As events in Kazakhstan continue to spook neighboring Central Asian countries whose populations suffer almost identical social grievances, including grand corruption, increasing poverty, and soaring fuel prices, efforts of Uzbekistan’s authorities to stifle criticism of its government have been gathering pace long before the unrest in Kazakhstan erupted in early January of this year. Despite President Mirziyoyev’s much lauded reform program which has focused mainly on the economy, civil and political reforms have lagged well behind. Freedom of speech, freedom of association and the right of civil society groups to register formally as NGOs have failed to see any relaxation of draconian, Soviet-style rules of play. Indeed, the Uzbek government appears to have stepped up its control over the Internet and bloggers and journalists repeatedly receive “invitations” from the authorities to remind them of the boundaries of what they may report on.

As soon as the turmoil in Kazakhstan began, several journalists in Uzbekistan and bloggers reported that they had been summoned for “conversations” at local police stations where they were asked not to report on events there, distribute videos of the protests and not to call for rallies.

This follows the dramatic restrictions and disruption to social media channels TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, V-Kontakte and others in November last year. Such was the outrage, also among the Uzbek business community who rely heavily on Telegram and other social media channels to conduct business, that the blackout was reversed after only three hours. Twitter remains blocked despite the fact that it is the preferred channel of communications for many government officials, mainly tweeting in English about the success of reforms and promoting a “changing Uzbekistan”. The refusal to allow Polish journalist Agnieszka Pikulicka to re-enter the country on November 7, 2021 marked a turning point in Uzbekistan’s willingness to embrace media plurality and critical reporting. While that case received widespread international attention, many other journalists and bloggers continue to come under pressure from the authorities with much harsher consequences.

Valijon Kalonov, social media activist, Jizzakh city

On 23 December 2021, a criminal court in the city of Jizzakh sent social media activist Valijon Kalonov for compulsory treatment in a closed psychiatric clinic in Samarkand region. Kalonov was arrested on August 15, 2021 and since then has been detained in pre-trial detention facilities in Khavast and Tashkent. Kalonov was charged under two articles of the Criminal Code of Uzbekistan on charges of:

– Making, storing, distributing and displaying materials that threaten public safety and public order using social media (244, 1 – 3, paragraph d of the Criminal Code).

– Public insult or defamation of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan using social networks and the Internet (158, paragraph 3 of the Criminal Code).

The charges were based on Kalonov’s statements published on Facebook and YouTube, in which he lambasted Mirziyoyev over his relations with China and Putin, his alleged involvement in corruption, failing to protect the Uighurs “who are victims of a genocide” in China, and called on Mirziyoyev not to run in the presidential election in October. The statements were made in a 25-minute video published on YouTube on August 2, 2021. The channel is run by Ulugbek Ashur, an Uzbek journalist living in Canada. Kalonov did not hold back in his criticism, much of it subjective and what would normally be described as “a bit of a rant.”

The court concluded that Kalonov had shown disrespect for the head of state, made unsubstantiated statements, and spread a negative opinion about the President of Uzbekistan, destroying the image of the head of state. There is certainly not much to disagree with there. However, Kalonov also called on the Uzbek people to rally against the President ahead of the elections on October 24 and remove him from power. This, the prosecution said, clearly constitutes extremist ideas. What marks this case as particularly disturbing however, is the outcome.

The court sought the opinion of the expert commission of the Tashkent Psychiatric Clinic’s department for psychiatric forensic examination on November 23, 2021 which concluded “Kalonov Valijon suffers from chronic mental illness in the form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and impairment of logical thinking. At the time of the crime, he did not understand and was not fully aware of his actions. At the present time Kalonov is not aware of the meaning of his actions. He cannot testify in court. The crime committed by Kalonov, his mental state and illness can be dangerous to society. He requires medical care and should be sent for compulsory treatment in a special department of a psychiatric clinic.”

On these grounds, the court decided that Kalonov could not be held criminally liable and released him from criminal punishment, instead referring him for compulsory treatment in a closed psychiatric clinic. In its decision, the court did not specify the terms and conditions of Kalonov’s release and it appears he can be held indefinitely. His relatives told Uzbek Forum that they do not know whether he is allowed to receive visits. Kalonov is being held in the same hospital where Jamshid Karimov, the nephew of Mirziyoyev’s predecessor, was held for 11 years. In September 2021, Uzbek Forum published a report on Uzbekistan’s persistent use of forced psychiatric detention as a means of silencing human rights activists.

Ruslan Khairnurov, civil activist, Samarkand city

On December 17, 2021, a criminal case was opened against Ruslan Khairnurov for defamation and “spreading false information on the Internet”. Police in Samarkand city arrested Khairnurov on December 24. On the same day, the judge of the Samarkand city criminal court, in the absence of the defendant, ordered the activist to be held in a detention center.

The Prosecutor of Samarkand, Dilmurod Saidkulov, requested the arrest of Khairnurov for allegedly evading the investigation, although the criminal charges with which Khairnurov is charged are regarded as “acts with a low level of social danger”, as pointed out by the prosecutor himself. The activist denies that he has not cooperated with the investigation. He says that he has been living at home with his relatives, has not been hiding from anyone, and that his cell phone is always on.

The article on which Khairnurov’s charges are based provides punishment in the form of a fine or mandatory community service of 360 to 400 hours, or restriction of freedom from one to three years. On December 31, the court of appeals amended the court’s decision and placed Khairnurov under house arrest, as Khairnurov’s actions did not provide for a custodial sentence.

The investigation alleges that on December 17, 2021, Khairnurov wrote a post on several Facebook groups stating that Davron Jumaniyazov, head of the Samarkand Regional Health Department, received a bribe of $80,000 from a certain individual for his appointment as chief doctor of the hospital in Samarkand city. “Thus, Khairnurov disseminated false and slanderous information which disgraced Jumaniyazov”, according to the police statement.

However, Samarkand journalist Anastasia Pavlenko says that  the post shared by Khairnurov from one Facebook group to another, came from an unverified source which was visible for only one day and then deleted. Pavlenko believes that Khairnurov was detained because of his public activity. The journalist said that together with Khairnurov, one of the active members of the “Save Samarkand” initiative group, they had made many requests to state bodies on a number of important issues including urban planning, ecology, municipal services, implementation of state programs and decisions of the President and the government.

While Khairnurov is under house arrest and the investigation is ongoing, he is forbidden from contacting certain people, using social media and messengers and from using the Internet.

Otabek Sattoriy, blogger, Termez city, serving a six-and-a-half-year prison sentence

 In May 2021, a criminal court sentenced Sattoriy, a popular video blogger who reported on forced evictions and corruption in his community, to six and a half years in prison on charges of defamation and extortion which were clearly spurious. He is serving his sentence in a prison in Navoi region, 500 km from his hometown, known for its cruel treatment of prisoners and harsh working conditions. On October 19, 2021, prison inmates went on a hunger strike to protest against torture at the prison.

According to Sattoriy’s father, in his last conversation with the family, Sattoriy complained of deteriorating health due to poor air and nutrition which has led to allergies and constant pain in his stomach. He has applied to be transferred to a prison hospital in Tashkent for treatment. A previous application by his parents to have their son transferred to another prison was refused.

At the end of December 2021, a cassation appeal was filed with the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan and the decision is expected in late February 2022.

Miraziz Bazarov activist, Tashkent city, under house arrest since 29 April 2021 

On 20 January, a criminal trial will begin in Tashkent against Miraziz Bazarov, who is accused of “slander” for mercenary or base motives (Article 139-3 of the Criminal Code). The case was opened in April 2021 on the basis of a complaint by teachers in Tashkent. It later became known that three other bloggers had written a statement against Bazarov. According to Bazarov’s lawyer, Sergey Mayorov, the three bloggers were recognized as “victims” in the case against him. Bazarov previously claimed that one of the bloggers had published his home address online and issued a call to “kill him.”

On March 28, 2021, Bazarov was severely beaten by unknown assailants near his home resulting in injuries and fractures that required hospitalization. Some Uzbek activists attribute the beating to his statements in support of the rights of the LGBTQI community. Bazarov’s assailants have never been identified, but Bazarov himself was placed under house arrest on April 29, as soon as he was released from hospital and forbidden from using the Internet. Rights groups have also pointed out that the attack came after Bazarov had raised concerns with the Asian Development Bank of the misuse of funds by the Uzbek government designated for combatting the Covid pandemic.

On April 30, Tashkent city police published a statement saying that from April 1 to 20, they had received 28 applications from citizens, as well as a collective statement from the teaching staff of school Number 110 in the Mirabad district of Tashkent region, demanding that legal action be taken against Bazarov. The statements say that in his videos on the Internet, the blogger “insults citizens and their relatives, accuses them of complicity with terrorist organizations with his slanderous statements, ridicules national traditions, hurts the dignity of women, and sows interethnic discord.” Although the police have interviewed some 100 people in connection with the attack on Bazarov, no charges have been brought and no-one has been held to account.

Fatima Juraeva, blogger, Andijan, beaten by employee of state-owned company

 Fatima Juraeva was thrown to the ground, punched, and kicked by the chief accountant of the state-owned electricity company Hududiy Elektr Tarmoqlari in Andijan region after she questioned him about financial irregularities at the company. Juraeva has been an active blogger since 2012 and often conducts investigations into complaints by local citizens of corruption and social injustice. Her enquiry at the electricity company followed complaints from farmers that they were being asked to pay spurious surcharges on their utility bills.

Following a police investigation, Juraeva requested that the prosecutor’s office transfer her case to a court in another region of Uzbekistan because of her lack of confidence in a fair hearing in Andijan, where “ardent nepotism” is rife. A court hearing took place on January 17, 2022. Juraeva told Uzbek Forum that the court granted her petition to send the case for further investigation because of her dissatisfaction with the initial investigation which was clearly biased. Unlike the bloggers who were placed under house arrest for actions unrelated to violence, the employee who beat her remains at large. “He continues to work quietly in his office as if nothing happened,“ Juraeva said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement calling on the Uzbek authorities to conduct a thorough and convincing investigation and hold the perpetrator to account. “Uzbek journalists and bloggers who investigate alleged corruption are in a highly exposed position, and authorities should send a clear signal that acts of violence against them will not go unpunished,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program coordinator.

Uzbek journalists and bloggers have been led to believe that they are free to report without fear on issues of importance to the people of Uzbekistan. Indeed, the President has repeatedly urged journalists to be bold in their reporting. “Of course, sharp and critical materials do not please many officials on the ground, disturbing their calm and carefree existence. But openness and freedom of speech are the demand of the times, the demand of reforms in Uzbekistan,” Mirziyoyev said in one of his public speeches one year ago. During Otabek Sattoriy’s testimony in the courtroom of Muzrabat in Surkhandarya, far from the capital, he appealed to the President to uphold his commitments to free speech, to no avail.

The facts of the cases outlined here – and there are others – speak for themselves. The police are swift in opening libel cases against bloggers who believe they are reporting for the good of their communities. Thugs walk away without charges while bloggers nurse their wounds and languish under house arrest. Charges are brought for a deleted post that was shared on Facebook. It is a selective and brutal use and abuse of the law that is hollowing out this nascent media community and threatens further progress in the country.

Until rule of law and respect for freedom of speech are embedded in the minds of those in power, Uzbek journalists and bloggers will lack the confidence to become the backbone of a truly reformed country worthy of membership of the UN Human Rights Council, preferential trade deals such as GSP+ and billions of dollars in foreign aid and investment.