The authorities eased some undue restrictions on the media and the right to freedom of expression. Several prisoners of conscience and other prisoners serving long sentences on politically motivated charges were released; their right to freedom of movement remained restricted. National Security Service (NSS) officers arbitrarily detained an independent journalist and tortured him to “confess” to anti-state crimes. The authorities continued to seek the return of people they considered a threat to national security. Local authorities continued to draft thousands of medical personnel and teaching staff to work in the cotton fields. Consensual sexual relations between men remained a criminal offence.
President Mirzioiev continued to introduce a number of wide-ranging political and economic reform proposals, designed to end past isolationist and repressive policies. An action strategy on judicial reform was approved in February. It set out several priorities for systemic reform, including ensuring genuine judicial independence, increasing the effectiveness and authority of the judiciary, and ensuring robust judicial protection of the rights and freedoms of citizens.
One of the legislative changes reduced the maximum time a person could be detained before being brought before a judge from 72 to 48 hours.
In May, at the end of the first ever visit by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to Uzbekistan, the Commissioner called on the President to translate his reform pledges into action for the effective protection of human rights.
In November, the President issued a decree explicitly prohibiting the use of torture to obtain confessions and their admission as evidence in court proceedings.
Freedom of expression – human rights defenders and journalists
The authorities eased some undue restrictions on the right to freedom of expression. They allowed some critical reporting by the media and released several prisoners convicted on politically motivated charges. However, the government retained firm control of access to information. Independent and international media platforms considered critical of the authorities remained inaccessible.
In February, the authorities released Muhammad Bekzhanov, after he served 17 years in prison on politically motivated charges. He remained under curfew and close police supervision. In July, Erkin Musaev, a former military official and staff member of the UN Development Programme, was released early. He had been sentenced to 20 years on fabricated espionage charges in 2006. Prisoners of conscience Azam Farmonov and Salidzhon Abdurakhmonov, human rights lawyer Agzam Turgunov and two other human rights defenders were released in October. All of them had been tortured in detention. Prisoner of conscience Isroil Kholdorov remained in prison.
In July, during a visit to the EU, the Foreign Minister extended invitations to international NGOs and international media to visit Uzbekistan. The authorities granted limited access to some representatives of international NGOs and media.
Despite these positive developments, human rights defenders and independent journalists, both exiled and in Uzbekistan, as well as their families, continued to be subjected to smear campaigns online, on national television and in the print media.
Surveillance by the authorities in Uzbekistan and abroad reinforced the repressive environment for human rights defenders, journalists and others. Technical and legal systems facilitated unlawful surveillance and failed to provide effective controls and remedies against abuse.1
On 27 September, NSS officers detained independent journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev as he was leaving his home in the capital, Tashkent. He was held incommunicado for two weeks in an NSS pre-trial detention facility, which is well known for the use of torture. The NSS accused him of using a pseudonym to publish online articles that called for the overthrow of the government and instigating unrest in Uzbekistan, crimes punishable by up to 20 years in prison. NSS officers warned his family not to contact human rights organizations or the media, and allowed him only limited and supervised access to a lawyer of his choice ten weeks after he was detained. In November, the authorities extended his pre-trial detention for another three months. On 26 December, the NSS accused his lawyer of misrepresenting the case to the public and forced Bobomurod Abdullayev to dismiss him in favour of a state-appointed one.
Freedom of movement
In August, the President announced that the legal requirement for Uzbekistani nationals to obtain permission to leave the country would be abolished by 2019. Nevertheless, the authorities continued to impose travel restrictions on newly released prisoners who had been convicted on politically motivated charges. Some former prisoners continued to be prevented from travelling abroad for urgent medical treatment.
Human rights lawyer Polina Braunerg who used a wheelchair, died in May from a stroke after being repeatedly refused permission to travel abroad for medical treatment.
In October, Murad Dzhuraev, a former Member of Parliament, who was released in November 2015 after serving 20 years in prison on politically motivated charges, was finally allowed to travel to Germany for urgent medical treatment following mounting international pressure. On 4 December, he died suddenly before being able to leave the country.
On 22 February, journalist Muhammad Bekzhanov was released after 17 years in prison. His sentence was handed down after an unfair trial and torture, and arbitrarily extended. At the end of the year, he had not been granted permission to apply for an exit visa to join his family abroad. He was not allowed to travel to Tashkent for urgent medical treatment that he required as a consequence of the torture and other ill-treatment he was subjected to.
Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people
The authorities repeatedly stated that they had no intention of decriminalizing consensual sexual relations between men, which constituted a crime punishable by a prison term of up to three years.
Same-sex consensual sexual relations remained highly stigmatized, and LGBTI people were regularly subjected to violence, arbitrary arrests, detention and discrimination by state and non-state actors.
Forced labour and slavery
In August, a presidential decree formally banned the forcible recruitment of children, students, medical personnel and teaching staff to work in the cotton fields. During his speech to the UN General Assembly in September, President Mirzioiev acknowledged the use of forced labour in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan and pledged to end it.
Nevertheless, human rights defenders and independent monitors detailed cases of hundreds of medical personnel and teaching staff being forced to work in the cotton fields, in poor working conditions. In some regions, they documented children harvesting cotton, despite the August ban. The authorities threatened those who refused to work in the cotton fields with large fines, dismissal or the loss of social benefits.
Police and local authorities tried to stop human rights activists from monitoring the work in the cotton fields, in some cases using intimidation, force, and arbitrary detention.
In March, police detained human rights defender Elena Urlaeva and forcibly confined her in a psychiatric hospital for a month. This was to prevent her from attending a scheduled meeting with visiting delegations from the World Bank and the ILO in Tashkent to discuss her findings of the common practice of forced labour in the cotton industry. Between August and November, police repeatedly detained her for brief periods of time to stop her talking to medical and teaching staff in the cotton fields.
Freedom of religion and belief
In August, the President publicly called for a review of the charges against people detained on suspicion of possessing banned religious or “extremist” materials. He also called for people who regretted joining unregistered Islamic movements, to be “rehabilitated”. The authorities also announced that they had removed more than 15,000 names from a “blacklist” of up to 18,000 people suspected of membership of banned or unregistered religious movements and groups.
However, security forces continued to detain dozens of people accused of being members of banned “extremist” groups, including labour migrants returning from abroad. Relatives and human rights activists reported that police and NSS officers tortured many of the people accused of illegal membership to “confess” to fabricated charges, and that judges continued to ignore credible allegations, even when confronted with physical signs of torture in the court room, and admitted them as evidence.
In October, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief visited Uzbekistan at the invitation of the authorities. He was the first representative of the UN Special Procedures to be granted access to Uzbekistan since 2002. In his preliminary findings he noted that religious practice was “subject to excessive regulations that prioritize security over freedom”.
Counter-terror and security
The authorities continued to secure forcible returns, including through extradition proceedings, of Uzbekistani nationals they identified as threats to the “constitutional order” or national security.
NSS officers continued to abduct wanted individuals (so-called renditions) from abroad.
Those abducted or otherwise forcibly returned were placed in incommunicado detention, often in undisclosed locations, and tortured or otherwise ill-treated to force them to confess or incriminate others. In many cases, security forces pressured relatives not to seek support from human rights organizations, and not to file complaints about alleged human rights violations.
- “We will find you, anywhere”: The global shadow of Uzbekistani surveillance ( EUR 62/5974/2017)