- Share to or
‘Dreaming about independence isn’t a crime’ How a brutal crackdown in Uzbekistan followed Karakalpakstan’s rejection of a bid to cancel its secession rights
Story by Aziz Yakubov from Mediazona Central Asia. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
This summer, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev announced plans for a referendum to amend the country’s constitution. Following the lead of Kazakhstani President Tokayev, Mirziyoyev claimed the changes would be a step towards greater democracy, but the main question among observers was whether he would use the initiative to reset his presidential term count. However, when a draft version of the amendments was published in late July, it included an even more drastic change: the proposed legislation would strip the country’s autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan of its status as a sovereign republic and of its right to secede from Uzbekistan via referendum. Karakalpakstan makes up more than a third of Uzbekistan’s territory, and secession rights were a key part of the 1993 reunification agreement signed by Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Mirziyoyev’s proposal sparked large-scale demonstrations in the republic, and the authorities responded with violent force and severe criminal charges against protesters. After their sentences were handed down on January 31, the independent outlet Mediazona Central Asia spoke to multiple experts about Tashkent’s handling of the situation and what it means for the country’s future. Meduza is publishing an abridged translation of Mediazona’s report.
The joint legacy of Stalin and Karimov
In late June 2022, the Uzbek government published draft constitutional amendments that would deprive the Republic of Karakalpakstan of its right to secede from Uzbekistan via referendum. In the days that followed, widespread protests broke out in the republic’s capital of Nukus and in other cities throughout the region as residents demanded the amendments be withdrawn. Within days, the demonstrations grew into violent clashes as law enforcement used lethal force to disperse the protesters.
According to official sources, Uzbek law enforcement officers arrested more than 500 demonstrators, including Nukus lawyer and journalist Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov and journalist Lolagul Kallykhanova, whom prosecutors accused of organizing the protests.
On July 2, the second day of the demonstrations, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev flew to Nukuz, where he announced that the Karakalpakstan-related initiatives would be removed from the amendments package. Meanwhile, the authorities declared a state of emergency in the republic that remained in effect until July 21.
By official counts, 21 people (including four security officials) were killed in the unrest, and at least 200 protesters were injured. But according to opposition politician Aman Sagidullayev, the true number of victims is much higher. He told Mediazona that he estimates at least 300 people may have been killed and more than 1,000 injured.
The investigation that followed the clashes lasted nearly five months and resulted in criminal charges against 22 people. Each of the defendants was charged with multiple crimes, including conspiracy to seize power and the organization of mass riots.
The trial against the protesters began on November 28. Instead of Nukus, where the alleged crimes took place, the authorities opted to hold the proceedings hundreds of miles away, in Bukhara, claiming this was necessary due to renovations in the Nukus court building.
But Alisher Ilkhamov, director of the London-based think tank Central Asia Due Diligence, told Mediazona that he believes the court proceedings were moved to limit the number of relatives and friends of the defendants who could attend the hearings. Those people’s very presence in the court would have created an “atmosphere of pressure,” said Ilkhamov.
“I want to note that the proceedings were moved not to Uzbekistan’s Khorezm region, which neighbors Karakalpakstan, but to Bukhara. And many of the defendants’ relatives simply can’t afford the trip,” he said.
Ilkhmanov said he even knows of cases in which familiar members of the people on trial sold livestock in order to attend the hearings. And in addition to being far away, he said, the authorities chose a facility that was far too small to accommodate everyone who wanted to be there.
“Bukhara isn’t a very big city, and the influx of people planning to be in the court caused a shortage of hotels and a sharp price increase. All of these factors made it even more difficult for Karakalpakstan residents to attend the hearings,” he said.
As for the charges themselves, Ilkhamov has no doubt that they’re politically motivated. “The proceedings resemble Stalin’s show trials, which were both illegitimate in a legal sense and also made public to intimidate society, to give an example of how the authorities are able to deal with real or imagined opponents. And these politically motivated trials, which have nothing to do with the rule of law, were widespread in Uzbekistan under the regime of Islam Karimov,” he said.
Aman Sagidullayev, the Norway-based leader of the Alga Karakalpakstan movement, described the trial in Bukhara as a “kangaroo court.” He told Mediazona that there are effectively no independent lawyers to be found in Uzbekistan and especially in Karakalpakstan.
“[As a result,] trials resemble games in which people play at transparency and democracy. But we know that from the moment the activists were arrested, their rights have constantly been violated; we’ve observed torture and illegal searches. For example, from the first day of his arrest, Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov asked for an investigator who speaks Karakalpak, as well as glasses so he can read the court documents, but nobody wanted to listen to his requests,” said Sagidullayev.
Most of the proceedings were broadcast via livestream on the court’s site, a rarity for Uzbekistan. Alisher Ilkhamov admits that this alone is a step in the direction of transparency, but at the same time, he notes, at a certain point the broadcast was cut off and the press barred from the courtroom:
It happened when certain interesting details that discredited the authorities were revealed. For example, Tazhimuratov spoke about how, while he was reading the materials compiled by investigators, he stumbled upon information about injured protesters: someone had a bullet in their chest, someone had grenade fragments in their head. That means that, in addition to using riot control weapons to disperse demonstrations, law enforcement used firearms, which explains why the number of victims is so high. According to official data, 21 people were killed. But the medical personnel who dealt with the bodies and the injuries during the Nukus events claimed that 77 bodies were delivered to the hospital. So, the Uzbek authorities didn’t succeed in fully showing the openness of the process, and they were forced to curtail this initiative.
Most of the defendants, however, showed no such willingness to criticize the authorities. On the contrary, they repented their alleged crimes, asked the president and the Uzbek people for forgiveness using phrases that were strikingly similar to one another, and condemned Tazhimuratov, who they claimed had misled them and forced them to join the protests and throw Molotov cocktails.
Tazhimuratov himself asked the court to let him speak “at the very end, after everybody else,” saying he hadn’t expected the other defendants to betray him and “slander” him. In his final statement on January 20, he started by noting that all of his co-defendants had unanimously praised the prison food, their detainment conditions, and the way they had been treated by prison guards, which he described as “suspicious.”
Aman Sagidullayev said that it’s indeed likely that investigators and lawyers promised the other defendants lighter sentences in exchange for giving the “necessary testimonies.” In his experience, he said, many of the lawyers assigned to cases like Tazhimuratov’s are former law enforcement officials, and their primary role is to serve as an “intermediary between the prosecutor and the judge.”
“I know that one of the defendants, Azamat Turdanov, was subjected to torture and pleaded guilty after they broke the leg of his younger brother, who was in prison,” he told Mediazona. “[In this case,] the Uzbek authorities’ target was Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, so they took measures to ensure that people would slander him.”
Prosecutors, unsurprisingly, requested prison sentences for all of the defendants. The harshest sentences were requested for Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov and Lolagul Kallykhanova: 18 and 11 years in prison, respectively.
Tazhimuratov pleaded not guilty to most of the charges against him, including the claim that he incited mass riots. At the same time, while he maintained that he “wasn’t trying to achieve independence,” he also insisted that nobody can ban him from yearning for it. “Dreaming about independence isn’t a crime. I’ll continue to dream; I’ll dream until I’m in the grave. […] Release me now, and I won’t take a step towards independence, but my dream won’t fade,” he vowed.
In his closing statement, Tazhimuratov also addressed the violence and abuse he endured at the hands of law enforcement. On July 1, he said, he was taken in for a “preventative conversation” that ended in a beating. “A preventative conversation in the new Uzbekistan is where they put a mask and handcuffs on you and put you in a police van, jab you and jab you with a stun gun, beat you, make you spit up blood, and then release you,” he said.
The following day, he said, security officials showed up at his home — without warrants. “They broke the doors, the gates, the windows, and entered the building. They took several people away to the police station. […] There, they put us in an isolation unit. They put us right into prison without any warrants or court orders,” he said.
Aman Sagidullayev doesn’t believe any law enforcement officials will be punished for using violence against civilians during the protests or their aftermath. “The investigation against the Uzbek military for using force during the Nukus events looks like a farce,” he said. “We still don’t know who fired, what weapons were used, or who gave the command. They don’t even seem to have arrested anybody.”
On January 31, the court found Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov guilty of conspiracy to seize power, embezzlement, money laundering, organizing mass unrest, and disseminating materials that threaten public safety. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison — two years fewer than prosecutors had requested.
Most of the other defendants were given sentences of between three and five years in prison. Lolagul Kallykhanova received an eight-year parole-like sentence, while three others were given probation and immediately released from custody.
Alisher Ulkhamov sees these sentences as an attempt by the Uzbek authorities to minimize the damage to their own reputation after a trial that was clearly political in nature. “At first glance, the outcome looks like a compromise; after all, four people, including the only woman on the list of defendants, Kallykhanova, were given probation. But in reality, there was no compromise — the informal leader of the Karakalpaks, Tazhimuratov, was given only two years fewer than what prosecutors requested,” he said.
But at the same time, he said, he expects the ruling to cement Tazhimuratov’s status as a hero throughout the region.
“In his closing statement, [Tazhimuratov] ripped the prosecutors to shreds, pointing out the contradictions [in their claims] and their bias. Judging by his dignified behavior after his sentencing, I suspect he may now become a martyr in the eyes of the people of Karakalpakstan,” he said.
Sign up for The Beet
Underreported stories. Fresh perspectives. From Budapest to Bishkek.
Ilkhmanov compared the situation in Karakalpakstan to a “time bomb” and said he doesn’t expect the authorities’ retribution against the protesters to defuse it:
It’s quite possible that the situation will develop along the same path as Kosovo, where things also began with some minor demonstrations and unjust legal rulings, but they ended with the region’s exit from Serbia. That scenario is highly likely in Karakalpakstan. At the same time, against the backdrop of this political crisis and the recent energy collapse, the government is rapidly losing authority, which could intensify its repressions. Which is why, right now, the odds of the country returning to the old Karimov order have grown significantly.
Aman Sagidullayev, the leader of the Alga Karakalpakstan movement, says that he wouldn’t have expected any other decision from the court. “I knew that the sentence would be harsh because the Uzbek president backs this show trial. Bearing in mind that human rights advocate [and Karakalpak independence advocate Zhumasapar] Dadebayev, who was kidnapped in Turkey and taken to Tashkent, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2022, I expected this kind of punishment for Tazhimuratov too,” he said.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
- Share to or