Human rights in Uzbekistan improves in post-Karimov era, observers say

CIHANGIR YILDIRIM
ISTANBUL
Published 08.09.2017 00:52

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has implemented reforms to improve human rights in the former Soviet country, one year after the death of former President Islam Karimov, who is infamously known for his repressive and dictatorial policies and for his intolerance for the political opposition, having cracked down on civil and human rights' groups as well as independent media outlets.

Although Uzbek officials confirmed that Karimov died on Sept. 2, 2016, six days after being taken to the hospital for a suspected brain hemorrhage, the date of his actual death is still unclear. Immediately after Karimov's death, President Mirziyoyev was appointed as the country's interim president. Later, on Dec. 4, 2016, a presidential election was held and Mirziyoyev, having previously served as the Uzbek prime minister since 2003, won the tightly controlled election with 88.6 percent of votes, marking the first political shift of power in the ex-Soviet country.

During Mirziyoyev's presidential campaign, he promised increased accountability to Uzbek citizens, acknowledging the lack of reform in key aspects of Uzbek society, including the criminal justice system, vowing to take positive steps for reform during his first year in office.

A few days before the presidential election, one of the longest-held political prisoners in the world, 72-year-old Samandar Kukanov of the Erk Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, was released in late November 2016, after spending more than 23 years behind bars. Journalist Muhammad Bekjanov, the one-time editor of Uzbekistan's leading opposition newspaper Erk, was also released on Feb. 22 after 18 years in prison. Bekjanov is the brother of exiled opposition leader Muhammed Salih.

The director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights Umida Niyazova said, "I am not sure if Bekjanov's release is the start of real change. The release of the prisoners cost Mirziyoyev nothing. However, it is in his favor that these detention terms were halted."

The international community has long criticized Uzbekistan's record on democracy and human rights of the Karimov era, having accused officials of using the blacklist indiscriminately to suppress political and religious dissent in the mainly Muslim country. In August of 2017, Uzbek officials removed some 16,000 Uzbek citizens including political dissidents from their blacklist and now hope to foster a more liberal political climate in the ultra-secretive country."We attach great importance to bringing a sense of normalcy back to the people in their daily lives. Our lack of knowledge and experience caused us to fall under the influence of destructive ideas and movements," Mirziyoyev said.

Recently on Sept. 4, a delegation from U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) visited the former Soviet country as the first full delegation to visit Uzbekistan since 2010, as representatives had been banned from working inside the country. The delegation urged the Mirziyoyev government to release all prisoners that were being held on politically motivated charges and to stop the use of torture and ill-treatment in detention, calling for Uzbekistan's full cooperation with U.N. human rights' bodies.

According to HRW, Muslim prisoners have been tortured while in detainment in the country simply for praying. In 2014 alone, at least 23 people were tortured to death in Uzbek prisons. According to the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders (IGHRD), at least 12,800 people have been imprisoned since 2002 in Uzbekistan on trumped-up charges, with many facing torture in local prisons.A report published by Freedom House in August of 2017 suggested that the Mirziyoyev government seems intent on fixing the most obvious problems of the post-Karimov reality in Uzbekistan, albeit not being quick to implement systemic reforms that would bring true change to one of the world's most isolated countries.

Uzbekistan was included on Freedom House's "The Worst of the Worst: The World's Most Repressive Societies" list in 2015.

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