Uzbekistan hands down more jail terms to Karakalpakstan ‘rioters’
Lengthy prison sentences have been handed to nearly 30 people in Uzbekistan over last year’s protests against plans to limit the autonomy of the sprawling Karakalpakstan region.
Uzbekistan is undergoing slow reforms after decades of dictatorial rule under Islam Karimov but the official response to the Karakalpakstan protests has raised questions about the reform process.
The protests in July last year forced a U-turn by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who shelved constitutional changes limiting regional autonomy that led to the protests in Karakalpakstan’s capital, Nukus.
The protests in Nukus were triggered by discontent over plans to amend the constitution to remove Karakalpakstan of the theoretical privilege to hold an independence referendum. The subject of independence is strongly discouraged and it is unclear why the regime pursued the swiftly abandoned constitutional changes.
Karakalpakstan has fewer than 2 million residents among the 35 million inhabitants of Uzbekistan. But it covers more than one-third of Uzbek territory.
The authorities say 21 people dead in the protests, including four members of the security forces on July 1-2 last year, four of the people killed were law enforcement officers. The remainder were civilians. No list of named victims has yet been released.
Observers blamed the scale of the bloodshed on unjustifiably violent policing.
In a second series of trials, the Uzbek supreme court said 39 people appeared in a Bukhara court on charges relating to rioting, looting or weapons possession.
It said 28 suspects were sentenced and were given sentences from five to 11 years.
All the trials have taken place in the Silk Road gem of Bukhara, hundreds of kilometres from the defendants’ relatives and supporters.
A total of 171 Karakalpakstan citizens face charges over the protests and 16 people were given sentences of up to 16 years in January on an array of public disorder charges.
Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, a lawyer and activist based in Nukus who the authorities named as the ringleader, was given a 16-year term.
Human Rights Watch last year said the authorities “unjustifiably used lethal force” to disperse the protests.
UN Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk visited Uzbekistan last week and called for a transparent and independent investigation and fair trials.
Uzbekistan is due to hold a referendum next month on constitutional reforms, which would introduce seven-year presidential terms and allow Mirzioev to run two more times.
Karakalpaks are Turkic-speaking. The region was previously an autonomous area of Kazakhstan before it was deemed “autonomous” within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1930. It was added to Uzbekistan in 1936.
The European Union has called for an independent probe into last year’s unrest and the police response.
Nukus lacks the architectural gems of other Uzbek cities. Picture credit: Flickr