpaks who were killed in July 2022 reported that the authorities had avoided providing information about the cause of death of the deceased and impeding, often obstructing, access to the body.

Across the region, transnational repression is gaining traction. All Central Asian states are “seeking to bring back critics or activists from other countries,” Gasowski points out, and prioritise regional cooperation agreements over international human rights obligations.

As a result, Karakalpak activists in Kazakhstan feel insecure even in exile, citing the risk of being kidnapped by Uzbekistani authorities. For this reason, Nietbai Urazbayev, community leader of Karakalpaks in the west of Kazakhstan, moved in late 2023 from Aktau to Almaty, further from the border with Karakalpakstan, after Uzbek authorities had sentenced him in absentia to 12 years in prison and Kazakh authorities revoked his Kazakhstani citizenship. He died of a heart attack, likely due to severe stress, in January 2024.

The presence of an Uzbek police official at Muratbai’s arrest is yet another indication that activists’ fears of cross-border cooperation between security services and law enforcement are not unfounded. Indeed, Mirziyoyev never dismantled what David Lewis of the University of Exeter described as the “network of extraterritorial intelligence and security mechanisms” developed by Uzbekistan’s security services under Karimov “to pre-empt or respond to any perceived threats to the regime emanating from abroad.”

The repression faced by Karakalpaks starkly contrasts with some of the optimistic expectations which followed when Mirziyoyev succeeded Islam Karimov in 2017, and promised reforms towards a more open society and economy. Although the first Mirziyoyev years saw the end of systemic forced labour in the country, the release of several political prisoners, and a slight opening for civil society, it soon became clear that this amounted to “authoritarian upgrading,” as put by Edward Lemon, for the elite’s own benefit, rather than any meaningful political liberalisation.

“Despite the reforms for which the international community has praised Mirziyoyev,” Muratbai said, “we clearly see that the political regime is slipping back to [former Uzbek president] Karimov’s style.” The manner in which Uzbek authorities first ignored and then crushed the discontent in Karakalpakstan indeed shows how Mirziyoyev’s U-turned away from any meaningful political reforms in 2022–23. In April and July 2023, two uncompetitive votes resulted in a new constitution and another presidential term for Mirziyoyev until – at least – 2030. Activist Muratbai himself warned that Karakalpakstan would be a canary in the coalmine of Uzbekistan’s reform process. “You can’t take a country and divide it,” he said, “and then decide that the Uzbek side will be a democracy with reforms, while Karakalpakstan will not.”

Activists have called for more engagement by Uzbekistan’s international partners on the rights of Karakalpaks at home and abroad. Gulnoz Mamarasulova emphasised that these actors can “exert diplomatic pressure, offer mediation services, and provide platforms for dialogue.” Although Lossi 36 learned from diplomats that the European Union and European embassies are closely monitoring Aqylbek Muratbai’s case, there are no signs that the EU is rethinking or adjusting its engagement with Uzbekistan, beyond expressions of concern and calls for independent investigations.

Mamarasulova urges the EU and the US to “support civil society efforts to ensure that those in limbo have access to legal assistance, humanitarian aid, and, ultimately, a chance for a fair trial or asylum.” But activists in the diaspora remain at risk of deportation. “The authorities of European countries do not understand that extradition is essentially a death threat for the activists,” Freedom for Eurasia’s Leila Seiitbek told Vlast. “They somehow believe that Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are safe countries to return these people to.”

Feature Image: Wikimedia Commons / Aqylbek Muratbai
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