A giant disco ball was spinning over folk dancers, as two bands — one traditional Uzbek, one classical Western — took turns playing from opposite ends of an enormous banquet hall decorated in what can only be described as a neo-caravanserai style. Everything was big and shiny and loud: a kind of Silk Road Las Vegas. The tables for the 300 or so VIP guests from around the world were piled high with delicacies: dried fruits, nuts, salads, sliced meats, fish, fried chicken, cheeses, pickled treats. Next came grilled meats, samsas, and plov, Central Asia’s sheep-fat-turbo-charged answer to risotto.
Our Uzbekistan government hosts spared no expense for this two-day “Asian Forum on Human Rights” in Samarkand. They booked out the high-speed train from Tashkent for guests the night before, and guest buses had police escorts as they traveled through the city, with traffic cops holding up cars at every intersection to allow us unrestricted passage.
Being treated like VIPs is a highly unusual — even uncomfortable — feeling for human rights activists in Uzbekistan. For more than two decades under the dictator Islam Karimov, who ruled the country from 1991 when it declared independence from the Soviet Union (and for two years prior as First Secretary of the Communist Party) until his death in 2016, the government would not have even tried to be friendly. The old regime just about tolerated our existence for the first part of his rule, but then our organization, Human Rights Watch, was kicked out in 2011, the last in a long line of nongovernmental groups and international media to be forced to leave the country since the mid-2000s. And for local human rights defenders, the situation was far worse. Many were jailed and tortured.
But this is the new government of president Shavkat Mirziyoyev, more than two years after Karimov’s death, and officials were keen to show us a welcoming face, to demonstrate that things are now changing in Uzbekistan.
As with all our research trips to the country since August 2017, when Human Rights Watch was granted access to Uzbekistan after being banned for six years, this visit and meetings with Uzbek activists and government are meant to determine how much of this change is real and how much of it is for show.
The conference hall itself was a walled-off compound, recently built, where dignitaries made lofty speeches. As with so many such international gatherings, panels had too many people (and too many men) pontificating rather than engaging in any real conversation.
The guests at the forum, along with the residents of Samarkand, were eagerly anticipating the imminent arrival of Mirziyoyev, who was scheduled to address the Asian Forum — a reason for the heightened security measures around the city and at the event and another sign of the ascendancy of “human rights” in comparison to “the old Uzbekistan.” We were told that Mirziyoyev was called to another engagement at the last minute, though, and his speech was read aloud to the forum guests, touting the importance of engaging with civil society.
The real action was not in the chandeliered plenary hall but in the lobbies. International human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were given unprecedented access to high-level Uzbek officials. Normally, Uzbekistan’s top government people are not exactly easy to reach; securing a phone number to their office or the email address of a trusted assistant is often difficult. But in Samarkand for two days, you could just grab people and start a conversation.
The Asian Forum was the face of the country the Uzbek government wants to present to the world: open, reforming, progressive. It’s the narrative of a country turning a corner, not only willing to discuss human rights but also leading the way by holding an international conference on it.
Government officials say they do not want this conference to be a one-off. They’re eager for it to be a process. Speaking in public and to us in private, key officials spoke about holding this forum again every two years, expanding it to include more groups and even starting a process to have an Asia-wide regional human rights body like Europe, the Americas, and Africa all have.
It all seemed a bold turn-around. For decades, Uzbekistan has been near the top of everyone’s list of the world’s worst human rights abusers, lumped together with countries like Eritrea and North Korea. “Long-Closed Uzbekistan Opens Up to the World,” was how a Voice of America (VOA) headline summarized the narrative that has driven Uzbekistan the past two years, including this conference.
But while many people in Uzbekistan use a VPN (virtual private network) to circumvent government internet control, those without one couldn’t read that headline or that article, because VOA is still blocked in the country, just like dozens of other outside news websites, including the websites of some of the groups the government invited to the forum. This isn’t consistent with the government’s new “openness” narrative.
Perhaps more disturbing, at the Asian Forum, there was a lack of human rights activists from Uzbekistan itself. Few were even invited, and those who were received notice only a day or two in advance that they’d be welcome, whereas some international guests had months to plan.
Chuyan Mamatkulov’s village house outside of the village of Qarshi is a simple set of rooms surrounded by a muddy, post-harvest garden. It’s far from the glitz of the Asian Forum, but Uzbek hospitality is the same regardless. We sit on the floor, as is traditional in Central Asia, around tea, nan bread, plates of nuts and sweets, bowls brimming with fermented yogurt and something salsa-like made from tomatoes. If you want to eat farm-to-table organic with minimal carbon footprint and zero food miles, you’re in the right place.
Our host is equally down-to-earth. Mamatkulov has the impressive distinction of being the only person who ever tried to bring legal charges against Karimov, the former president. He is not a lawyer, but there used to be a pathway for individual citizens to act as “public defenders” (a loophole since closed), and listening to him detail his cases, we’re both thinking he sounds like a legal scholar.
The politically controlled courts didn’t ever let him get very far with his complaints, of course, but even so, the way the regime responded to Mamatkulov’s legal efforts helped him demonstrate everything about the destructive nature of the system under Karimov. In December 2012, the authorities sent the police to plant drugs on him and arrest him, and he was handed a lengthy prison sentence.
Mamatkulov was sent to the notorious Jaslyk prison colony. All prisons in Uzbekistan are appalling, but Jaslyk has a reputation as the worst of the worst. It’s known as “The House of Torture” and “The Place of No Return,” where authorities have employed brutal forms of torture, including in one case, boiling a person alive. Our research from the early 2000s documented how the bodies of some people imprisoned on politically motivated charges were returned to their family members with the most horrifically disfiguring injuries.
From the moment Mamatkulov arrived at Jaslyk, he was tortured. He got out of the vehicle and was made to run a gauntlet of guards beating him as he tried to make his way to the building. When he was shown to his cell, the floor of it was two centimeters deep in a chlorine solution, and there was nothing to sit on. He had to stand with his feet and legs swelling from the chemicals and his eyes tearing from the fumes. These are both familiar stories we’ve heard from others who were sent to Jaslyk and other prisons in Uzbekistan.
That’s what human rights campaigners mean when they say torture is “systematic” in Uzbekistan. We’re not talking about a few bad prison guards; we’re talking about intense, institutionalized sadism.
How do you even begin to change a system in which people have been doing things like this to their fellow human beings for decades? Mamatkulov spent years in Jaslyk and other prisons before being released in 2018 under the new president. But even still, the authorities had refused to admit any mistake in framing him and jailing him in the first place. This was more than just a question of honor, too. It had practical consequences for Mamatkulov: technically still having a criminal record in the eyes of the state, he was restricted in the jobs he could have and the benefits he could seek. A few weeks after our visit, however, in an unprecedented development for Uzbekistan, Mamatkulov finally successfully cleared his name, after winning a key victory at the Supreme Court. He was the first former political prisoner to win the right to a new trial and will now seek to hold the officers and prosecutors who unlawfully jailed him accountable.
There is no denying that Uzbekistan is changing. Under President Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan has seen some notably positive changes, including the release of several dozen political prisoners, the relaxing of certain restrictions on free expression, and the removal of thousands of citizens from the security services’ blacklist. And yet, three activists we met on this trip had unwelcome visits from the security services the day after we met with them. Some got chilling reminders along the lines of: “Nice children you got there. It’d be a shame if anything happened to them.”
Given disturbing incidents like this, it would be tempting to say that nothing’s really changed in Uzbekistan, and the government’s reform effort is all a superficial show to wow the world without fundamentally changing the abusive core nature of the state. But that would be oversimplifying what’s happening here.
No state is a monolithic actor, and in an authoritarian state that after 25 years has lost the only leader it’s ever known, it is difficult to say what’s bubbling under the surface. For sure, there are powerful people who will resist reforms.
Officials who enjoyed high ranking in the social hierarchy under the repressive system may not welcome change. Those making a profit from the cheap and free labor that Uzbekistan’s prison-industrial complex provides, for example, may be reluctant to embrace democracy and human rights any time soon. Authoritarianism, like any other political system, creates and maintains its own entrenched constituencies who see change as a threat.
Even among those at the top who are reformers, there are some with dark histories that might make them instinctively reluctant to open things up too much, lest those histories become a topic for public discussion. All together, the odds might look long, but other countries have managed a peaceful transition away from authoritarianism. In our conversations with human rights defenders, former political prisoners, and survivors of torture, we drew parallels with some of the efforts in various post-authoritarian countries to bring real accountability for past abuses, such as South Africa, Chile, and places closer to home such as the Czech Republic and the Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania.
Judging from those experiences elsewhere, identifying progress or backsliding in Uzbekistan over the coming months and years will mean intensively detailing the human rights situation on the ground. Hearing what officials promise at international forums is fine, but you need to talk to normal people where they live, and you need to listen to the people who have suffered most.
The man who holds the record as the world’s longest imprisoned journalist is standing by the side of the road just like anyone else waiting for a marshrutka, the essential yet often overcrowded mini-buses that dart along the chunky roads of the former Soviet Union and keep daily travel affordable.
But he’s waiting for us, and we pick him up and drive to the nearest choihona, one of the thousands of roadside tea house rest stops that you find in Central Asia. We pull a table into a patch of late autumn sun and sit down with our famous guest, Yusuf Ruzimuradov.
He had been aware of the risks of publishing a banned opposition party newspaper in 1990s Uzbekistan. When things became too worrying in 1994, he and his colleague, Muhammad Bekjanov, escaped to Ukraine and continued publishing their newspaper, Erk (Freedom), abroad.
But international borders did not stop Uzbek security services, in 1999 kidnapping both of them and throwing them on a plane back home, where they were tortured and rushed through a dark joke of a trial.
A lawyer for Ruzimuradov told Human Rights Watch at the time that he and his five co-defendants were held incommunicado and tortured in pretrial detention to extract confessions. Ruzimuradov signed a statement that they had been subjected to electric shocks; beatings with batons and plastic bottles filled with water; and temporary suffocation, called the “bag of death.” He also reported that authorities threatened to rape their wives.
Finally, in late February 2018, Ruzimuradov was freed, following Bekjanov’s release the previous year, both beneficiaries of the new government’s mercy. He hasn’t lost his good looks, nor his ability to smile despite everything. He even gives a shrug of a laugh when he calculates the number of bricks he loaded onto trucks, working as slave labor over his many imprisoned years. It must have been at least 10 million bricks, he figures, “all with these hands.”
We have been able to meet a few of the better-known political prisoners who have been released, and we’ve met with the families of some still imprisoned. But there are so many more who are under the radar, still locked up for absolutely no legitimate reason.
There’s Akzam Turgunov, the founder of Mazlum Human Rights Center in Tashkent, who was also a prominent member of the Erk party. He served several sentences and suffered unspeakable tortures, including having boiling water poured over his back at a police station. The very night we met him, we saw three plain-clothes security services agents assigned to follow him hanging around in our hotel lobby.
Or Samandar Kukanov, a former member of parliament who served nearly 24 years in prison. He says that’s second only to Nelson Mandela in length of time served as a political prisoner in our era. (Mandela served 27 years, and though Human Rights Watch doesn’t keep a full list, his claim to such an undesirable title seems reasonable.)
In May, Kukanov filed an appeal with the Tashkent Regional Court to review his criminal sentence. Shortly thereafter, the court summoned Kukanov and informed him that the case would be reopened. But in September, Kukanov received a letter from the court informing him that the “materials of his criminal case” had been “destroyed in accordance with established procedure” on April 6, 2017, by the Tashkent Region State Archive. On this basis, the letter said, his requests for “full rehabilitation” could not be reviewed.
There’s the independent journalist Bobomurod Abdullaev, who was detained for nine months in 2017 and 2018 on trumped-up charges of seeking to overthrow the government and tortured, including being forced to stand for six days in a detention cell and endure beatings on his hands and body. In a sign of the changing times, in the end Abdullaev was not sent to prison but only fined and given a one-year suspended sentence.
Now rebuilding his life with his family, Abdullaev has renewed his passion for music. In the months since his release, he has produced several amateur music videos on his YouTube channel, including his most recent song, “Iymon asiri” (prisoner of conscience), dedicated to Uzbekistan’s former and current political prisoners.
We met with Malika Kosimova, the mother of Ravshan Kosimov, a promising young army cadet when he was sent to the United States for an exchange program. His brief association with the West cost him dearly when he returned to Uzbekistan. He was arrested, tortured, and accused of and sentenced for treason for no other reason than having spent time in the United States. He is still locked up.
In this country of some 33 million, it’s probably fair to say that nearly everyone is no more than a friend or an uncle away from a terrible story of unlawful arrest, torture, or imprisonment.
There is however at least one thing that both former political prisoners and today’s government officials agree on: regardless of how genuinely reformist the top politicians are — and that’s still a big question in itself — it’s people further down the chain of command who actually deal with the public every day. And those lower officials have meted out abusive authoritarian practices for decades.
In the human rights world, we talk about how states have ultimate responsibility for upholding rights in a country. That’s where the authority, and thus the accountability, lies.
But while that sounds reasonable legally, in the context of abusive state institutions that are deeply divided, the reality looks messier. For example, the authorities are legally obligated to investigate and prosecute anyone suspected of engaging in torture. But in Uzbekistan, that would cover a very large number of officials, and who’s going to do that? The police who themselves may have participated in torture? While it is true that President Mirziyoyev’s government has prosecuted and sentenced a few individuals for torture in the last year, the limits of a speedy transition become clear pretty quickly.
Yet, it would also be all too easy for those in power to use that as an excuse for foot-dragging. “We have to be careful and move slowly,” may sound sensible, but not to those who had to stand in chlorine in Jaslyk.
The international buzz about Uzbekistan is largely a simplistic assessment along an imagined spectrum of reform, as if changes proceed linearly and only in one dimension: “Democratic freedoms, yes or no?” But the situation is more complex. Power politics between competing elite groups may be more important, and things like human rights merely instrumentalized by one of the competing inner circles. Some seem relieved that the government is loosening its grip as reforms allow them to pursue new business opportunities without fears of being criticized for dealing with a brutal government. For others, there is a sense that the authorities could be pushed a bit more. Everywhere, ambitions are low.
The victims of Uzbekistan’s decades of abuses are the ones thirsting most for change, and they have immediate concerns. Getting the remaining political prisoners freed tops the list, followed by rehabilitation, so that those who are released can lead more normal lives.
Families of political prisoners would also like the government to stop blocking Facebook and YouTube, two tools they have been using to spread the message about their loved ones’ plight. At some point, the victims and their families might also like to see a documentation center, a museum and a monument to the thousands of political prisoners unjustly jailed, tortured, and killed in the miserable penal colonies of Uzbekistan.
It’s not going to be easy to basically work with former jailers and torturers, but if Uzbekistan is going to move forward, it’s going to take a lot more than a handful of cautious politicians.
Andrew Stroehlein is the European media director at Human Rights Watch.
Steve Swerdlow, esq., is Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.