The changes in Uzbekistan, which have been talked about so much lately, including in the West, are according to human rights activist Nadejda Atayeva, merely a propaganda screen hiding unresolved problems driven underground. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his team remind her of a pioneer squad — there are many ideas, but few if any achievements.
Nadejda Atayeva, President of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, currently lives in exile in France, but continues to monitor and advocate for improvements in the human rights situation in Uzbekistan. In an interview with KZ.MEDIA, she assessed the ongoing reforms in Uzbekistan.
— Nadejda, in the West recently there has been a lot of talk about the fact that the President of Uzbekistan, Mirziyoyev, is carrying out liberal modernisation of the country. Is it actually true? And can you name reforms or changes that would support such statements?
Changes are taking place, but I do not have a single example which confirms the systematic liberal modernisation of Uzbekistan. I will explain why.
The executive branch still prevails over other branches of power, but yet does not ensure the diligent implementation of its own initiatives. This is especially noticeable in the implementation of about two thousand new laws and regulations announced by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev as part of the reform programme. New decisions are often delayed in being passed to local government level and local authorities continue to illegally restrict citizens' rights. Therefore, the hopes associated with the new government have begun to fade.
Over the past three years of his reign, Mirziyoyev has identified many areas of reforms. At the same time, he takes steps that show him to be a consistent executor of behind the scenes agreements with Russian President Putin. It seems that before Mirziyoyev came to power, they agreed on certain points for the development of bilateral relations, and Mirziyoyev is now faithfully fulfilling these agreements.
— For example?
— Let’s see what has changed. What is striking first of all are not the positive changes in people’s lives through reforms that are visible, but, for example, the signing of a number of agreements with Russia through which the project for the construction of a nuclear power plant and the entry of Uzbekistan into the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) which make Uzbekistan dependent on policies of the Kremlin.
Under President Karimov, foreign policy towards Russia was fundamentally different. And now we are being put in a yoke by manoeuvring and convincing us of the benefits of a common economic area, promises of an improvement in the situation with labour migrants and other benefits. But in fact, those citizens of Uzbekistan who have lived abroad for many years, who believed in Mirziyoyev’s reforms and returned to Uzbekistan, are now actively leaving the country again. Many of them realized that Mirziyoyev’s personnel policy is weak.
Moreover, he himself has been slowing down the announced reforms, as his energy is primarily directed towards fighting against «internal forces». Mirziyoyev got involved in the process of reprisals against prosecutors, officers of the National Security Service and so on. He launched a hunt for people who allegedly tried to organise an attempt to overthrow him. The number of those who are prosecuted is growing exponentially, trials are being held behind closed doors.
In this situation, objective and reliable information is not available to the public, and Mirziyoyev’s actions do not always look logical and consistent.
Moreover, the process of releasing political prisoners, which began under Karimov and continues under Mirziyoyev, is used by PR specialists as an example of the «liberalism» of the new president. However, many people have not been released yet.
— Do you not agree with this?
In my opinion, this is just a bright label to attract the attention of the Western media. It is a tool to manipulate public opinion in the West. Moreover, under Mirziyoyev, there have been cases of new political prisoners.
Another issue under discussion in Uzbekistan — forced labour in the cotton sector — has ceased to be prohibited. A hotline has been created, where one can report illegal labour by phone. This information is available to representatives of the ILO (International Labour Organisation — Ed.), who are in Uzbekistan permanently and are actively responding to incoming reports. However, the ILO’s position is not always objective, as they are interested in maintaining a presence in the country and are aimed at cooperation with the government. And the assessments of civil society activists and independent observers often justifiably do not coincide with the position of the government and the ILO.
I support the view that it is too early to talk about lifting sanctions on Uzbek cotton, because there are very few systemic changes. Again, students are found in the cotton fields. Yes, new online publications in Uzbekistan are already writing on this subject, without fear of persecution — this is a positive point. But no one has been punished for cases of death during the cotton harvesting, investigations concerning the list of children who died during the cotton harvests of previous years, which we submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee five years ago and published on our website, have not been resumed.
On the whole, it is too early to talk about the eradication of modern forms of slavery in Uzbekistan. This problem can only be solved in a comprehensive way, eradicating the super centralised nature of the cotton sector management, which creates a demand for forced labour, by improving working conditions and safety measures — not only in the sector of cotton growing, but also throughout the country. It is also time for the state to take measures to reduce occupational diseases and provide conditions for the development of independent trade unions.
— Which stratum of Uzbek society is most vulnerable today?
— Any person in Uzbekistan has been and remains vulnerable, because the adopted laws are not implemented, as before, corrupt connections work more efficiently than the principles of the Constitution of Uzbekistan.
A significant part of the population is the owners of houses and apartments, many of which have suffered from the practice of large-scale demolitions of their property and the inability to obtain affordable social housing or adequate monetary compensation.
One of the most vulnerable groups of citizens is LGBT people. They are exposed to risks to their lives solely because they are «different», despite the fact that their relationships are consensual. Even their relatives begin to cooperate with law enforcement bodies if they find out that one of the family members is associated with LGBT people. I am dismayed at the cruelty of cases of murder homosexual people in Uzbekistan! The law enforcement agencies deal with such cases extremely passively, which only intensifies aggression.
This problem now requires a legal open discussion to decriminalise Article 120 of the Criminal Code, under which people are not only detained for consensual same-sex relationships, but also subjected to discrimination, which even leads to the murder of LGBT people.
Moreover, Article 120 is used in the fight against activists, by threatening to apply it if one does not cooperate with the special services, since the evidence of a «witness» is sufficient to support the use of this Article.
No less painful is the problem of the mass revocation of citizenship of Uzbekistan. We are studying this problem, and I am finding massive violations of human rights. Firstly, the process of revocation of citizenship of persons living abroad takes place in absentia and does not provide for the right of defence and appeal. Moreover, citizenship is revoked not by a judicial decision, but on the basis of a presidential decree. Why is the decision to revoke the citizenship made by the executive branch? This is a violation of the Constitution of Uzbekistan, committed by the Guarantor of human rights and freedoms — the so-called «reformer», Shavkat Mirziyoyev. And for many reasons, this process of revocation of citizenship looks like a crime committed by the state, since it is carried out on the basis of the Decree of the President of Uzbekistan — contrary to the Constitution. We have reliable information that indicates that persons, whose citizenship has been revoked, face mass confiscation of property that is appropriated at a very low cost by officials, as well as the «boss» of the Uzbek mafia, «Salimbay», and his entourage. For example, an apartment worth USD 250,000 was acquired by an associate of Salimbay for USD 400. Our organisation has more information on such facts.
Therefore, I believe that the «change» in Uzbekistan is a propaganda screen, which is hiding nresolved, underground problems that have become a source of human rights violations.
— There is an opinion that censorship of the Uzbek media has become not as severe as it was under Karimov. Is it true?
— Many new publications have appeared In Uzbekistan in recent years, but they are increasingly reporting about their closure due to the fact that they supposedly somehow did not cover this or that topic. A website called TUGRI.UZ was recently closed. The persecution of authors of critical materials has begun. For example, charges were brought against Mirzo Subkhanov, a blogger from Samarkand.
Strengthening of the control over the expansion of the country’s information field on the Internet is currently ongoing. For example, we began to notice that the content of conversations of activists who communicate via Telegram or Signal messaging platforms somehow becomes known to the special services. It is my understanding that this situation is being studied by independent information security experts.
— But these messaging platforms are recognised around the world as the safest ones!
— There are three opinions: either the Uzbek special services somehow learned how to wiretap them, the activists are using them incorrectly, or those special services’ cars that the activists notice under their windows are crammed with wiretapping equipment.
The practice of maintaining a «black list» of politically unreliable people has not gone away. I am sure that it still exists, despite the fact that Uzbek authorities announced two years ago that such lists were eliminated. But they are formed as part of the operational-search activity in Uzbekistan, which is conducted with procedural violations of national legislation, and anyone listed faces restrictions of his rights.
— In what way?
— For example, they restrict access to participation in discussions organised by the UN and diplomatic missions. Whereas previously activists living outside Tashkent were removed from buses or detained on charges of administrative violations, today they are either simply not allowed to leave their homes or taken to a restaurant for an «urgent» conversation — they are getting «creative», but the meaning of these tactics is the same — to do everything possible to prevent the «politically unreliable» (according to the security forces) activist from participating in the event attended by foreign guests.
At the same time, there are positive aspects — international independent experts have begun to be admitted into the country, UN missions are visiting Uzbekistan, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has resumed its work. This is very good, because UN representatives have the opportunity to monitor on the ground how human rights are respected and how Uzbekistan is fulfilling its international obligations in this field.
At the same time, organisations such as Human Rights Watch, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and others have not been successful in resuming the work of their representatives in Uzbekistan and constantly monitor human rights in this country. Uzbekistan has not granted Human Rights Watch accreditation. There is only one reason for this- the lack of political will, which allows Uzbek officials to find more and more pretexts for refusal.
The International Red Cross has not yet resumed its visits to penitentiary institutions (the mission left Uzbekistan in 2013). And whereas a year and a half ago we were receiving reports from our sources in Uzbekistan that the number of prisoners was being reduced, that repair works were being carried out in prisons, now we are receiving shocking reports of suicides, discrimination against persons convicted on religious grounds, about torture and slave labour of prisoners. Meanwhile, there are still no mechanisms for promptly responding to the facts of torture. Recently, we received reports of cases of suicide and slave labour in prison No. 5 (formerly prison No. 64/47). Can you imagine how much pressure people are subjected to in this prison, that, unable to withstand it, they choose to be burned alive by jumping right into a furnace in the brick factory?!
Let me give you another fact — for three years Mirziyoyev has not given a single interview or a single press conference. At the same time, his press service, in my view, is trying to legalise censorship by holding press conferences behind closed door and setting the agenda for media coverage.
It is also interesting that the Internet users that are the most active in social networks, even those who do not have their own blogs, are now called «bloggers» by Uzbek judges. This means that the courts do not understand the difference between bloggers and activists in the social media, which leads to inadequate punishments, including punitive psychiatry, for the expressed opinions.
At the same time, the level of education of many Uzbek officials is extremely low, and the authorities themselves recognise this. For this reason, funds were allocated from the national budget for a new department, where employees of state bodies are taught ethical standards and how to express their thoughts. I hope that the head of the administration of the Ferghana region, Shukhrat Ganiev, who particularly stands out for his wild behaviour and assault of his subordinates, will soon undergo training there.
It is hard for me to imagine such a person in power, for example, in France or Sweden, but in Uzbekistan Ganiev enjoys the patronage of the President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and, in collusion with representatives of the Prosecutor’s Office and the State Security Service, continues to intimidate and ruin entrepreneurs. I am sure that Mirziyoyev is tolerant of the governors of the Ferghana and Andijan regions only because they are able to secure votes for him in the parliamentary and presidential elections. And what kind of reforms is Mirziyoyev capable of, given that he was brought up by the communist regime and has not found the strength to forego his privileges in these three years, avoiding declaring his income in every possible way, whereas his close circle has amassed more than Gulnara Karimova, daughter of the late dictator Islam Karimov.
— Today many talk a great deal about the fight against corruption in Uzbekistan. What is going on there?
— I would say that rather I am witnessing an increase of corruption in Uzbekistan. Take for instance Tashkent City, a social program of residential construction, alone! It clearly exposed the fictitious nature of the announced reforms. Large scale violations of the social rights of ordinary people led to an increase in the mood of protest. People face injustice in courts, because the judiciary is still dependent on the executive.
— And what is wrong with the Tashkent City program?
— Large scale violations consist of the fact that adequate compensation is not being paid when demolishing houses, that is, the price for a demolished house most often turns out to be symbolic, as the property has been undervalued. Many residents of Tashkent found themselves in a situation where it was impossible to buy anything not only in Tashkent, but even outside the city with the money they received for their demolished houses.
In my view, the reconstruction of Tashkent has become a powerful source of corruption and violation of fundamental social rights, as evidenced by numerous cases of suicides and increased migration.
By the way, here it is appropriate to mention another widely publicised innovation of Mirziyoyev — the creation of online petitions to officials. There are a lot of complaints about them. Yes, sites are created, they are operational and there is a platform through which one can report violations. But the system does not work. Because when a citizen of Uzbekistan lodges a complaint with the President’s Office about a violation of rights by law enforcement agencies, his or her application is forwarded to the institution the complainant complains about. I do not see any point in explaining what follows next.
The lack of a conscientious approach to solving existing problems simply destroys people’s trust in the current government.
Yes, Mirziyoyev is full of ideas, but his team reminds me of a pioneer squad. There are many initiatives, but few opportunities.
In addition, there are questions to which I cannot find answers yet.
The first, what kind of relationship does Mirziyoyev have with «mafia boss» Salimbay? Why and how did the latter become one of the leaders of the National Olympic Committee?
The second concerns the active appointment and promotion of Mirziyoyev’s relatives in official power structures.
His elder son-in-law, Oybek Tursunov, until recently presented himself as the Deputy Head of the Department of Presidential Affairs of Uzbekistan and still uses the car of the Administration of the President of Uzbekistan.
His father, Batyr Tursunov, is the First Deputy Chairman of the State Security Service of Uzbekistan and the First Deputy Commander of the National Guard (the Commander of the National Guard is Bokhodir Tashmatov and he is also the head of the Presidential Security Service).
Oybek’s older brother Ulugbek Tursunov is the Deputy Head of the Main Department of Internal Affairs in the city of Tashkent.
The younger son-in-law, Otabek Umarov, is the Deputy Head of the President’s Security Service.
Davron Ibragimov, Mirziyoyev’s brother in law is the father of Diera Usmanova — the widow of Babur Usmanov — the nephew of the Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov. Ibragimov was the director of the Chinabad oil depot. During the reign of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, he took control of all the oil depots in Uzbekistan, and now he and his team are regulating petrol prices. And they began calling him the «petrol king».
Tell me, what kind of liberal modernisation of Uzbekistan and the fight against corruption can we talk about?
— Do you have any information about what is happening with the Karimov family?
— Gulnara was imprisoned on the basis of the court decisions of three closed trials, and, in my opinion, under the new president, she is jailed not for participating in corruption schemes, committing economic crimes and crimes in office and abusing her father’s power, but for the fact that she would be able to say many things about Mirziyoyev himself and her ties with him.
The fact is that Gulnara received all state orders and budget funds for her companies and projects with the participation of Mirziyoyev, who at that time was the head of government. If these episodes are considered in a public trial, then the criminal actions of all members of the family of Islam Karimov, and the participation of Mirziyoyev in them will be clarified, which means that he will not be able to maintain his grip on power. Moreover, I think that these facts are trump cards in the sleeve of Rustam Inoyatov and Zelimkhan Khaidarov, people who were close to Islam Karimov and are well aware of the activities of Gulnara, Lola, Tatyana Karimova, and, of course, have accumulated incriminating evidence against Mirziyoyev. This is a lever of pressure, which even today allows Inoyatov to steadily move towards restoring his influential status and returning trusted people to their former posts.
In 2005, after the mass executions in Andijan, Zakirjon Almatov was included in the EU sanctions lists against Uzbekistan. And the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan, Sadyk Safaev, was included in the list of participants in the crimes of Gulnara Karimova. He currently holds the post of the First Deputy Chairman of the Senate of Uzbekistan. Almatov and Safaev are now in Mirziyoyev’s team.
And look at how the heads of the regional administrations behave? These are «small kings», for whom literally everything is permissible — they can beat up their subordinates, shower them with foul language, and instead of adequate punishment, Mirziyoyev gives them state awards.
Therefore, I repeat, I do not believe in Mirziyoyev’s reforms. And the release of political prisoners who were imprisoned during the Karimov regime does not mean that liberalisation has begun in Uzbekistan, because everyone who has been released remains under pressure and threatened to be imprisoned again. None of them have been rehabilitated. Some already have faced charges for administrative violations.
For example, Agzam Turgunov, a human rights activist, has already been through three trials on charges of administrative violations. Only due to the active support of international organisations does he still manage to be free.
Why does he annoy the authorities so? Because he will not cease his human rights activism, he continues to submit reports about violations of prisoner’s rights to the Prosecutor’s Office and the Ombudsman’s office. By disturbing these departments with reports of torture, forced labour of state employees and prisoners, Turgunov is shaking up the stagnant bureaucratic swamp of Uzbekistan, demanding that officials begin to finally earn their salaries and serve the interests of citizens of Uzbekistan.
It is time for Shavkat Mirziyoyev to show some courage and answer some pressing questions.
— What questions would you ask him?
— About the constitutionality of his coming to power, about his policies, and not only the internal ones. Uzbekistan is no longer truly independent. He is, as well as members of the Mirziyoyev family, under the influence of Russian oligarchs. Rapprochement with Russia is contrary to the policy of Uzbekistan, which was established after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Why during the three years of Mirziyoyev’s reign did Uzbekistan’s foreign debt grow from five to twenty billion US dollars?
Why has not a single opposition party been registered in the country over these three years, and why are there no independent trade unions?
Human rights activist Agzam Turgunov has made four attempts to register a human rights organisation over the past year, and this is his tenth attempt in twenty years.
Why is Uzbekistan closed for political emigrants who would like to return to their homeland?
Is the President of Uzbekistan ready for the reaction the Uzbek people, whom he deprived of their citizenship during his leadership, who have all the constitutional rights to recover their citizenship and demand compensation for lost property, using international legal mechanisms?
What are the Uzbek authorities doing for their citizens who have left to work in Russia? How do they help them exercise their rights?
And further, for example, we still do not know what position Osh refugees are in — this topic is taboo. Are they extradited to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan after the start of active cooperation between the two states, or do they remain in Uzbekistan? If so, under what conditions, do they have documents, and which ones?
If we are talking about progress in access to information, is it not time to computerise educational institutions, rather than showing the speeches of Mirziyoyev filled with grand rhetoric on the Akhborot news programme?
Uzbekistan continues to practice slave labour and torture in places of detention, therefore protection from slavery and torture is an absolute priority. Why is this practice allowed to continue in the country?
Shavkat Mirziyoyev could go down in history as a reformer, but this, unfortunately, this has not yet happened.