Uzbekistan | Freedom House

Nations in Transit

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan

Nations in Transit 2011

2011 Scores

Democracy Score
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

6.93

Regime Classification

Consolidated Authoritarian Regime

National Democratic Governance
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

7.00

Electoral Process
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

7.00

Civil Society
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

7.00

Independent Media
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

7.00

Judicial Framework and Independence
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

7.00

Corruption
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

6.75

Capital: Tashkent
Population: 27.8 million
GNI/capita, PPP: US$2,910

Source: The data above were provided by The World Bank, World Development Indicators 2011.

*Starting with the 2005 edition, Freedom House introduced separate analysis and ratings for national democratic governance and local democratic governance, to provide readers with more detailed and nuanced analysis of these two important subjects.

NOTE: The ratings reflect the consensus of Freedom House, its academic advisers, and the author(s) of this report. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the author(s). The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year.

Executive Summary: 

In what has become an annual tradition, President Islam Karimov chose August 31, 2010, the eve of the 19th anniversary of Uzbekistan’s independence, to speak about democracy. “Our noblest aim,” said the Uzbek president, “is to be among developed and democratic states in the world.” Appearing on state television, Karimov said one of the keys to accomplishing this goal would be to “continue modernization and liberalization of the country, democratic renewal of political, judicial, and economic systems, and building a strong civil society.”[1]

In reality, 2010 was characterized by no more democratic renewal than the previous years of Karimov’s rule. Since 1991, Karimov has exercised authority over all aspects of Uzbekistan’s governance and much of its public life. Using his security services, Karimov first eliminated all secular opposition to his government and then set about doing the same to the underground Islamic opposition that emerged. The executive branch of government dominates the legislative and judiciary bodies, whose sole purpose is to carry out the will of the president. Having silenced nearly all critics and perceived opponents of the regime—including independent journalists, rights activists, and political opponents—in 2010, the state went after individuals who spoke about or showed aspects of the country that the government felt damaged Uzbekistan’s image both domestically and abroad. These so-called threats included artists, writers, and documentary filmmakers.

The Uzbek government implemented these policies with near impunity. President Karimov faces no significant opposition within the country, nor is he compelled to submit to pressure from international organizations. Uzbekistan’s role as a transit country for NATO supplies to Afghanistan restricts the ability of many Western democracies to press for reform and greater respect for basic human rights in the country.[2] For economic and security reasons, Russia and China also need stability in Central Asia, and value Karimov as a guarantor of order in a potentially volatile region. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan’s significant deposits of natural gas, uranium, and oil have caused many governments to focus on meeting energy needs at the expense of pressing Tashkent on moral issues.

The ouster of Kyrgyzstan’s President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in early April 2010, and the ethnic violence and carnage in southern Kyrgyzstan in mid-June played directly into President Karimov’s hands. He received international approval when he chose not to send troops into southern Kyrgyzstan during the June violence as ethnic Uzbeks took the brunt of the brutality. Karimov also allowed 100,000 of some 400,000 ethnic Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan to cross into Uzbekistan. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres thanked Uzbekistan for its timely humanitarian assistance, as did individual countries.[3] Nearly all the refugees returned to Kyrgyzstan within a month, many claiming they had been forced out.[4]

Domestically, politics in Uzbekistan remain static. There has been no national push to increase harvests or industrial productivity, to reform healthcare, or to build an education system capable of training future leaders. Authorities made a pledge to provide more than 900,000 new jobs in 2010, but a similar program in 2009 forced small businesses and farm owners to employ people at a financial loss in order to meet the quota. So far, sales of uranium and revenues from oil and natural gas pipelines represent only a small boost to the economy, since the volume of these energy resources remains low. Neighboring Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have far greater resources and a combined population 35 percent smaller than Uzbekistan’s.

National Democratic Governance. No efforts to reform Uzbekistan’s political system were discernible during 2010. President Karimov and his inner circle continue to rule the country as they wish, while state security forces keep the regime in place. Average citizens have no legal means of expressing discontent or effecting change in the country. Uzbekistan’s national democratic governance rating remains unchanged at 7.00.

Electoral Process. Uzbekistan held a by-election to the lower house of parliament and an election to the upper house of parliament at the start of 2010. As usual, neither ritual provided an opportunity for popular input on the choice of public officials. Uzbekistan’s registered political parties are all pro-presidential, and the system was altered in 2008 to deny any individuals or initiative groups an opportunity to participate in elections. No steps were taken during 2010 to liberalize these regulations, therefore Uzbekistan’s electoral process rating remains unchanged at 7.00.

Civil Society. Vestiges of civil society that are sanctioned and tolerated by the state do exist but operate within a very confined space. The government has allowed a few independent rights organizations to carry out some activities. Most so-called nongovernmental organizations were created by the government, and as such, they work within boundaries laid out by the authorities. Harassment of the few remaining independent journalists and rights activists in Uzbekistan continued, as did raids, fines, and imprisonment of non-traditional religious groups; thus, Uzbekistan’s civil society rating remains unchanged at 7.00.

Independent Media. Uzbek authorities purged the country of independent media outlets years ago. The state continues to chase, harass, and jail individuals whose version of events in Uzbekistan challenges the information disseminated by Uzbek officials and the state media. In 2010, the state focused particularly on suppressing topics such as poverty or immorality, which it considers damaging to Uzbekistan’s international reputation. As the state retains its monopoly on information and would-be independent voices face systematic suppression and often dire consequences, Uzbekistan’s independent media rating remains unchanged at 7.00.

Local Democratic Governance. Officials at the regional, municipal, and other local levels are chosen by the central government, without input from Uzbek citizens. The loyalty of these officials is to the state and their task is to maintain order. Local administrations are powerless to act on virtually any matter without permission from Tashkent. No measures were taken to allow citizens an opportunity to choose their village, city, district, or regional representatives during 2010; appointed officials continue to serve the interests of the government in Tashkent over those of their constituents. Uzbekistan’s local democratic governance rating remains unchanged at 6.75.

Judicial Framework and Independence. The judiciary of Uzbekistan is entirely subordinate to the executive branch, existing solely to legitimize the decisions of the central government. This is most clearly shown in the trials of activists, independent journalists, and members of suspect religious groups, all of whom are charged, brought to trial, and convicted by Uzbek courts despite irregularities in their detention and prosecution. There is evidence of physical abuse of detainees, and at times dubious witnesses have recanted testimony with no redress by the courts. There was no attempt at judicial reform in Uzbekistan in 2010, and courts continued to provide a legal basis to quash perceived enemies of the state; thus, Uzbekistan’s judicial framework and independence rating remains unchanged at 7.00.

Corruption. The opaque nature of Uzbekistan’s system of governance and business climate makes it impossible to know just how far corruption has penetrated society. Assets of a leading business allegedly connected to President Karimov’s eldest daughter were seized in May, but results of the financial investigation were not released and no one was arrested. A number of other wealthy entrepreneurs were arrested in March, while others fled the country. The arrest of two mid-level regional officials was not accompanied by evidence of corruption being rooted out at the highest levels of government. As selective prosecutions and a continuous stream of anecdotal evidence illustrates the pervasiveness of the problem, Uzbekistan’s corruption rating remains unchanged at 6.75.

Outlook for 2011. President Karimov’s authoritarian regime is nearly two decades old, and no force within the country represents a serious challenge to Karimov’s continued rule. Secular political opposition leaders have fled Uzbekistan, and any of their remaining followers are politically fragmented, vigilantly monitored by security services, and unable to legally participate in the political process, because the Justice Ministry refuses to register them. Banned Islamic groups that target Karimov’s government may cause minor and temporary chaos in the coming year, triggering a heavy-handed crackdown on suspect groups and organizations. Realistically speaking, such movements have no chance of overpowering the country’s security services and military to oust Karimov.

As strategic and economic concerns prevent the international community from imposing sanctions or limiting diplomatic contact with Tashkent—and so long as Karimov remains healthy enough to lead Uzbekistan—there is no reason to expect that the country will move toward a democratic system. There have been reports that Uzbekistan’s 72-year-old leader has health problems, though in 2010 Karimov made several international visits, including a speech at the UN General Assembly in September, and he seemed healthy enough. There is no strong evidence that Karimov has prepared a successor, although in November he suggested to parliament that the constitution be amended to make the chairman of the senate temporary head of state should the president be incapacitated by illness.[5]

National Democratic Governance: 

The government in Tashkent continued to dominate all aspects of life in Uzbekistan during 2010. Though basic rights and freedoms are enumerated in the country’s constitution, these are not protected in practice, and the vast majority of citizens have no influence on government policies. Citizens may vote in elections to the lower house of parliament, but are forced to choose from among four officially registered, pro-presidential parties that even President Karimov has remarked are so similar as to be practically indistinguishable from one another. Citizens may also vote for the president, but again, all candidates come from the four official parties and, to date, also include the incumbent president. Citizens are unable to vote for local, regional, provincial, or Senate representatives, which are all selected by the central government.

Power is concentrated in the executive branch and office of the president, with the legislative and judicial branches legitimizing decisions of the executive. The status of the legislative branch was well summarized by President Karimov at the joint session of the new parliament at the end of January 2010. “Of the 297 legislative projects proposed during the previous five years, only 44 were initiated by deputies,” said Karimov. “Increasing the power of the parliament must be the center of our attention...the time for supporting the leader in all issues has gone now.”[6] But as 2010 progressed, there were no signs that deputies were prepared to test President Karimov’s sincerity.

Uzbekistan’s leader, who began an unconstitutional third term in office in 2007, has worked throughout his tenure to build a political system that smothers all forms of opposition while maintaining the security network that keeps him in power. All secular opposition parties and movements have curtailed their activities; their leadership, for the most part, fled the country more than a decade ago. Civic and religious groups are closely monitored, and those that are not in step with the authorities are unlikely to receive official permission to carry out their activities.

State media continually celebrates the government’s successes, particularly regarding Uzbekistan’s most recent economic gains. In 2009–10, the state media credited the government’s policies with protecting Uzbekistan from the sort of economic chaos evident in other countries.

The ouster of Kyrgyzstan’s President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in early April 2010, and the mid-June ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan played directly into President Karimov’s hands. He received international approval when he chose not to send troops into southern Kyrgyzstan during the June violence, as ethnic Uzbeks took the brunt of the brutality. Karimov also allowed 100,000 of some 400,000 ethnic Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan to cross into Uzbekistan. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres thanked Uzbekistan for its timely humanitarian assistance, as did individual countries, though by the start of July nearly all the refugees had been sent back to Kyrgyzstan, where the situation was still far from secure.

As it is, democratic governments and institutions have little means to force the Uzbek government to make changes. Uzbekistan has become a key country for NATO to transit goods to Afghanistan, with every attack on a NATO convoy in Pakistan increasing Uzbekistan’s value. European countries have expressed the desire for Uzbekistan to join in energy export projects, particularly natural gas, in order to cut Europe’s increasing dependence on Russian energy supplies or supplies that must transit Russia before reaching Europe. When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Uzbekistan in April 2010, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged him to press Uzbek leaders on human rights. But HRW acknowledged that Ban’s visit came “at a time when international actors are seeking to ensure the Northern Distribution Route to Afghanistan and to maximize hydrocarbon energy supply to Europe.”[7]

Electoral Process: 

Uzbekistan finished elections to the lower house of parliament (Oliy Majlis) in January 2010. The country’s Central Election Commission reported that 79.7 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the run-off election of January 10 to fill the 39 seats still vacant since no candidate in those districts won an overall majority. By law, only the four registered political parties—i.e., the Liberal Democratic Party, the Milli Tiklanish Democratic Party, the People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, and the Adolat Social Democratic Party—could field candidates in elections for the lower house of parliament. A law passed after the 2007 presidential election excludes “initiative” groups from nominating candidates. The Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan, an organization created in August 2008, automatically received 15 seats.

“Elections” to the senate took place on January 20–22, 2010. Voting for deputies to the 100-seat Senate is held in secret and conducted by members of both houses of parliament, and representatives of government bodies, provinces, regions, and cities. Eighty-four senators are chosen in this manner, with 6 from each of the 12 provinces (williyats/oblasts), the Kara-Kalpakistan Autonomous Republic, and the city of Tashkent. President Karimov appoints the remaining 16 deputies. The state-owned Uzbek National News Agency reported that no violations of legislation were observed during the elections but did not mention who was observing or what rules could be violated.

The OSCE met with Uzbek officials to help the country with electoral reforms, and in July 2010 held a meeting in Tashkent on improving conditions for political parties and NGOs. Akmal Saidov, the Director of the National Human Rights Center, said “OSCE standards have a great significance for improving legislation in Uzbekistan in the field of political parties and NGOs.”[8] The First Deputy Director of OSCE/ODIHR, Douglas Wake, offered a more cautious assessment of OSCE Uzbek cooperation, saying the OSCE stood “ready to work with the authorities in developing concrete activities to improve the legal framework for political parties and NGOs as well as its implementation.” In practice there were no noticeable changes in the political party system or the work of NGOs for the rest of the year.

ODIHR has monitored Uzbek elections, both parliamentary and presidential, and has judged all of them as having failed to meet democratic standards for being free and fair. Despite such critical assessments, Uzbek authorities have given no indication of reforming the system.

Civil Society: 

Over the last decade, the government has worked to co-opt or control the limited amount of civil society activity that exists in Uzbekistan. The few rights activists who are permitted to carry out some work face the constant threat of harassment. There are also groups that at first glance appear independent but were either created or are sponsored by Uzbek authorities. The most visible of these is the Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan. Created in August 2008, the movement is an organization in which “both citizens and non-governmental noncommercial organizations can be the participants.”[9] The movement is “called to unite the citizens of the country supporting ideas and wishing to participate actively in protection of the environment and health of the person,” and it is also automatically given 15 seats in the lower house of parliament.

Another state-sponsored social organization is the Kamolot Public Movement of Youth of Uzbekistan, an Uzbek version of the Soviet Komsomol that has been around for about a decade. Kamolot works to promote family values and prevent delinquency. During the crisis in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, Kamolot launched a charity project to provide moral and material support to ethnic Uzbeks who fled Kyrgyzstan. Some Kamolot members also formed the “Kamolot Posbonlari (Sentinels)” to help patrol Uzbekistan’s borders with Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. The youth organization appears to be an extension of the mahalla, or neighborhood watch program, which is encouraged by Uzbek authorities.

According to an August report from Uzbek Television’s First Channel, there were only 200 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the country in the early 1990s. By 2010, there were more than 5,000, despite the closure of nearly all Western-based NGOs following the government’s brutal suppression of a demonstration in Andijan in May 2005. The presence of Western-based NGOs in Uzbekistan at that time made it impossible for the Uzbek government to control the flow of information, especially alternative accounts of the Andijan violence, in which Uzbek Interior Ministry and National Security Service troops opened fire on protesters, killing at least 187 (some witnesses said the death toll was much higher). Officially the closures of the Western NGOs were blamed on failure to pay taxes, failure to inform about address changes or to properly fill out registration documents, and so forth.

There are a few registered human rights organizations in Uzbekistan, such as Ezgulik (Mercy), the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU), the Expert Working Group, the Initiative Group of Independent Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan, and the Rapid Reaction Group. Gaibullo Jalilov, an HRSU member from Karshi who worked to defend religious freedom, was convicted in January on religious extremism charges and sentenced to nine years in jail. At a closed trial in August he was sentenced to an additional four years on charges of anticonstitutional activity.

Surat Ikramov, head of the Initiative Group of Independent Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan, has attended trials of independent journalists, rights activists, and those facing charges of membership in banned religious groups, and much of what is known outside Uzbekistan about smaller trials in areas far from Tashkent is due to his reporting. In late September, an Uzbek district court found Ikramov guilty of slander for an article he wrote in 2008. Ikramov said the lawsuit was an attempt by the authorities to pressure him into stopping his activities.[10]

HRSU activist Dmitri Tikhonov was assaulted on February 23, 2010, while working in his garage. Two men entered and, according to HRW, “choked him and hit him over the head with a metal object, leaving him unconscious. Neither his cell phone nor his wallet was taken.”[11] Following that attack, Tikhonov was twice denied an exit visa to travel abroad during the year and was later arrested in December, along with three other rights activists, for protesting his travel ban on Mustakillik Maidoni (Independence Square) in Tashkent.[12]

Non-traditional religious groups, that is, those other than state-approved Islam and Russian Orthodox groups, were again targeted in 2010, while authorities continued to be most concerned with banned Islamic groups. Forum 18—a Norwegian human rights organization that promotes religious freedom—reported in April that “criminal cases are still pending against a Muslim journalist, along with 38 other Muslims, as well as against 40 followers of the Islamic teachings of Said Nursi.”[13] Trials against Nurchilar (Nursi/Nurchu) members continued in 2010. In June, a court in Bukhara gave nine Nurchilar members prison sentences ranging from six to eight years. In August, the Tashkent regional court sentenced three more members to five-year prison terms and fined six others 70 times the monthly wage.[14]

Prayer meetings of Baptists, Protestants, and other Christian groups were raided by security services in 2010, with church members fined and in some cases temporarily jailed. In February, Forum 18 reported on the raid of a private home during a meeting of the unregistered Greater Grace Protestant Church, stating that “children and teenagers were illegally interrogated without their parents being present.”[15] In May, the National Security Service (NSS) secret police, Tax Inspectorate, Fire Brigade, and Sanitary Epidemiological Service raided a Protestant church in the capital Tashkent during its Sunday morning worship service.[16] Three members were sentenced to 15 days in jail and three others fined 80 times the minimum wage. In July, Forum 18 reported that an “anti-terror” operation in the city of Ferghana resulted in the detention of two Baptists distributing Christian books. The Baptists were fined, and the court said it “considers it necessary” that the confiscated books be destroyed.[17]

Independent Media: 

Journalism remains among the most dangerous professions in Uzbekistan. Journalists are systematically harassed and frequently imprisoned on charges ranging from defamation to extortion, forgery, and smuggling. Foreign journalists are routinely denied entry, and unflattering portrayals of Uzbek society can be a criminal offense. As a result of this environment, there are very few independent journalists left in Uzbekistan, a country of 28 million people. Despite a February speech by President Karimov urging lawmakers to “create new conditions for more active reporting by Uzbek media”[18] and a 2006 law prohibiting media censorship, domestic media outlets remained under complete government control in 2010.

In March, Uzbekistan’s media environment came under increased international scrutiny due to a UN review of human rights in the country.[19] To maintain the balance between intimidation of journalists domestically, and appeasement of the international community, in 2010 Uzbekistan frequently followed a pattern of convicting journalists on trumped-up charges, followed by immediate amnesty or reduced sentences. The strategy ensured that the conviction remained on record, and the “offender” was prohibited from leaving the country.

Regional news sources such as Ferghana and Uznews severely criticized Uzbekistan’s state-run media for failing to provide coverage of events in neighboring Kyrgyzstan in spring and summer of 2010. Uzbek broadcasters did not report on the April protests in Bishkek that led to President Bakiyev’s overthrow, nor did they provide significant coverage of the ethnic violence involving Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh until the violence was nearly over. In September, an open letter from Saodat Omonova and Malokhat Eshonkulova—employees of Yoshlar TV—provided a rare glimpse into the workings of Uzbek state-owned media. The journalists protested their inability to write their own material, and official censorship of any potentially critical coverage of domestic events.[20]

Abdulmalik Boboyev, a freelance journalist working for Voice of America, was detained in May at the Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan border, where he was reportedly interviewing Uzbeks preparing to cross the border in search of work. Boboyev’s previous work—which included articles on corruption, human rights abuses, and shortcomings in the healthcare system—had already brought him before Uzbekistan’s prosecutor general in January, along with four other independent journalists. In May, immigration officers detained Boboyev on the basis of a missing passport stamp. He was charged with illegally entering the country, but also with defamation, insult, and preparing and disseminating material constituting a threat to public order and security. A Tashkent court found Boboyev guilty of the three most serious charges in mid-October and fined him the equivalent of US $10,000, also banning him from going abroad. Boboyev was acquitted of the original charge of illegally crossing the state border.[21]

In addition to the usual cases against print journalists, in 2010 Uzbek officials heightened their harrassment of all individuals presenting a non-sanctioned image of Uzbekistan. Khayrullo Khamidov, the host of popular radio programs on sports, was arrested on January 21 and charged with creating an illegal religious group and participating in its activities. Khamidov had another radio program about social problems and contemporary issues (including “taboo” topics such as prostitution and homosexuality) from a Muslim point of view. Some of the commentary in these programs was critical of the state, as was Khamidov’s poetry (including his famous work “What happened to the Uzbeks?”). Khamidov was convicted in late May and sentenced to six years in prison.[22]

The case against Umida Akhmedova, an apparently apolitical visual artist, signaled a new stage in the Uzbek government’s policy of permitting only favorable portrayals of the country. Akhmedova had released an album of photography entitled “Men and Women from Dawn to Dusk” about life in remote villages, as well as a documentary film, “The Burden of Virginity,” that looked at the difficult life of women in Uzbekistan. She was detained in late 2009 and accused of “insult and slander of the Uzbek nation,” punishable offenses under articles 139 and 140 of Uzbekistan’s criminal code.

As international rights groups demanded Ahmedova’s release, the Uzbek state media organized a campaign of so-called experts to discredit Akhmedova and others like her through radio and television appearances. The public prosecutor’s office also called upon six “specialists” in religious affairs, spirituality, and psychology to assess Akhmedova’s work. According to Reporters Without Borders, the final report of the experts stated: “Ninety percent of the photos were taken in isolated and underdeveloped Uzbek villages. Why does she not show nice places, modern buildings or prosperous villages?”[23] Akhmedova was convicted of slandering Uzbekistan in February but was immediately granted amnesty.

The internet in Uzbekistan is closely monitored and censored by the government. Although 16.8 percent of Uzbeks had access to the internet in 2010—nearly double the rate from only a year ago[24]—most access was available only through public institutions or internet cafes, which are monitored by security agents. A number of websites were still blocked in 2010, including regional news websites like EurasiaNet, Voice of Freedom, Ferghana, CentrAsia, Uznews, RFE/RL, and websites associated with the BBC’s Uzbek service.[25] Vladimir Berezovsky, editor of the Russian-language news website Vesti.uz, was convicted in October of insult and libel on the basis of 16 articles Berezovksy claims he did not write, but only reposted on his website. Despite the written testimony of several news agencies claiming authorship of the articles in question, Berezovsky was found guilty of defamation and slander. Like Akhmedova, he was amnestied immediately after the verdict, following international pressure.[26]

Local Democratic Governance: 

Local, regional, and provincial leaders in Uzbekistan are appointed by the state and chosen based on their loyalty and ability to fulfill demands from the central government in Tashkent. Citizens do have the right to petition, but local officials fear disruptions of the routine. Asking for or giving more than officially allocated would be seen in Tashkent as failure to carry out orders.

At the provincial level, officials appeared to be meeting Tashkent’s expectations, since President Karimov reappointed all 12 governors and the mayor of Tashkent at the start of 2010, after the results of elections to the lower house of parliament were announced. The central government seemed to have reined in the earlier excesses of governors like Ubaidulla Yamankulov, the dismissed and disgraced Jizzakh governor jailed in 2009 for seizing control of the local economy, embezzling millions of dollars, and terrorizing the local population with his paid thugs. The one casualty in 2010 was Samarkand Province Governor Uktam Barnoyev. In December, President Karimov addressed an extraordinary session of the regional council stating that Samarkand province “lagged economically and suffered an increase in crime” and that “no success resulted from lavish central government financing for the oblast.”[27] The governor was later dismissed. One report noted Barnoyev’s accomplishments but also mentioned that the flattery of subordinates had gone to his head and that he assaulted citizens with impunity on at least two occasions.[28]

In 2010, local officials along the Tajik border represented the interests of the central government in opposing neighboring Tajikistan’s plans to build hydropower plants (HPP). Tashkent fears imminent water shortages in Uzbekistan as Tajikistan constructs and fills up the massive dams it is building. Tajik officials, however, believe that the objection stems from Uzbekistan’s desire to keep Tajikistan dependent on Uzbek supplies of natural gas. In Uzbekistan, where public demonstrations are forbidden without government permission, there were several large rallies held during the year in cities near the Tajik border. Citizens protested against the HPP building plans as well as the pollution coming from the large aluminum plant in western Tajikistan. Concerns voiced at these rallies echoed complaints government officials had been expressing since 2008.

Additionally, local officials along the rail lines leading into Tajikistan were instructed to stop trains carrying materials needed for building the HPPs. Tajik officials complained that the number of “delayed” railway cars exceeded 1,000 and that the country’s economy was noticeably suffering due to these delays. Appeals from the UN, OSCE, NATO, and individual countries to allow the trains through fell on deaf ears in Tashkent, and local Uzbek officials along the railway continued to prevent the trains from reaching their destination, demonstrating their loyalty to the central government.

Judicial Framework and Independence: 

Uzbekistan’s judiciary functions as a tool of the executive branch, serving the president’s interests. Courts imprison or fine the regime’s perceived enemies—the greater the perceived threat the harsher the sentence. Defendants have appeared in court after suffering obvious physical abuse in detention, but courts provide no redress when abuse is reported. Likewise, there are cases where witnesses for the state have recanted testimony, undermining the prosecution’s case against defendants, yet the courts have ignored the changed evidence.

Trials against perceived opponents of the government—including independent journalists, rights activists, members of religious groups, and artists—invariably result in a guilty verdict. In some cases, such as those of documentary filmmaker Umida Akhmedova or website editor Vladimir Berezovsky, amnesty is quickly given after a sentence is rendered, but the guilty verdict stands.

In February, then OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Miklós Haraszti wrote an open letter to Uzbekistan’s foreign minister Vladimir Norov about the cases of journalists Salijon Abdurakhmanov (jailed in October 2008) and Dilmurod Sayid (jailed September 2009). Haraszti noted: “Both were convicted on dubious charges in closed trials… I am saddened that the repeated assurances given by Uzbek authorities that both cases will be re-examined did not translate into action.”[29]

In addition to prosecuting and sentencing journalists, the highest levels of the Uzbek court system are used to intimidate reporters and preempt further transgressions. In January 2010, former correspondent Khusnitdin Kutbitdinov, along with four other independent journalists, was summoned to the prosecutor general’s office for a mere verbal reprimand (Kutbinov, said assistant prosecutor general Bahram Nurmatov, had provided “discrediting information” to foreign websites).

In a number of recent cases, courts have jailed potential political opponents or other government offenders by convicting such persons of extremism. Detained journalist Khairullo Khamidov was convicted of extremism and sentenced to six years in a trial that lasted about one month. In January, rights activist Gaibullo Jalilov was convicted of extremist activities by the Kashkadarya Regional Criminal Court at a closed trial where Gaibullo testified he was coerced into signing a confession and claimed innocence on all charges against him. The activist was imprisoned in Shaikhali jail, but when relatives inquired as to his whereabouts in May, they were informed Jalilov had been transferred to Tashkent. In late July, Jalilov’s family finally learned that he was awaiting another trial in Bukhara. The activist was tried on additional charges in August based on testimony from witnesses who said Jalilov had “participated in religious gatherings and that during these gatherings he had taken part in religious studies and watched DVDs that contained religious extremist content.”[30] Jalilov asked the prosecution to produce their witnesses, but they never appeared in court. Rights groups have condemned the persistent violaton of Jalilov’s rights throughout his trial and incarceration, calling for his release.[31]

At the beginning of 2010, human rights organizations noted that in the last months of 2009 there had been no short-term jailings of people on the basis of religion. Forum 18 contacted a judge to ask about this dramatic change. The judge replied, “It may be because of the liberalization of Uzbekistan’s judiciary, which is underway at the moment.”[32] Short-term incarceration of religious minorities had resumed by late April.[33] In May, three Protestants were jailed for 15 days and five others given stiff fines after a raid on a Tashkent church in which computers and Christian literature were reportedly confiscated by the state. One unnamed Protestant told Forum 18: “Everyone was shocked at the verdict because the defendants proved in court that they were innocent and there were so many violations of legal procedure.”[34] For example, church members and relatives were barred from attending the trial.

In addition to the systematic targeting of journalists, minorities, or other perceived threats, violations of ordinary citizens’ rights are a frequent occurrence in the penal system. Three sisters, Rayhon, Nargiza, and Khosiyat Soatova, were jailed in 2009 after a physical altercation with the mistress of Nargiza’s husband. Convicted of hooliganism and robbery, they were sentenced to between six and eight years in prison, where they were beaten and gang-raped in the prison basement. Rayhon gave premature birth to a baby girl in December. A criminal case was opened into the Soatova sisters’ accusations in January 2010. In April, the case against twelve policemen suspected of the rape was dropped when DNA evidence failed to establish a connection between the policemen and the baby. Rayhon Soatova could not positively identify any of the twelve policemen. Khosiyat Soatova was beaten so badly she spent two months in a hospital and was released on bail after she recovered.[35]

Corruption: 

Opaque business interests and governing structures both contribute to and obscure the scale of corruption in Uzbekistan. Anecdotal evidence of corruption is abundant, implicating high-ranking officials and small business owners alike. A 2006 diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks asserts that businesses seeking government tenders and individuals seeking government jobs routinely go through  an intermediary “mafia chieftain,” Salim Abduvaliyev, who works with government officials to make arrangements (while both Abduvaliyev and the government official take a fee).[36] Government jobs known to have been for sale have included the police chief and Interior Ministry positions; large-scale procurement tenders in which Abduvaliyev was allegedly involved included education, water, and railway infrastructures. Bribe-taking is a regular practice in administrative and business dealings, public procurement, tax administration, customs and imports, and the court system.[37] Uzbekistan consistently ranks among the most corrupt states in the world in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Cases of corruption among police (usually caught accepting bribes or assisting in the trafficking of narcotics) come to light every year in Uzbekistan. These scandals usually involve low-ranking policemen; there is rarely a corruption investigation against senior police officials. This is even truer for state officials, who typically come under investigation only after falling from power, as in the 2008 case of former parliament speaker Erkin Khalilov.[38] In May 2010, two regional officials—a deputy governor of the Samarkand region and deputy head of the Kattakurgan district—were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences on charges of corruption.[39] These isolated cases notwithstanding, no events suggested that the government was making a systematic attempt to root out corruption among government employees.

At the end of 2009, President Karimov made a speech in which he promised to build a stronger middle class, telling listeners: “We will not have oligarchs.”[40] Investigations and arrests in early 2010 convinced several wealthy Uzbek entrepreneurs that the threat to their financial empires was serious. Dmitri Datsenovych Lim, one of the richest people in Uzbekistan, fled the country in early 2010 to avoid charges of tax evasion, smuggling, and other crimes. Police reported that a search of Lim’s home uncovered unparalleled luxury and a collection of 82 rare automobiles. Also at the beginning of 2010, the director and management of Royson Electronics were arrested and charged with economic damage and fraud. Among other crimes, Royson leadership was accused of importing air-conditioners from China, then repackaging and stamping them with “Made in Uzbekistan” to avoid paying customs duties. In March, Batyr Rahimov—the owner of a tungsten deposit in Jizzakh and a cooking oil factory in Namangan, and a co-owner (with his brother, Bahtiyor) of Kapitol Bank—was also arrested and charged with illegal business and tax evasion.[41] Meanwhile, the owner of the Alp Jamol Bank, Muhiddin Asomiddinov, fled the country before police could catch up with him. The assets of both banks were sold off by the National Bank of Uzbekistan.

These arrests pose a striking contrast to the case of Zeromax, a Swiss-registered company linked to President Karimov’s eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova. Zeromax’s operations were halted and assets frozen in May 2010, but neither Karimova nor the management of Zeromax were arrested. Since its creation in 2001, Zeromax had been one of the largest businesses operating in Uzbekistan, and the only Western-based company involved in the country’s oil and gas sector. By some accounts, Zeromax was responsible for some 80 percent of the oil and gas industry’s construction projects, as well as the construction of a residence for Gulnara Karimova and a stadium for the Zeromax-owned Bunyodkor soccer club.[42]

The investigation of Zeromax’s finances was led by Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev. Though the results of the investigation were never made public, a court ordered Zeromax operations in Uzbekistan halted and instructed financial authorities to seize the company’s assets and property in Uzbekistan. Zeromax managing director Miradil Djalalov (a friend of Karimova’s), was questioned by the financial police, but only as a “witness.” The company’s closure put several thousand people out of work, and two Zeromax projects with a subsidiary of Russia’s Gazprom were later declared bankrupt.

Karimova, herself—who currently serves as Uzbekistan’s representative to the United Nations and its ambassador to Spain, and was named one of Switzerland’s 300 richest people in 2009[43]—has repeatedly denied owning Zeromax, despite contrary claims from numerous sources, including diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks.[44] Efforts to find official documents connecting Karimova to Zeromax have yet to turn up any solid evidence.

Corruption in the education system—specifically, the ability to pay for grades and admission to post-secondary schools—is a known problem in Uzbekistan but one that the government has rarely addressed in public. On January 15, 2010, Uzbek Television’s First Channel aired a program entitled “Hypocrite Teachers” that called attention to the issue. In August, the Tashkent-based Expert Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit independent analytical organization, issued a report claiming that corruption in education had steadily worsened, and most young people “believe that the probability of independent admission [without bribes] is very low.”[45] The report discussed a number of strategies and costs associated with simply passing entrance exams, and also listed the general cost of bribes associated with admission to different departments. According to its findings, admission to a law department in Tashkent can cost US$20,000–25,000, for example, while studying finance usually demands a US$10,000–11,000 bribe.

At the close of 2010, President Karimov made a televised national address in which he said: “One cannot deny that cases of corruption, bribe-taking, extortion, and abuse of office are taking place in many regions and districts.”[46] Karimov assured his audience that “relevant activities” were being taken to combat the problem,” but did not elaborate further.

Notes: 

[1] Press Service of the Republic of Uzbekistan, “President Islam Karimov Addresses The Independence Day Festive Ceremony,” 31 August, 2010, http://www.press-service.uz/en/news/show/pozdravleniya/vyistuplenie_prez....

[2] The late U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke was in Tashkent in February; General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, was there in April; and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December.

[3] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres sent a special thanks to the Uzbek government for welcoming the displaced persons on June 16. Two days later, in Andijan, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake said, “I want to commend the Government of Uzbekistan for acting so quickly and so constructively to receive more than 110,000 refugees affected by this humanitarian crisis and provide them with food, water, shelter and medical assistance.” On July 12, U.N. Office in Uzbekistan’s Resident Coordinator Anita Nirodi sent a letter to Uzbek President Islam Karimov, praising the country’s “effective efforts in response to the humanitarian crisis after the violence in Kyrgyzstan in June.” See “Press Availability with Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert O. Blake, Jr.,” Website of the Embassy of the United States in Tashkent, 18 June 2010, http://uzbekistan.usembassy.gov/transcript_061810.html; and “U.N. thanks Uzbek president,” Trend.az, 13 July 2010, http://en.trend.az/news/politics/1719675.html.

[4] Tom Esslemont, “Refugees ‘forced to return’ to Kyrgyzstan,” BBC NEWS, 25 June 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10410397.

[5] Previously, parliament was tasked with convening and appointing a temporary head of state until elections were held.

[6] Address by President Islam Karimov at the Joint Session of the Legislative Chamber and the Senate of the Oliy Majlis of the Republicof Uzbekistan, 10 January 2010, available through the Official Website of the Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan in Indonesia, http://uzbemb.or.id/?g=news&newsID=B00091&lang=ru (in Russian).

[7] Holly Cartner, “Letter to UN Secretary General in Advance of His Trip to Central Asia,” Human Rights Watch, 18 March 2010, http://www.hrw.org/node/89415.

[8] Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), “OSCE organizes meeting on improving conditions for political parties and NGOs in Uzbekistan,” press release, 15 July2010, http://www.osce.org/odihr/item/72080.

[9] Central Election Committee of the Republic of Uzbekistan, “Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan,” Uzbekistan CEC Web site, n.d., http://elections.uz/eng/political_parties_and_movements/ecological_movem....

[10] Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, “Uzbek Human Rights Activist Sentenced for Libel; Journalists on Trial,” EurasiaNet.org, 29 September 2010, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/62048.

[11] Human Rights Watch, “Uzbekistan: Investigate Brutal Attack on Activist,” news release, 4 March 2010, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2010/03/04/uzbekistan-investigate-brutalattac....

[12] The other three activists—Abdullo Tajiboy-ugli, Vladimir Khusainov, Viktoriya Bazhenova— were holding signs that said “President resign” and “We demand new elections.”

[13] Mushfig Bayram, “UZBEKISTAN: Muslims jailed long-term, short-term Christian jailings re-start,” Forum 18 News Service, 26 April 2010, http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1436.

[14] Mushfig Bayram, “UZBEKISTAN: ‘The Court decided so,’” Forum 18 News Service, 18 August 2010, http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1479.

[15] Mushfig Bayram and Felix Corley, “UZBEKISTAN: Threats, raids and violence against religious believers,” Forum 18 News Service, 24 February 2010, http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1413.

[16] Felix Corley, “UZBEKISTAN: Large raid and almost immediate trial starts against registered church,” Forum 18 News Service, 17 May 2010, http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1444.

[17] Felix Corley, “UZBEKISTAN: Two further short-term jailings, while raids and fines continue,” Forum 18 News Service, 14 July 2010, http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1467.

[18] Committee to Protect Journalists, “Uzbekistan,” in Attacks on the Press 2010 (New York: CPJ, 15 February 2011), http://www.cpj.org/2011/02/attacks-on-the-press-2010-uzbekistan.php.

[19] United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Committee, “Human Rights Committee Concludes Consideration of Uzbekistan’s Third Report, Poses Questions on Child Labour, Use of Torture, Judicial Independence,” General Assembly Doc. HR/CT/719, 12 March2010, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2010/hrct719.doc.htm.

[20] Institute for War and Peace Reporting, “Uzbek TV reports protest censorship,” News Briefing Central Asia, 24 September 2010, http://iwpr.net/report-news/uzbek-tv-reporters-protestcensorship.

[21] Reporters Without Borders, “Independent reporter facing up to eight years in prison, banned from going abroad,” news release, 17 September 2010, http://en.rsf.org/uzbekistanindependent-reporter-facing-up-to-17-09-2010....

[22] Surat Ikramov, head of the Initiative Group of Independent Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan, attended the trial and said, “Five of the defendants who stood trial with Khamidov received between four and six years’ jail while 13 others got suspended sentences and were freed.” Ikramov says all defendants pleaded not guilty.

[23] Reporters Without Borders, “Appeal court upholds photographer’s conviction,” 18 March 2010, http://en.rsf.org/uzbekistan-appeal-court-upholds-photographer-18-03-201....

[24] In 2009, the penetration rate was 8.9 per cent. See “Uzbekistan,” Internet World Stats, updated 24 June 2010, http://www.internetworldstats.com/asia/uz.htm.

[25] CPJ, “Uzbekistan,” Attacks on the Press 2010.

[26] IFEX, “Two journalists found guilty of slander in separate cases,” IFEX Alert, 26 October 2010, http://www.ifex.org/uzbekistan/2010/10/26/boboyev_sentence/.

[27] Stan Rogers, “Karimov fires Samarkand governor,” CentralAsiaOnline.com, 20 December 2010, http://centralasiaonline.com/cocoon/caii/xhtml/en_GB/features/caii/newsb....

[28] “Governor creates personality cult in Samarkand Region,” Uznews.net, 20 October 2010, http://www.uznews.net/news_single.php?lng=en&cid=30&sub=&nid=15302.

[29] OSCE, “OSCE media freedom representative concerned about persecution of journalists in Uzbekistan,” press release, 2 February 2010, http://www.osce.org/fom/51866.

[30] Human Rights Watch, “Uzbekistan: Activist Hit With New Sentence,” news release, 13 August 2010, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2010/08/13/uzbekistan-activist-hit-new-sentence.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Mushfig Bayram, “UZBEKISTAN: Illegal Christmas as unregistered religious activity punished,” Forum 18 News Service, 14 January 2010, http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1394.

[33] Mushfig Bayram, “UZBEKISTAN: Muslims jailed long-term, short-term Christian jailings re-start,” Forum 18 News Service, 26 April 2010, http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1436.

[34] Felix Corley, “UZBEKISTAN: 15-day jail terms, large fines, literature destruction follow raid,” Forum 18 News Service, 18 May 2010, http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1445.

[35] “Charges Dropped Against Uzbek Police in Alleged Gang Rape,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 22 April 2010, http://www.rferl.org/content/Charges_Dropped_Against_Uzbek_Police_In_All....

[36] See US Embassy in Tashkent, “Mafia Boss fixes GOU tenders and jobs,” Cable ID 06TASHKENT902, 5 May 2006 (released 14 January 2011), http://www.cablegatesearch.net/cable.php?id=06TASHKENT902. See also “Wikileaks: Uzbek mafia boss Salim sells official positions and treats Uzbek ministers,” Ferghana, 14 January 2011, http://enews.fergananews.com/news.php?id=1982.

[37] While the World Bank’s survey uses data from 2005-2008, there is nothing to suggest that Uzbekistan’s steadily worsening trajectory would have shifted course over the past years. See The World Bank, Trends in Corruption and Regulatory Burden in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Washington: World Bank, 9 February 2011): 12, 16, 40, 47, 50, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/ECAEXT/Resources/2011_report_fullrepo....

[38] Khalilov was parliament speaker for more than a decade, even standing in for President Karimov at multilateral summits. Within days of his dismissal in January 2008, Khalilov’s three-story house in Tashkent was demolished, and an estate outside Tashkent was seized along with several expensive automobiles.

[39] “Ex-officials in Samarkand region end up in jail,” Uznews.net, 14 May 2010, http://www.uznews.net/news_single.php?lng=en&cid=4&nid=13756.

[40] Quoted in “Зиндан для олигархов” [Dungeon for Oligarchs], Uzmetronom.com, 9 March 2010, http://www.uzmetronom.com/2010/03/09/zindan_dlja_oligarkhov.html (inRussian).

[41] “Leading Uzbek businessmen detained in Tashkent,” Uznews.net, 9 March 2010. http:// www.uznews.net/news_single.php?lng=en&cid=2&nid=12811.

[42] “Sources Claim Shutdown At Powerful Uzbek Conglomerate,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 17 May 2010, http://www.rferl.org/content/Sources_Claim_Powerful_Uzbek_Conglomerate_S....

[43] Grant Podelko, “It’s Gulnara’s World. We Only Live In It,” RF Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 21 December 2009, http://www.rferl.org/content/Its_Gulnaras_World_We_Only_Live_In_It/19076....

[44] One of the U.S. diplomatic cables refers to “[Karimova’s] holding company, Zeromax,” while another explains that Gulnara gained control over the company “in a deal with a local mafia boss.” See “WikiLeaks: President’s daughter the most hated woman in ‘rampantly corrupt’ Uzbekistan,” Daily Mail, 13 December 2010. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1338198/WikiLeaks-Presidents-dau... and David Leigh, “WikiLeaks cables: US keeps Uzbekistan president onside to protect supply line,” The Guardian, 12 December 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/12/wikileaks-us-conflict-over-u....

[45] EWR’s findings are summarized by Ferghana. See “How to become the student of Uzbekistan, or ‘the price’ of admission,” Ferghana, 5 August 2010, http://enews.fergananews.com/article.php?id=2653.

[46] Uzbek Television First Channel as monitored by the BBC, 7 December 2010.