Uzbekistan hides the names of those killed, missing, and victims of mass arbitrary detentions
The report was prepared by a coalition of human rights organisations #ActivistsNotExtremists, including the Open Dialogue Foundation, “Qaharman” Human Rights Foundation, “Elimay” Human Rights Movement, “Bostandyq Kz” Human Rights Initiative, “Femina Virtute” Human Rights Movement, “Article 14” Human Rights Movement, “405” Human Rights Movement and “Veritas” Human Rights Movement.
The sources of information for the report included testimonies and interviews with victims of politically motivated persecution and their relatives. Civil activists from Karakalpakstan were actively involved in gathering information about the events in Karakalpakstan. We are withholding their names for security reasons since the Uzbek authorities have been carrying out a massive crackdown on witnesses to the events in Karakalpakstan. We express our deep gratitude to all activists who, risking their safety and lives, are trying to bring the truth to the world about the brutal shooting of peaceful protesters in Karakalpakstan in July 2022.
At the beginning of July 2022, the largest protests in 30 years took place in the cities of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, which is an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan. Tens of thousands of citizens protested peacefully to defend Karakalpakstan’s sovereign status. The Uzbek authorities have suppressed peaceful protests with particular brutality. The analysis of photographs and videos made available to the Open Dialogue Foundation shows that grenade launchers and firearms were used against peaceful citizens. An information blockade was imposed on the Republic: from the very beginning of the protests, the authorities cut off mobile and Internet communications. The Uzbek authorities conceal the names of those killed, wounded and arbitrarily detained during the peaceful protests. Human rights defenders have identified 20 people dead on the basis of eyewitness accounts, while another 91 have been reported missing. The eyewitnesses to the events say there could be many more casualties. Hundreds of protesters have been subjected to torture and beatings. With the help of activists from Karakalpakstan, we were able to find out the names of some of those killed, missing and arbitrarily detained people [in the attachments].
On 25 June 2022, the Uzbek authorities submitted a draft amendment to the Constitution for a “public discussion”. Among the proposed amendments were those relating to the status of the Republic of Karakalpakstan within Uzbekistan. In particular, it was proposed to remove the reference to the sovereign status of the Republic of Karakalpakstan from the Constitution of Uzbekistan, as well as a norm on the right of the Republic to secede from Uzbekistan “on the basis of a general referendum of the people of Karakalpakstan”. A special website was set up for public discussion, where all citizens of Uzbekistan were invited to vote “for” or “against” the amendments. In this way, the Uzbek authorities created a situation in which the constitutional status of the sovereign Republic of Karakalpakstan was not determined solely by citizens of Karakalpakstan, but by all citizens of Uzbekistan [Karakalpakstan is home to about 2 million people, while the entire population of Uzbekistan is over 35 million – edit.]. Public figures in Karakalpakstan have begun to express their outrage at the proposed amendments.
1. The start of the protests
On 1 July 2022, Dauletmurat Tajimuratov, a well-known public figure, and human rights defender was detained and severely beaten by security forces in Karakalpakstan. He had urged the people to go on peaceful protests to demonstrate disagreement with the actions of the Uzbek authorities. Tajimuratov received permission from the local authorities to hold the rally on 5 July 2022. Tajimuratov’s detention provoked mass protests demanding his release. Participants of the peaceful assemblies also demanded the constitutional amendments concerning Karakalpakstan be dropped. Ethnic Karakalpaks as well as representatives of other nationalities (Kazakhs, Uzbeks) participated in the protests. The protests took place in the largest towns of Karakalpakstan: Nukus, Chimbay, and Muynak.
In response to mass peaceful protests, the Uzbek authorities deployed National Guard forces and other security forces in Karakalpakstan on 1 July 2022. Mobile and Internet communications were cut off in the region, banks and ATMs stopped working , . The authorities launched an operation to suppress the peaceful protests by force. It is noteworthy that during the shooting of peaceful demonstrations in Kazakhstan in January 2022, the tactics of information blockade were also used , . It was during the Internet and mobile blockage when most large-scale shootings and tortures took place.
On the evening of 1 July 2022, under public pressure, the authorities released Tajimuratov intentionally. Tajimuratov told protesters that he had been severely beaten following his detention and urged them to continue protesting against the constitutional amendments. Tajimuratov spent the night at the house of activist Ruslan Ibragimov. About 200 protesters were near Tajimuratov to ensure his safety. Early in the morning on 2 July 2022 law enforcement officers detained all of them. The detainees were severely beaten in pre-trial detention facilities. Their phones were taken away in order to delete videos and photos of the events recorded during the protests.
2. Repression against activists and their relatives
Together with Tajimuratov, the security services detained his relatives – his wife, 8-year-old daughter, two brothers, and nephews. Their fate remains unknown. Dauletmurat Tajimuratov’s sister, Aziza Tajimuratova, was also detained. She was released after interrogation.
The Uzbek security services widely use the practice of detaining activists and their relatives. For example, one of the active participants in the 1 July 2022 rally, Dauletmurat Zhiemuratov, has gone missing.
At the rally, he used a loudspeaker to call for peaceful protest. After Zhiemuratov’s disappearance, his close ones and relatives – Hozhambergen Abdireimov, Timur Reimov, Islam Ametov and Dauletiyar Makhamadaliyev – were detained.
It is reported that Makhamadaliyev was beaten on his fingers and heels with a truncheon and electrocuted after his detention. He was required to confess to participating in the rally. Islam Ametov was at work on the day of the protest but was falsely accused of also taking part in the “riots”. The security services also interrogated Nigora Zhiyemuratova, the wife of Dauletmurat Zhiyemuratov.
Among those arbitrarily arrested and tortured was Azamat Turdanov, a prominent public figure and regional vice-president of the Sambo Association of Uzbekistan, who previously served as deputy minister for culture and sport in Karakalpakstan. As of 27 July 2022, Turdanov has not had access to his lawyer and relatives.
The General Prosecutor’s Office of Uzbekistan reported that a criminal case on the events in Karakalpakstan is being built for “conspiracy to seize power or overthrow the constitutional order” (Article 159 of the Criminal Code). According to the investigation, Tajimuratov was detained for calling an illegal rally. After his release, Tajimuratov and his supporters allegedly continued the disturbances, resisting security forces and “attempting to change the existing system of government in the Republic of Karakalpakstan and seize power”. Authorities say they arrested 14 people in connection with the case, including Dauletmurat Tajimuratov.
According to witnesses, Ruslan Ibragimov, the owner of the house in which Tajimuratov was sleeping, was killed as a result of brutal torture in a pre-trial detention facility.
3. Grenades against peaceful protesters
As a result of repression by the Uzbek authorities, massive clashes erupted between protesters and security forces on 2 July 2022. An analysis of the photos and videos of the events that have been made available to the Open Dialogue Foundation shows that grenade launchers and firearms were used against the protesters. The riot-dispersing equipment (smoke bombs, tear gas, water cannons) was also widely used. Peaceful protesters and bystanders suffered severe lacerations. Some of them had their limbs torn off. The bodies of some of the dead individuals were badly mutilated. Among the injured and missing were also those who were at the epicenter of the events by accident and did not take part in the protests. For example, six-year-old Islam Shamsheitov, who was returning from the market with his father, is still missing.
The police detained civil activists and bloggers who opposed the constitutional amendments. In particular, journalist Lolagul Kallyhanova, who had published an open letter against the constitutional amendments, was detained. A criminal case has been opened against her, accusing her of “encroachment on public safety”. International organizations “Reporters sans frontières”, “Coalition for Women in Journalism” (CFWIJ), “Committee to Protect Journalists” have appealed in defense of the journalist and called on the Uzbekistani authorities to stop her prosecution.
On 2 July 2022 President Shavkat Mirziyoyev paid a visit to Karakalpakstan during which he stated that no amendments would be made to the Constitution concerning the status of Karakalpakstan. He also ordered that a state of emergency be introduced on the territory of Karakalpakstan. On 4 July 2022, the Parliament of Uzbekistan withdrew the articles on the sovereignty of Karakalpakstan from the draft amendments to the Constitution.
Following the events in Karakalpakstan, the Uzbek authorities replaced Amanbai Orynbayev as Minister of Internal Affairs of Karakalpakstan. This was reportedly due to the fact that during the protests many police officers refused to obey orders to use force against peaceful protesters and sided with them.
In order to avoid responsibility for the deaths resulting from the violent suppression of peaceful protests, the Ministry of Defence and the National Guard of Uzbekistan stated that the soldiers were ordered not to use weapons or live ammunition , . An interview with members of the National Guard, which was published in Uzbekistan’s government-controlled media, even promoted the narrative that it was the soldiers who were beaten and injured by the protesters.
4. Authorities accused “foreign forces” of provoking unrest
The Uzbek authorities alleged foreign interference and an attempted seizure of the government by unknown individuals. The Uzbek Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the protests “had signs of a pre-planned sabotage aimed at inciting separatism” and “to split the peaceful, united, democratic country”. The authorities accused peaceful protesters, who came out in defence of their constitutional rights, of “manipulating people’s minds” and that most “provocateurs were under the influence of drugs and alcohol”. President Mirziyoyev stated that some “foreign forces had been preparing for years to organise these actions”.
Leaders of other authoritarian states have commended Uzbekistan for its rapid crackdown on peaceful protests in Karakalpakstan, using the military and information isolation of the region. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Chinese Foreign Minister Zhao Lijian, and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev expressed their support for the Uzbek authorities. In particular, Tokayev noted “the timeliness of the Uzbek leadership’s decisions to ensure stability in Karakalpakstan”. It is worth noting that during the January peaceful protests in Kazakhstan, which were suppressed by brute force and the involvement of Russian-led CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) military forces, Tokayev also spoke of “external interference” and the “20,000 terrorists” who allegedly attacked the country. During the Consultative Meeting of the heads of state of Central Asian countries, which took place in Kyrgystan on 21 July 2022, one of the most discussed topics was “the threat from external forces to destabilise the situation in the region”, which is how the heads of state of the region viewed the mass peaceful protests. The region’s heads of state agreed to “confront this threat together” , .
In an attempt to confirm the Uzbek authorities’ rhetoric about “external interference,” the Parliamentary Commission visited Nukus Central Market on 27 July 2022 to talk to local residents and traders. “The traders also said that the demonstrations were not carried out by the local population, that the situation had become serious due to the influence of forces seeking to disrupt the peace in the country,” noted the Ombudsman’s office in its publication. Such allegations suggest that the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into the events in Karakalpakstan will promote the propaganda of the Uzbek authorities.
5. Attempts to silence witnesses to the events in Karakalpakstan
Despite the total blockage of communications and the Internet in Karakalpakstan, civil society activists and eyewitnesses helped Open Dialogue Foundation identify the 479 people who were affected by the crackdown on peaceful protests in Karakalpakstan. Among them, there are:
- 20 dead
- 91 missing
- 315 detained
- 53 released
The US authorities, the European External Action Service, as well as the UN High Representative for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, have called on the Uzbek authorities to carry out an independent and transparent investigation into the events in Karakalpakstan. On 6 July 2022 the EU and Uzbekistan initialed an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement to be signed shortly. According to the European External Action Service, during a meeting of the Cooperation Committee the issue of the recent violent events in Karakalpakstan was “raised”. The EU called for a swift independent investigation into the circumstances of the protests.
Following the example of the Kazakhstani authorities, who after the tragic events of January refused to carry out an international investigation and set up a controlled commission of inquiry, the Uzbek authorities also set up a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry, which included members of parliament and representatives of state-dependent civil society organisations.
The commission was chaired by the Human Rights Commissioner, Feruza Eshmatova. Relatives of the victims and torture survivors told Open Dialogue Foundation that Eshmatova and other members of the commission did not meet with them to obtain information about the events during the peaceful protests. Moreover, members of parliament in Karakalpakstan have asked Shavkat Mirziyoyev to pardon the “participants of the mass unrest“. Such an act is in fact an acknowledgment of the guilt of the accused, while the released victims of torture and arbitrary detention testify that they have not had Access to a trial, have not been given the documents on the basis of which they were detained, and have not been allowed lawyers to meet with them. The Uzbek authorities have yet to publish the lists of those killed, wounded and arrested.
On 28 July 2022, members of the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into the events in Karakalpakstan came to the special detention facility for those under administrative arrest to check their health and living conditions, but it is unknown with whom exactly they met, how many of the arrested reported torture and other human rights violations, and what specific measures had been taken to protect their rights.
Shortly after the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry began its work, “Human Rights Watch” expressed doubts about the independence of the Commission and whether its work would result in punishment for those responsible. “Freedom Now” also expressed doubts about the Commission’s effectiveness.
During his speech to the Karakalpakstan parliament, Shavkat Mirziyoyev admitted that “many people were killed and injured” as a result of the violence. Officially the authorities reported 21 deaths, including four police officers. However, witnesses reported the death toll could be much higher. The authorities launched a massive crackdown to conceal the scale of the shootings. According to eyewitness accounts, the Uzbek authorities demanded written false confessions from the relatives of the victims that the deceased had a drug or alcohol problem and had been involved in looting and terrorist activities. Similar false confessions were demanded by Kazakhstani authorities following the mass shootings and torture in January 2022.
Individuals who were arrested were held in places of detention without a court order. They were taken to other regions of the country without informing their relatives of their place of detention. Thus, their detentions were arbitrary. The detainees were subjected to torture and ill-treatment. They were threatened to keep silent about the torture they had endured.
The authorities in Uzbekistan exerted pressure on journalists, activists and human rights defenders to prevent information about the scale of repression in Karakalpakstan from being disseminated. In particular, the social media accounts of Lyudmyla Kozlovska, president of the Open Dialogue Foundation, and Kazakh human rights defender Daniyar Khassenov were attacked from fake accounts. They demanded that they remove their list of victims of peaceful protests in Karakalpakstan and threatened to kill them if they did not. General Prosecutor’s Office of Uzbekistan reported that “the lists of those detained and missing are fake”. Relatives of those killed and persecuted have also been subjected to threats and intimidation.
We, members of the #ActivistsNotExtremists human rights groups – Open Dialogue Foundation, Human Rights Foundation “Qaharman”, Human Rights Movement “Elimay”, Human Rights Movement “Bostandyq Kz“, Human Rights Movement “Femina Virtute”, Human Rights Movement “Article 14”, Human Rights Movement “405”, Human Rights Movement “Veritas” call on the institutions of the United Nations, the OSCE and the EU, as well as the governments of the United States, Canada and other democratic states, to take urgent action to stop the repression and human rights abuses following the events in Karakalpakstan. The example of impunity of Kazakhstan’s top officials and perpetrators of their criminal orders during shootings and tortures carried out in January 2022 in Kazakhstan has become a role model for other Central Asian countries. In this regard, we consider it necessary to:
- Demand that the Uzbek authorities invite UN and OSCE Special Representatives to conduct an independent investigation into the facts and circumstances of the deaths of protesters and law enforcement officers in Karakalpakstan in July 2022. Also, investigate the circumstances that provoked the mass peaceful protests.
- Involve independent civil society representatives and human rights defenders in the investigation of the events in Karakalpakstan. Provide them with platforms to present their reports on the events in Karakalpakstan.
- Demand that the Uzbek authorities stop repressing peaceful protesters, civil activists, journalists and human rights defenders and immediately release those detained.
- Demand that the Uzbek authorities publish full lists of those killed, wounded and detained during the crackdown on protesters in Karakalpakstan.
- Impose personal sanctions against high-ranking Uzbek officials responsible for the violent dispersal and execution of peaceful protests in Karakalpakstan, as well as for systematic human rights violations in the country;
- In the context of the forthcoming signing of the EU-Uzbekistan Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, the EU should demand that the Uzbek authorities release political prisoners and detained peaceful protesters, allowing lawyers and relatives to access them and publish the lists of those who died during the July 2022 events in Karakalpakstan.