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Uzbekistan receives a downward trend arrow due to increasing government repression of religious groups and political opponents, including widespread arrests following a series of bomb attacks in Tashkent in February.
In February 1999, a series of bombings in Taskhent provided President Islam Karimov with an opportunity to use the threat of religious extremism as a pretext to increase repression of his political opponents. Although no group claimed responsibility, the government, which blamed Islamic militants for the attacks, initiated a wave of mass arrests and subsequent trials targeting religious Muslims and critics of the regime. December’s parliamentary elections, in which the ruling party captured the most votes, was strongly criticized by international observers for the absence of genuine opposition candidates and other irregularities.
Located along the ancient trade route of the famous Silk Road, Uzbekistan was conquered by Genghis Khan and Tamerlane in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. By the late 19th century, the territory had become part of the Russian empire. The Uzbekistan Soviet Socialist Republic was established in 1925, and its eastern ethnic Tajik region was detached and made a separate Soviet republic five years later.
On December 29, 1991, the country’s independence was endorsed in a popular referendum by more than 98 percent of the electorate. In a parallel vote, Islam Karimov, former Communist Party leader and chairman of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the successor to the Communist Party, was elected president with a reported 88 percent of the vote. His rival, prominent poet and chairman of the democratic Erk (Freedom) Party, Mohammed Solih, officially received 12 percent. However, Erk members charged election fraud, claiming that Solih actually received over 50 percent. The largest opposition group, the nationalist Birlik (Unity) movement, was barred from contesting the election and later refused legal registration as a political party. The Islamic Renaissance Party and Islamic Adolat group were banned entirely. A February 1995 national referendum to extend Karimov’s first term in office until the year 2000 was allegedly approved by 99 percent of the country’s voters. In June 1996, Karimov resigned as PDP chairman.
Elections to the first post-Soviet legislature were held in three rounds in December 1994 and January 1995. The government curtailed all political opposition preceding the vote, and only pro-government parties were allowed to run. In late 1997, the government stepped up its efforts to eliminate religion as a potential source of political opposition after the murder of several policemen in the Fergana Valley, an area regarded as a center of militant Islam. The authorities arrested hundreds of alleged suspects, many of whom received long prison terms solely for their supposed affiliation with unofficial Muslim groups.
In February 1999, 15 people were killed and more than 100 injured when a series of car bombs exploded near government buildings in Tashkent. The Uzbek leadership called the blasts an assassination attempt on President Karimov carried out by Muslim extremists seeking to overthrow the secular state. Police subsequently arrested thousands of suspects, mostly members of various Islamic groups and political opposition organizations. Takhir Yuldash, leader of the unofficial Uzbekistan’s Islamic Movement, and Mohammed Solih were accused of orchestrating the explosions. Both men, who remain in exile outside the country, denied any involvement in the blasts. Uzbek rebel leader Juma Namangoni was also alleged to have been behind the attacks. In a trial of 22 suspects accused of taking part in the bombings, 6 were sentenced to death and the other 16 received lengthy prison sentences. International human rights organizations criticized the widespread arrests and the trials as politically motivated attempts to silence opposition to the regime, particularly before upcoming parliamentary elections in December.
In August, two groups of armed militants crossed from Tajikistan into neighboring Kyrgyzstan, taking several villages hostage. Most of the rebels appeared to be part of a larger group of Uzbeks who had fled to neighboring Tajikistan to escape the government crackdown in February, as well as former members of demobilized military units of Tajikistan’s United Tajik Opposition (UTO), which had fought against the government during Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war. As part of President Karimov’s efforts to portray his country as the leader in Central Asia while reducing Russia’s role in the region, Uzbekistan agreed to a request by the Kyrgyzstan government to assist in fighting the rebels, who released the last of their hostages in early October. However, Uzbekistan’s superior military power heightened concerns among its neighbors about the country’s long-term political and military objectives in the region.
Uzbekistan held its second post-independence parliamentary elections in two rounds on December 5 and December 19. Of the five parties which competed, all supported the president and differed little in their political platforms. The ruling People’s Democratic Party captured 48 seats; Fidokorlar (Self Sacrifice Party), 24 seats; Vatan Tarrakiyati (Homeland Progress Party), 20 seats; Adolat (Justice and Social Democratic Party), 11 seats; and Milli Tiklanish (National Renaissance Party), 10 seats. The remaining seats went to candidates representing voters’ initiative groups and local authorities. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) refused to send a full electoral observer mission, citing the failure of the campaign process to meet democratic standards, although a small team of the group’s representatives were present during the election. According to the OSCE and other monitors, the vote was neither free nor fair. Among the irregularities cited were the interference of local governors in the nomination of candidates and the conduct of the elections, the lack of true opposition parties, and the suspiciously high voter turnout figure of over 90 percent.
Citizens of Uzbekistan cannot change their government democratically. President Karimov and the executive branch dominate the legislature and judiciary, and the government severely represses all political opposition. The primary purpose of the 250-member rubber-stamp national legislature is to confirm decisions made by the executive branch. The 1994-1995 and 1999 parliamentary elections, in which only pro-government parties could participate, were neither free nor fair.
The government severely restricts freedom of speech and the press, allowing virtually no criticism of the authorities, particularly President Karimov. A provision of the country’s media law, which holds journalists responsible for the accuracy of their reporting, potentially subjects them to criminal prosecution if state officials disagree with their news stories. Consequently, self-censorship among print and broadcast journalists is widespread. The majority of newspapers are state-owned, and the content of their programs is strictly controlled. Four state-run television channels dominate television broadcasting. The country’s private broadcast media outlets avoid political issues, are generally local or regional in scope, and suffer from administrative and financial constraints. In February, President Karimov signed a decree for all Internet service providers to route their connections through one state-run server, allegedly to prevent the transmission of what the government considers to be “harmful information.”
Although religious freedom is formally guaranteed by the constitution, the government intensified its crackdown during 1999 on religious groups, particularly Muslim organizations, not sanctioned by the state. The Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, adopted in May 1998, imposes strict registration criteria and severely restricts proselytizing, teaching of religious subjects without official permission, and wearing religious garments in public. Revisions to the criminal code in May 1998 and May 1999 increased penalties for violating the religion law and other statutes on religious activities. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, students have been expelled from universities for wearing traditional Muslim attire, such as beards and headscarves. Officially approved Muslim and Jewish communities, the Russian Orthodox Church, and some other Christian denominations face few serious restrictions on their activities.
Permits for public demonstrations, which must be approved by the government, are not routinely granted. Although five political parties, all created by the government, are officially registered, no genuine opposition groups function legally or participate in the government. A 1997 law prohibits parties based on ethnic or religious lines and those advocating war or subversion of the constitutional order. Members of unregistered opposition groups, including Birlik and Erk, which were banned in 1993, are subject to harassment and discrimination or have gone into voluntary exile abroad.
The country’s two leading human rights groups, the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU) and the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan (NOPCHU), have been denied registration repeatedly and have faced ongoing harassment by the authorities. The government registered one human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO), the Committee for Protection of Human Rights, in 1996, which had been formed with the support of the government.
Although a 1992 trade union law guarantees the right of workers to form and join unions, it does not mention the right to strike. The Council of the Federation of Trade Unions (CFTU), which is the successor to the Soviet-era confederation, is the country’s sole trade union group and remains dependent on the state.
The judiciary is subservient to the president, who appoints all judges to ten-year terms and can remove them from office at any time. Police routinely physically abuse suspects, and arbitrary arrest and detention are common. Law enforcement authorities reportedly often plant narcotics or weapons on suspected members of Islamic groups or political opponents to justify their arrest. Prisons suffer from severe overcrowding and shortages of food and medicine.
There are no significant restrictions on freedom of movement, emigration, and choice of residence. Property rights are guaranteed by the constitution and a decree on private property. However, widespread corruption and the slow pace of economic reforms limit most citizens’ equality of opportunity. Women’s educational and professional prospects are restricted by traditional cultural and religious norms.