An amendment to Uzbekistan’s criminal code that criminalizes online public insult or slander of the President was introduced in March 2021 and is punishable either by correctional labor of up to three years, restriction of freedom or imprisonment of up to five years. The Uzbek government has not missed an opportunity to make use of this excessively punitive restriction on freedom of speech. Over the last month alone, three bloggers, each with distinctly differing backgrounds and viewpoints, have found themselves guilty of criminal offences for expressing their opinions online.

On February 3, 2022, Hazarasp District Criminal Court in Khorezm region sentenced local blogger Sobirjon Babaniyazov to three years’ imprisonment to be served in a labor colony for insulting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on social media.

His arrest and sentence on April 18, 2021, was prompted when Babaniyazov, while allegedly intoxicated, posted two short videos and two audio messages on another person’s Telegram channel, in which he used insulting language towards to the President and his daughter. Both President Mirziyoyev’s daughters are public figures: one works at the Ministry of Pre-School Education and the other is the deputy chairwoman of the Public Foundation for Support and Development of National Mass Media.

“The reasons for my frustration were that in Buston mahalla where I live, the gas supply is completely cut off. In winter it is difficult to find firewood for heating. Everyone knows that people go abroad because of unemployment. Everyone also knows about the bad roads which are not repaired in time. I don’t really have any complaints about the President’s policies,” Babaniyazov said in his testimony.

Although the 31-year-old expressed sincere remorse in court and asked for leniency, the court jailed the blogger and father of three for three years for a post which was subsequently deleted on a Telegram channel with only 20 followers.

Over the last few weeks, two other popular social media activists in Uzbekistan, Miraziz Bazarov and Fozilhoja Arifkhodjaev, were handed sentences for criminal offenses related to statements they made on social media. It would be hard to find two individuals with such polar opposite views in Uzbekistan. They do, however, have one thing in common: “an absolutely illegal, unjust and unfair court sentence”, as described by Sergei Mayorov, the lawyer who represented both defendants.

The Case of Fozilhoja Arifkhodjaev

Arifkhodjaev, a popular religious blogger who had a large following among young people, was sentenced on January 26, 2022, to 7 years and 6 months in prison on charges of possessing and distributing materials that threaten public safety and public order. He was arrested for “hooliganism” last June after an altercation at a mosque with an Islamic preacher known on social media as Abror Mukhror Ali.  The public feud between these two religious bloggers was based on their respective understanding of Islam, in which they accused each other of not being religious enough.

Abror Mukhror Ali, who was fired from his position as imam of a mosque several years ago for beating his third wife, often makes statements supportive of state policy. He called for the recent expulsion of Polish journalist, Agnieszka Pikulicka and, in one of his YouTube posts, called the organizations Human Rights Watch and USAID “enemies of the Uzbek people for supporting LGBT rights.”

During the 15 days of Arifkhodjaev’s detention in June 2021, his phone, according to his lawyer, was illegally seized and information contained in it was sent for investigation. His lawyer was denied permission to consult with his client and further charges were brought against him. Arifkhodjaev has been in prison ever since.

In the criminal court, the investigation presented only one incident relating to Arifkhodjaev’s “crime” of dissemination of information that presented a danger to society. On March 6, 2021, Arifkhodjaev posted a video (now deleted) of Abror Mukhror Ali’s speech on Facebook, in which he added captions to the video stating that congratulating people of other religions on their religious holidays is a confirmation of the religion of infidels. An expert examination appointed by the investigation, dated June 13, 2021, concluded that this post contained fundamentalist ideas.

The author of the expert report, Jamshid Aliyev, provided the only evidence of Arifkhodjaev’s guilt. Under cross examination, he admitted that he conducted the literary examination of the post without any philological expertise. Aliyev concluded that simply posting terms as such as “kafir” (infidel) on Facebook constitutes spreading fundamentalist ideas. This was the basis of the charges against Arifkhodjaev.

Due to the insufficient qualifications of the expert and numerous violations in the procedure in his appointment, lawyer Sergei Mayorov filed a petition on January 26, 2022, requesting another comprehensive religious examination with the involvement of an expert council on religious affairs.

In his last words to the court, Arifkhodjaev said: “I criticized the authorities for nepotism, for corruption. I criticized Islamic bloggers for cynicism. Now I’m being sent to prison. There are big people behind it. I knew this, but I did not expect such a harsh sentence. I have 6 children. I’m not a radical, not a fanatic. I just do not tolerate injustice. President Mirziyoyev keeps repeating he will ensure justice, that freedom of expression is guaranteed in our country. I believed these words and received such a response. This is a cruel injustice.”

The Case of Miraziz Bazarov

On January 21, a Tashkent court sentenced Bazarov to three years’ restriction of liberty, the maximum term under the criminal article for slander (139-3 – d) with which he h charged. The court imposed the following restrictions:

– To be at his place of residence from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m.
– Prohibited from visiting cafes, restaurants, or bars where alcoholic drinks are consumed.
– Prohibited from participating in mass gatherings and rallies.
– Prohibited from changing his place of residence and leaving the city of Tashkent without reporting to the police.
– Prohibited from consuming alcoholic and narcotic substances.
– Prohibited from using the Internet.
– Prohibited from making any kind of speech in the media and the Internet.
– Prohibited from engaging in his profession of personal development and psychology.

In addition, he is required to report to the police twice a month.
The criminal case against Miraziz Bazarov was opened on April 28, 2021, when he was in hospital recovering from a brutal attack by unknown assailants. The case was based on statements made by Dmitry Rasulov, the deputy principal of school № 110 in Tashkent, a number of teachers, as well as three other bloggers. One of these bloggers, Shukhrat Musayev, was also involved in the harassment of Hidirnazar Allakulov, the leader of the opposition political party Truth and Progress. On March 12, 2021, Musayev instigated a brawl in front of Allakulov’s house in order to prevent a meeting of members of his party from taking place.

In a post on his Tik-Tok account, Bazarov called on parents not to send their children to school, claiming that the teachers of school № 110 were illiterate and teaching children to be slaves. According to the conclusion of the comprehensive expertise of the Agency of Information and Mass Communications, Bazarov‘s video contained slanderous fabrications that shame other people.

In Bazarov’s testimony he explained how the accusations levelled against him were unfounded as the definition of slander can only be legally applied under certain conditions, not all of which were met. He stated that his words are his own personal opinion and are not slanderous, as he did not name any specific person.

A second incident on which the criminal case against Bazarov is based was a speech he posted on YouTube in March 2021, in which he spoke about three popular Uzbek bloggers: Shukhrat Musaev, who instigated the violence against political opposition leader, Hidirnazar Allakulov; Abrorjon Abduazimov, otherwise known as Abror Mukhtor Ali, the victim of slander in the Arifkhodjaev case; and Jahongir Salimov. Bazarov said these three bloggers called on their followers to carry out reprisals against him using their closed social media groups and “ISIS resources”. Bazarov claimed that “…the freelance bloggers of the SGB (State Security Service) received an order and full protection from the ‘top’…”.

It appears that Bazarov’s claim struck a chord with the authorities. In a surprising and unprecedented move, the SGB issued a statement on April 28, 2021, confirming that citizens Musaev, Salimov and Abduazimov “are not on the lists of personnel of the SGB as employees, or as public servants or auxiliary staff.” In addition, the SGB stated that it had no information about the affiliation of the three bloggers with the terrorist organization, ISIS.

Bazarov also repeatedly reported on social networks in 2020 that funds from international development banks that had been allocated to the Uzbek government to mitigate the consequences of the pandemic had been misused. His claims have been corroborated by international media investigations. In addition, he published data and shared in his blogs his concerns about corruption in the construction sector and opaque contracts linked to the inner circle of President Mirziyoyev and the hokim of Tashkent.

Bazarov is one of the very few bloggers in Uzbekistan who has dared to speak out publicly for the rights of people with different sexual orientations. This immediately made him the subject of online hate campaigns, thanks in part to the local press and government officials who hounded him for “humiliating our national culture” and being a “gay advocate”.

Bazarov is convinced that the real reason for the criminal charges, his beating and banishment from the Internet is that he has repeatedly advocated for human rights in Uzbekistan.

Insulting the President, calls not to send children to school or differences of opinion on the true interpretation of Islam may irritate or offend, but such harsh punishments of bloggers have caused great concern about the state and further development of freedom of expression in Uzbekistan.

With the arrival of President Mirziyoyev, freedom of expression, in particular online, has expanded its boundaries and social media has enabled people to engage in all kinds of discussions. The application of excessive penalties for careless speech on social networks sends alarming signals to bloggers and all active citizens who were just becoming accustomed to a kind of freedom that is desperately needed if Uzbekistan is to develop into the country the government claims it is.