Freedom in the World
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Uzbekistan is ruled by a highly repressive authoritarian regime. No genuine opposition parties operate legally, and domestic supporters or family members of exiled opposition figures are persecuted. The legislature and judiciary effectively serve as instruments of the executive branch. The media are tightly controlled by the state, and journalists who work with foreign outlets are subject to detention and other abuses. There is little accountability for endemic corruption or torture of detainees; the government holds numerous prisoners on political or religious grounds. Dissent is suppressed in part through surveillance and intimidation by a network of neighborhood councils.
- Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s president since independence in 1991, was reported dead in September and replaced by the incumbent prime minister, despite constitutional provisions designating the head of the Senate as acting president in such circumstances.
- The annual cotton harvest again relied on forced labor by state employees, and activists and journalists who attempted to document the practice faced detention and physical abuse.
In late August, amid rumors about President Karimov’s health, the government admitted that he had suffered a stroke and was hospitalized. Officials confirmed Karimov’s death on September 2, but gave no information about who had assumed his duties. The constitution called for the Senate chairman to become acting president, but on September 8 the parliament appointed Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev to hold the post, apparently bypassing constitutional order. Mirziyoyev won a special presidential election in December, taking a reported 88.6 percent of the vote and defeating nominal challengers whose parties in some cases openly campaigned for the incumbent. Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe concluded that the process was “devoid of genuine competition.”
In his first four months in power, Mirziyoyev issued decrees that reinstated some former officials who had fallen out of favor with Karimov, announced the partial privatization of key state-owned enterprises, took steps to ease international travel and commerce, and promised to make the government serve the people, instead of the other way around. In addition, former lawmaker and Karimov opponent Samandar Kukanov was amnestied in November after nearly 24 years in prison, and a number of blocked foreign news sites reportedly became accessible to internet users in late December. In response to such moves, many prominent opposition figures—including some who had been imprisoned on political charges under Karimov—spoke out in support of Mirziyoyev and expressed hope for serious reforms. However, Mirziyoyev had yet to propose major structural changes that would expand the political rights and civil liberties of Uzbekistani citizens.
The government continued to prosecute religion-based offenses in 2016, and increasingly focused on returning migrant workers accused of supporting banned groups. The trials in such cases are closed, making it impossible to evaluate the evidence on which convictions are based. Authorities also repeatedly raided the homes of people whose relatives living abroad were suspected of extremism. In April the president signed criminal code amendments that prescribed up to eight years in prison for promoting religious extremism in the media or online.
The country’s few remaining human rights activists faced ongoing harassment, prosecutions, travel restrictions, and violence during the year, particularly when attempting to document conditions for workers during the annual cotton harvest. As in previous years, the harvest featured state-organized forced labor by public employees and some reports of labor by students under age 18. In October, police temporarily detained Elena Urlaeva, head of the Human Rights Alliance (HRA), along with photographer Timur Karpov and two French researchers as they monitored the cotton harvest. Urlaeva was separated from the others and subjected to invasive searches, threats, and beatings; she suffered similar treatment in another incident later that month. Earlier in the year she had been forcibly detained in a psychiatric facility for several weeks.
This country report has been abridged for Freedom in the World 2017. For background information on political rights and civil liberties in Uzbekistan, see Freedom in the World 2016.