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Rehabilitation Here and Now: Pursuing Transitional Justice in Uzbekistan

In this article for CABAR.asia Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer, by providing a roadmap for transitional justice in Uzbekistan, examines the relevant international and domestic legal framework and summarizes attempts by former political prisoners to pursue their rehabilitation, and in so doing, a larger national conversation about Uzbekistan’s dark past.


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More often than democracy-watchers would like to acknowledge, the death of a dictator usually does little to fundamentally change the nature of a political system. Think Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in 2000, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il in 2011, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez in 2013. But in certain rare cases, it can lead to concrete improvements in the lives of millions of ordinary people. Some have argued this occurred—at least in part and for a time—in the case of Josef Stalin’s death in 1953. It most certainly happened in August 2016 with the death of Islam Karimov, whose ruthless 27-year reign (1989-2016) in Uzbekistan became synonymous with the worst forms of repression, torture, and political imprisonment.

Former communist party boss and authoritarian president of Uzbekistan (1989-2016) Islam Karimov.

Four years since Karimov’s death and Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s assumption of the presidency, Uzbekistan’s government has taken several decisive steps to address some of the worst human rights abuses associated with the long rule of his predecessor as part of a larger, ambitious program of reform.

Beginning in September 2016, almost immediately following Karimov’s death and following years of international pressure, the government began releasing political prisoners, approximately sixty as of September 2020, including long-held journalists and human rights defenders, in addition to releasing an undetermined number of religious prisoners.[1]

Those released include Yusuf Ruzimuradov and Muhammad Bekjanov—two of the world’s longest imprisoned journalists, in jail for 19 and 18 years, respectively—human rights defenders Agzam Turgunov and Azam Farmonov, and peaceful political dissidents like Samandar Kukanov, Uzbekistan’s first vice-chairman of Parliament after independence. Unlawfully jailed for 24 years, Kukanov had been one of the world’s longest jailed political activists, after Nelson Mandela.

Interview in Qarshi, Uzbekistan with recently released journalist Yusuf Ruzimurodov, imprisoned for 19 years and tortured. © Steve Swerdlow, Philippe Dam, Qarshi, November 2018.

Dismantling another legacy, in August 2019, the president ordered the closure of the notorious Jaslyk prison – long a symbol of Uzbekistan’s torture epidemic and imprisonment of government critics – fulfilling a demand United Nations human rights bodies first issued 17 years earlier. Ruzimuradov, Bekjanov, Turgunov, and Farmonov all served time there. There is ongoing concern, however, that authorities have not permanently closed the facility and could still use it to detain suspects.

Formerly imprisoned human rights defender from Andijan Isroiljon Kholdarov meets formerly imprisoned human rights defender Ganikhon Mamatkhanov from Margilan in Andijan in June 2018 following each’s recent release from prison. Each had thought the other might have died while in prison. © Steve Swerdlow, Andijan, June 2018.

This January, Mirziyoyev announced the abolition of the propiska, or Soviet-era residence permit, which allowed authorities to highly restrict citizens’ internal freedom of movement. And breaking with decades of internet censorship, he ordered a lifting of the ban on several critical websites, with his government’s key representative on the media all but conceding that social media and bloggers are now some of Uzbekistan’s most important arbiters of public opinion. Despite a more vibrant media landscape, however, some bloggers and journalists are still subject to harassment, even detention, when sniffing out corruption or challenging the conduct of local authorities.[2] Probably the most notable attempt to stamp out Soviet and Karimov-era abuses has been the government’s significant efforts to eradicate forced adult and child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector.

The past, especially when left unexamined, has a way of taking revenge on well-intentioned reform plans, and of projecting itself onto the future.

The above steps represent significant breakthroughs on human rights. But the past, especially when left unexamined, has a way of taking revenge on well-intentioned reform plans, and of projecting itself onto the future. The only way to ensure Uzbekistan decisively moves beyond the Karimov era’s worst abuses and further improves its human rights record is for the government to commit to a meaningful process of reckoning with the past and of transitional justice. Transitional justice refers to judicial and non-judicial measures focused on truth and reconciliation as well as on justice and accountability to acknowledge and redress the legacy of widespread human rights abuses that became systematic under the rule of Islam Karimov.

Furthermore, violating its international and national obligations, Tashkent has yet to create avenues for the rehabilitation of freed political and religious prisoners—many of whom remain in terrible health due to the ordeal they experienced behind bars for decades. Uzbekistan’s former and still detained political prisoners are entitled to justice and reparations for the serious human rights violations they have endured—a process that is not yet on the table in Uzbekistan.

Transitional justice refers to judicial and non-judicial measures focused on truth and reconciliation as well as on justice and accountability to acknowledge and redress the legacy of widespread human rights abuses that became systematic under the rule of Islam Karimov.

Embedded in international human rights law, transitional justice focuses on holding perpetrators accountable for abuses and recognizing the suffering and dignity of the victims. It also seeks to establish an accurate account of the past—something which has never been possible since Uzbekistan became independent in 1991. Moreover, transitional justice is necessary for an Uzbekistan that is slowly emerging from a period of intense repression, but where human rights violations have been so severe and entrenched in the way the county has functioned for a generation that the normal justice system is not yet able to provide justice.

While not possible to examine each in depth here, transitional justice measures in Uzbekistan could include:

  1. public criminal prosecutions of the perpetrators of serious abuses; 
  2. truth commissions relating to the persecution of government critics, including for the mass killings in Andijan in May 2005;
  3. reparations for and the rehabilitation of victims of torture and politically-motivated imprisonment; 
  4. institutional reform of the State Security Services (SSS) and police; and
  5. memorialization of past abuses in the form of public spaces, monuments, and museums.
Museums in both Lithuania and Estonia have been built to memorialize the crimes of the Soviet period, in some cases, on the premises of the former KGB headquarters. Some have suggested that President Mirziyoyev and the Uzbek parliament consider transforming the former headquarters of the feared Uzbek State Security Services (SSS) into such a museum. © Steve Swerdlow, Tallinn, Vilnius, February 2019, November 2018.

This essay aims to provide a roadmap for transitional justice in Uzbekistan by examining the international and domestic legal framework that already exists to support such efforts. It summarizes the courageous attempts by former political prisoners to pursue their individual legal rehabilitation, and in so doing, a larger national conversation about Uzbekistan’s dark past. It also mentions statements by some government officials, however tentative, to open the door to a reckoning with Uzbekistan’s past and ongoing human rights abuses.

The brutal torture and death in police custody of Andijan resident Alijon Abdukarimov in May 2020 and the rare, public outcry Abdukarimov’s death has engendered illustrates the difficulty of rooting out entrenched policies and practice of human rights abuse without sustained, independent scrutiny, parliamentary oversight, and the robust involvement of independent media and civil society.

Transitional justice and rehabilitation are needed here and now in Uzbekistan. While the results of some of the above-listed reforms are real and have in effect overturned a significant amount of the Karimov legacy, government officials, including President Mirziyoyev himself, have only made oblique references to the repression of the past, preferring instead to “look ahead.” Such an approach, however, is insufficient in addressing the underlying human rights issues that must be addressed for Uzbekistan to move forward.

We urgently need a structure independent of the state’s prison administration that will have the authority to devise remedies in individual cases of past and ongoing abuse. The creation of a commission of this type would signal the government’s willingness to listen to its citizens’ calls to end human rights abuses and embark on a path that offers greater respect for human rights.interview with Agzam Turgunov, a human rights activist and victim of torture, imprisoned 2009-2017.

Transitional justice and rehabilitation are essential for helping establish respect for the rule of law and accountable institutions after decades in which neither has existed. Such processes will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve and require serious political courage. But absent a sobering national dialogue about past abuses—one primarily guided by the voices of independent civil society—it will be hard to imagine the ambitious reform program President Mirziyoyev has made the hallmark of his administration being successful or sustainable over the long term.

Rehabilitation is a Right

In 2005, the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted the UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law (hereafter ‘Basic Principles’). The Basic Principles aim to merge international humanitarian and human rights law and stress the importance of and obligation to implement domestic reparations for victims of abuses. In March 2006, the Basic Principles were adopted by the UN General Assembly, further strengthening their status even though they are formally non-binding.[3]

Significantly, the Basic Principles detail the range of possible reparations—restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and guarantees of non-repetition. The Basic Principles, while still in draft form, were already being referred to in the jurisprudence of numerous human rights treaty bodies, and figure in several recently adopted international legal instruments[4] and domestic legislation, and have also been applied by a number of truth commissions across the globe.[5] The Basic Principles largely reflect already established norms in international law and make an important contribution in unifying and reinforcing them.

Relevant to victims of serious human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, Nowak and MacArthur state: “usually, victims of torture are not primarily interested in monetary compensation but in other means of reparation which are better suited to restore their dignity and humanity.”[6]

International law does not clearly define rehabilitation as a form of reparation. The closest expression of a definition found in the Basic Principles shows that in certain situations persons who have suffered serious human rights or humanitarian law violations should be redressed by way of, among others, rehabilitation, meaning physical and psychological care as well as social and legal services.[7] Therefore, while the concept of rehabilitation set out in the Basic Principles points to forms of rehabilitation beyond health, it does not fully define what each one of them means or includes.

Diane Shelton, a leading scholar on reparations, defines rehabilitation as a right of “all victims of serious abuse and their dependants” [sic] and is “the process of restoring the individual’s full health and reputation after the trauma of a serious attack on one’s physical or mental integrity […] It aims to restore what has been lost. Rehabilitation seeks to achieve maximum physical and psychological fitness by addressing the individual, the family, local community and even the society as a whole.”[8]

Recently, the UN Committee against Torture made more urgent and concrete Uzbekistan’s obligation to provide rehabilitation to former political prisoners and victims of torture. In its December 2019 Concluding Observations, welcoming Tashkent’s release of a “substantial number” of political prisoners since September 2016, the Committee called on the government to “exonerate” those convicted in unfair trials or on the basis of torture, provide them with “redress, including compensation and rehabilitation” and to “consider creating an independent commission to investigate these matters.”[9]

Beginning in September 2016, following former prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s ascendancy to the presidency on the death of Islam Karimov, the Uzbek government began to release political prisoners – among them human rights activists, journalists, political opposition and peaceful religious figures. To date, approximately 55 high profile political prisoners have been released. Almost none have received rehabilitation. © Steve Swerdlow, September 2014.

Former Prisoners Lack Access to Justice

Although it has received praise for their release, the Uzbek government has taken no concrete action to rehabilitate the approximately 55 political prisoners, including human rights defenders, political activists, journalists, and other public figures, nor the many other religious prisoners it has freed. The vast majority of those the government has released are still presumed to be guilty of committing a crime.

The mechanism of release has taken the form of pardons, early releases, or amnesties, rather than successful appeals or any official action taken to explicitly recognize that detention was unlawful or arbitrary. While some of the long-term imprisoned human rights defenders and journalists refused to officially ask forgiveness for the crimes they did not commit as a condition for release, some were pressured to do so.

In practice, Tashkent’s current policy amounts to a refusal to acknowledge officially the arbitrary or politically motivated nature of the original detention and later imprisonment and deprives victims of an opportunity to investigate the perpetrators of serious abuses they have suffered.

In the absence of government action to provide rehabilitation, many released political prisoners have taken it upon themselves to seek legal reviews of their earlier convictions. In the process, they have met with serious obstacles.

We Regret to Inform You That Your Case File Has Been Destroyed”

Several released prisoners report that they are unable to obtain the court documents in their own cases without which they are unable to file and litigate appeals of their original convictions.

For example, Samandar Kukanov, a former member of parliament who served 23 years and five months in prison in retaliation for his peaceful opposition political activity, was released on November 24, 2016. “I served longer than any other political prisoner in Uzbekistan’s history,” Kukanov told me. “During the 23 years of my imprisonment, several of my family members were jailed and my wife’s health was destroyed. More than anything I want to be exonerated because I never committed the crimes for which I was convicted.”

In September 2018, after filing an appeal with the Tashkent Regional Court to review his criminal sentence, Kukanov received a letter 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. The letter later proved to be an attempt by authorities to derail him from prosecuting the case.

The following year, Kukanov went on to argue for his rehabilitation in Uzbekistan’s Supreme Court—a remarkable hearing attended by the author of this piece. His lawyers argued passionately that the case had been fabricated on the basis of false evidence, was retaliation for Kukanov’s peaceful opposition to Karimov, and that the conviction should be overturned in accordance with the “reforms of the new president.” Nonetheless, in July 2019, the Supreme Court rejected Kukanov’s effort to quash the conviction and ruled that “all charges in the [original] case… had been proven.” Kukanov is determined to continue his struggle and will appeal again.

Former political prisoner and political activist Samandar Kukanov (center) served almost 24 years in prison on political grounds, making him the world’s longest serving political prisoner after Nelson Mandela. In June 2019, Kukanov and his lawyers petitioned Uzbekistan’s Supreme Court for rehabilitation but his petition was denied. © Steve Swerdlow, Tashkent, June 2019.

Multiple UN Rulings for Rehabilitation, Compensation Ignored

Erkin Musaev, a UN employee and former government official, was tortured and unjustly jailed for 11 years. He was freed on August 11, 2017 after the Supreme Court issued a decision shortening his sentence. In its 2007 Human Rights report on Uzbekistan, the US State Department reported that Musaev was tortured in detention, which included severe beatings to his head, chest, and feet, and held for two months without access to a lawyer or any visitors.[10] A joint letter from the UN special rapporteur on torture and the head of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to then-President Karimov said that one beating by prison officials broke Musaev’s jaw. Authorities also coerced him to sign a confession that he had engaged in espionage for the US, the UK, and the UN.

In May 2008, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention held that Musaev’s imprisonment was “arbitrary,” and in contravention of several international treaties to which Uzbekistan is a party. By February 2011, when authorities transferred Musaev to a high security prison in Navoi province his body showed signs of burns and other wounds. In June 2012, the UN Human Rights Committee issued its decision that the government had tortured and otherwise ill-treated Musaev and violated his rights to liberty, security, and fair trial under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (articles 7, 9 and 14 respectively). The committee called on Uzbekistan to provide him with an effective remedy for the violations. But authorities ignored the ruling, and Musaev remained in prison until 2017.[11]

Musaev’s efforts to obtain legal rehabilitation have been repeatedly thwarted. Court authorities refuse to provide him with his criminal sentence and have denied his right to appeal on the basis that he did not submit it in the file. Like other former prisoners Musaev has struggled to find gainful employment due to his criminal record. He has been subjected to surveillance by security services and has faced great difficulties reintegrating into society after years in prison.

Remarkably, the existence of two separate rulings from UN human rights bodies declaring his conviction unlawful and calling for him to be provided compensation and a remedy have not moved Uzbek authorities in Uzbekistan to fully exonerate Musaev, nor to even open a new trial. They should do so immediately.  

Movements Restricted, Surveilled

Other former prisoners who were “conditionally released” under Article 73 of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code have said their freedom of movement has been restricted, that they were under surveillance, and that they have been required to report periodically to police for “preventative conversations.”

Muhammad Bekjanov, one of the world’s longest imprisoned journalists until his release in February 2017, was unable to travel outside of his home region of Khorezm in northwestern Uzbekistan for a whole year. He has since left Uzbekistan to reunite with his family in the US. But he said that the authorities have not provided him any legal avenues to challenge his conviction, nor to recover property that was confiscated after his arrest and kidnapping from Ukraine in 1999.

Human rights defender Agzam Turgunov and independent journalist Bobomurod Abdullaev, both former political prisoners, said that since their releases security services and police have subjected them to surveillance and even intimidation. Turgunov has been detained and fined multiple times since his release—on one occasion in August 2018 for using his phone to record a peaceful protest in front of the Supreme Court and again in 2019. Abdullaev was detained by security services in September 2017 and tortured while in pre-trial detention on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. In May 2018, following a trial attended by the author he was conditionally released and fined. While Abdullaev’s trial set precedent for its degree of openness and transparency, authorities have never followed up with an investigation into Abdullaev’s credible allegations of torture.

In an ominous sign, Abdullaev is again facing politically motivated charges for his journalistic work in Uzbekistan. In August 2020, while residing in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on a study program at the American University of Central Asia Kyrgyz security services detained Abdullaev at Tashkent’s request and shortly thereafter extradited him to Uzbekistan. Abdullaev was sought in connection with social-media posts critical of Mirziyoyev that were written under the pen name Qora Mergan (Black Shooter). He denies any connection to the writings. Human rights groups and the U.S. embassy have called on Uzbekistan to drop all criminal charges.

Azam Farmonov, a human rights activist, whose 14-and-a-half-year sentence was shortened upon his release in October 2017, said that he still is required to pay a monthly portion of his salary to the government as part of his conditional release, and that it is extremely difficult to get the medical care payment that is supposed to be provided by the government for former prisoners. “Obtaining the monetary stipend provided by the government for medical is so difficult, I simply gave up,” Farmonov told me.

Female Prisoners Released Also Face Stigma, Difficulties

Unfortunately, the enormous legal, psychological, physical, and financial hardships suffered by Uzbekistan’s former political prisoners are not limited to men. Several female former prisoners with whom I have met have described lives after release in which they feel invisible, marginalized, and even less able to access justice for the ordeals they have endured. In June 2018, I met Dilorom Abdukodirova at her home in Andijan. Abdukodirova had been given an 18-year sentence in 2010 after traveling back to Uzbekistan to reunite with her children. Five years earlier, she had fled the country after being an eyewitness to the brutal Andijan massacre, when Uzbek government troops shot and killed hundreds of largely unarmed protestors near the city’s central square. Abdukodirova served out her sentence in Uzbekistan’s single women’s prison in Zangiota in the Tashkent region. Abdukodirova developed severe leg and hip pain while in prison. She could not even sit down for more than a few minutes due to the pain when I interviewed her family in her home. Abdukodirova deserves justice, support, and financial compensation for her wrongful imprisonment far from her family. Social support structures and medical, psychosocial services she and other former prisoners need are largely non-existent and should be established without delay.

Early Successes

Despite the many barriers to achieving justice and accountability, there have been some early, important legal victories on the road to rehabilitation in Uzbekistan.

Article 83 Provides “Grounds for Rehabilitation”

Chuyan Mamatkulov, a human rights defender based in the southern Uzbek city of Qarshi, has the impressive distinction of being the only person who has ever attempted to sue Islam Karimov in court. In response to this and many years defending ordinary citizens in court as a human rights defender, police and security services planted drugs on Mamatkulov during an arrest in 2012, ultimately sentencing him to twelve years imprisonment. Like several others mentioned here, Mamatkulov spent time in Jaslyk, where he was severely tortured. He was released in March 2018.[12]

Asked how he assesses Uzbekistan’s tentative reforms over the past four years, Mamatkulov says they have been life-changing for him and his family.[13] Still, those years the repressive state stole from him, separating him from his wife and two daughters are years he can never get back. Undaunted, however, Mamatkulov has resumed his human rights work and has doggedly pursued his own rehabilitation in the courts.

Setting a precedent for Uzbekistan, the Supreme Court granted Mamatkulov a new trial in December 2018—the first case of a former political prisoner winning the right to a new trial. The more important victory came in March 2020, when a Qarshi appellate court fully acquitted Mamatkulov of all charges and awarded him nominal monetary compensation.[14] The ruling established that evidence in Mamatkulov’s case, including false statements by police officers and testimony falsely coerced from witnesses, were fabricated. Thus, the court ruled that no evidence supported the commission of a crime.

Applying Article 83 of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Procedure Code (“Grounds for Rehabilitation”), Mamatkulov’s case provides a potential roadmap in future cases. Article 83 states:

Transitional justice refers to judicial and non-judicial measures focused on truth and reconciliation as well as on justice and accountability to acknowledge and redress the legacy of widespread human rights abuses that became systematic under the rule of Islam Karimov.

Based on a full acquittal, Mamatkulov is now seeking full compensation in a civil case. His case shows that Uzbek law already provides the basis for rehabilitating individuals imprisoned on false, arbitrary, or politically motivated grounds. This practice could be streamlined and applied, through a transitional justice mechanism or commission, to a larger group of former political prisoners.

Former political prisoner and human rights defender Chuyan Mamatkulov was released from prison in March 2018 following six years imprisonment on trumped-up charges in retaliation for his human rights work. He is the first former political prisoner to not only win a new trial but be fully rehabilitated and have his underlying criminal conviction overturned in the courts in accordance with Uzbekistan’s Criminal Procedure Code (Art. 83) in March 2020. © Steve Swerdlow, Qarshi, November 2018.

Acquittal on “Spy” Charges Provides Hope

Another case that provides a ray of hope is Andrei Kubatin,[16] a Turkic languages scholar who was imprisoned for espionage in 2017 under Article 157 (high treason). Article 157 has been repeatedly used on political grounds to prosecute and imprison dozens, possibly hundreds, of individuals, including former government officials, UN staff, scholars, military personnel, journalists, and others for espionage allegedly carried out in the service of a rotating cast of countries (US, UK, Russia, Turkey, Tajikistan, and beyond). Disturbingly, a significant number of individuals have been arrested on Article 157 charges since 2016, tried in closed trials, and subjected to torture or ill-treatment.[17]

Fearless activism by his sister Klara Sakhareva led authorities and a Tashkent court to agree to review his conviction, first reducing his sentence and in September 2019 exonerating Kubatin on all charges.

Andrei Kubatin, his sister Klara Sakhareva, human rights activist Agzam Turgunov and activist Anvar Nazirov celebrate outside a Tashkent courtroom in September 2019 after a court awarded Kubatin full legal rehabilitation and overturned his criminal record. © Klara Sakhareva, Tashkent, September 2019

Following the acquittal, Alice Wells, then Acting U.S. Principle Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia and Washington’s top diplomat for Central Asia, tweeted: “The release of scholar Andrej #Kubatin from prison is a welcome development. I encourage the Government of #Uzbekistan to continue a thorough review of previous convictions under #Article157. AGW”[18] Unfortunately, the Uzbek government has not yet heeded this advice. Relatives of the many other Article 157 prisoners still behind bars are fighting for their relatives’ release and eventual acquittal.[19]

While not direct action on rehabilitation, authorities sparked hope in March with the registration—after three attempts—of a local rights group, Huquqi Tayanch (“Legal Support”), the first independent human rights NGO registered in Uzbekistan since 2002. Huquqi Tayanch, established by former political prisoners Azam Farmonov and Dilmurod Saidov, has set rehabilitation and social reintegration for former political prisoners and torture victims as one of its key activities.[20] Unfortunately, the registration of a single critical independent NGO has been the exception and not the rule in Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan. Numerous NGOs like the Bukhara-based Humanitarian Legal Center and the forced labor monitoring group Chiroq, based in Karakalpakstan, have been denied registration on spurious grounds by the Justice Ministry despite the government’s much touted commitment to promote the role of civil society. Change in this area is long overdue.[21]

Transitional Justice and Andijan

Any discussion about transitional justice in Uzbekistan would be incomplete without consideration of the most collective trauma in the country’s recent history and the defining event of Islam Karimov’s 27-year rule: the Andijan massacre.

Bobur square, Andijan, Uzbekistan, May 13, 2005 after government forces shot and killed largely unarmed protestors.

On May 13, 2005, government forces opened fire on thousands of mostly peaceful protesters in the central square in the town of Andijan, a city in the Fergana Valley in eastern Uzbekistan. The protesters had gathered to speak out against poverty, unemployment, and government repression, and to call on the government to respond to their plight.

Earlier on the day of the protest, armed men had freed 23 local businessmen who had been sentenced for “religious extremism,” and took over local government buildings. As the thousands of protesters gathered, government forces in armored vehicles (APCs) and snipers fired without warning and indiscriminately on the crowd of civilians, blocking off the square as people attempted to flee, killing hundreds. Although a small group of gunmen were on the square, the overwhelming majority of demonstrators were unarmed. Government troops then moved through the square and executed wounded people where they lay.

Government agents made no apparent effort to limit the use of lethal force to situations where it was strictly unavoidable to protect lives, as required by international law. The United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations found that the government had used lethal force excessively.

Following the massacre, the Uzbek government rejected all efforts to allow an independent inquiry and sought to rewrite the history of that day, unleashing a ferocious crackdown against any attempts to expose the truth about the brutal killings or seek accountability. Although eyewitness accounts and other evidence point to more than 700 killed, Uzbek authorities claimed only 187 were killed and blamed Islamists and unnamed Western powers for planning a coup. In the following months, hundreds were sentenced to up to 22 years in jail during trials critics called government-orchestrated and anyone suspected of having participated in the events or witnessing them was targeted for persecution.

Karimov’s fierce rejection of calls for independent investigation into the massacre led the US and EU to strengthen sanctions on Uzbekistan for several years, setting in motion the en masse expulsion of international NGOs from the country and a deep period of political and economic isolation for millions of ordinary Uzbeks. Only with Karimov’s death in August 2016 has Uzbekistan begun to slowly emerge from the stagnation and deep climate of fear that resulted from Andijan.   

Truth-telling and public discussion about the Andijan massacre are deeply important 15 years after the events. In public remarks delivered during his May 2017 historic visit to Tashkent the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein also underlined the importance of ensuring accountability for the “terrible events” in Andijan that day. “While it is important to look forward, it is also important to come to terms with past events and ensure that victims are not forgotten and their grievances are addressed,” he said.[22]

There was a slight shift in the official tone earlier this year when Deputy Prosecutor General Svetlana Artykova gave an interview to a local outlet, Qalampir.uz, in which she appeared to concede that excessive force was deployed.[23] The remarks made by Artykova, who was the spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office in May 2005, could only have been made with approval from above.

When asked if weapons were used by government forces against civilians, Artykova answered that there had been no clear coordination between troops and the national leadership and that this was why “a certain number of citizens died during the rally.”

Some officials found responsible for unlawful killing were convicted and some were already out of prison, Artykova claimed. This was the first time any Uzbek official has alleged that any officials were imprisoned for their involvement in the Andijan events. Last month, following the gruesome death by torture of Andijan businessman Alijon Abdukarimov, Uzbek MP Gulrukh Agzamova from the Adolat (Justice) party also referenced the Andijan events when condemning the actions of the Internal Affairs officers who committed torture.[24]

These allusions to Andijan are from an official inquiry but may signal a readiness on the part of officials to revisit the Andijan massacre’s painful history. Beyond the importance of providing justice and accountability to the victims and their families, an impartial, independent investigation and truth commission are necessary to establish an accurate historical record and could contribute to national healing and cohesion. Understanding the tragedy of Andijan in an open, accessible format is essential for helping Uzbekistan make a transition to a more open and democratic society.

A Roadmap for Action: Recommendations

Rehabilitation and transitional justice are fundamental to the overall success of the reform agenda that President Mirziyoyev has repeatedly made the centerpiece of his government over the past four years. This is because at its core transitional justice is a commitment to recognize the dignity of individuals, to establish respect for the rule of law by delivering redress and acknowledgment of human rights abuses, and to prevent them from happening again.

President Mirziyoyev and the Uzbek government should acknowledge past abuses officially, provide concrete avenues for redress, and send a clear message that peaceful criticism of government policies and scrutiny of the past will be genuinely valued in Uzbekistan. Transitional justice and rehabilitation policies should place the involvement of torture survivors, rights defenders, and independent civil society at the center and also closely include Parliament (Oliy Majlis), the Ombudsman for Human Rights, the National Center for Human Rights, law enforcement structures, the Justice Ministry and international human rights experts.

Former political prisoners recommend that Uzbek authorities should establish a special commission consisting of government officials, representatives of nongovernmental groups, and international experts to address the rehabilitation needs of former political prisoners, examine cases of people still in prison on politically motivated charges, and make recommendations to appropriate government agencies. It is high time to heed their calls and provide them with the comprehensive rehabilitation that is their right under Uzbek and international law. As described by legal scholar Diane Shelton, rehabilitation in Uzbekistan should “achieve maximum physical and psychological fitness by addressing the individual, the family, local community and even the society as a whole” and encompass former political prisoners, torture survivors, and “all victims of serious abuse.”[25]

Article 83 of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Procedure Code and the cases of Chuyan Mamatkulov and Andrei Kubatin provide a tentative blueprint that Uzbek courts could apply in many cases across the board. Parliament should also consider adopting a separate Law on Rehabilitation. A fuller examination of what this rehabilitation law would include, the timeframe and types of victims it would cover, and comparative international practice will be the subject of a separate scholarly article.

The government should also amend vague and overbroad criminal code provisions relating to espionage and extremism that are commonly used to criminalize dissent – articles 157, 159, 216, 244-1, and 244-2 of the Criminal Code – and bring them into compliance with Uzbekistan’s international human rights obligations.

Tashkent should allow independent monitoring of Uzbekistan’s prisons and other places of detention with the aim of eradicating torture and other forms of ill-treatment and ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. The protocol creates a monitoring system and requires that independent entities responsible for such monitoring be able to enter detention facilities at any time, unannounced. In 2013, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) halted its monitoring of Uzbekistan’s prison facilities, citing interference by authorities.

Transitional justice in Uzbekistan will only succeed by enabling independent civil society to take a more active role in advocating and implementing change. This means the Justice Ministry should remove immediately the many bureaucratic hurdles that have prevented many human rights, media, and other critically important NGOs from registering and the regulations that have restricted the activities and operations of local NGOs working on politically-sensitive issues such as torture.


This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.


[1] Government officials have reported that prison authorities have also released hundreds of independent Muslims – people who practice Islam outside of strict state controls – who had been imprisoned on extremism charges for lengthy jail terms. However, it is impossible to independently confirm claims about those releases or interview any of them without access to a list of people serving these sentences. The authorities should make available a list of all persons currently serving sentences for extremism-related charges.

[2] See “Blogging in Uzbekistan: welcoming tourism, silencing criticism,” Amnesty International, June 25, 2020 https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2020/06/blogging-in-uzbekistan-welcoming-tourism-silencing-criticism/.

[3] UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law, Preamble, adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2005, UN Doc. E/CN.4/RES/2005/35 and adopted by the General Assembly on 16 December 2005, UN Doc. A/RES/60/147.

[4] The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) contains an implicit reference to the principles in Article 75; they are also explicitly mentioned in the International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, Article 24 (adopted 20 December 2006, entered into force 23 December 2010).

[5] For example, the truth commissions in South Africa and Sierra Leone, as underlined by Ms. Yasmin Sooka, former Commissioner in the South African and Sierra Leone TRCs during ‘Workshop to Combat Impunity and Provide Reparations’ at OHCHR Geneva on 19 September 2005. See also Shelton, Remedies in International Human Rights Law, p. 350.

[6] M. Nowak and E. McArthur, The United Nations Convention against Torture, A Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 483.

[7] UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law, Preamble, adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2005, UN Doc. E/CN.4/RES/2005/35 and adopted by the General Assembly on 16 December 2005, UN Doc. A/RES/60/147.

[8] Shelton, D., Remedies in International Human Rights (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 275.

[9] UN Committee against Torture, Committee against Torture, Concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of Uzbekistan, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CAT/Shared%20Documents/UZB/CAT_C_UZB_CO_5_39781_E.pdf

[10] US State Department, 2007 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, https://2009-2017.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2007//index.htm

[11] Musaeva v. Uzbekistan, Communications Nos. 1914, 1915 and 1916/2009, June 6, 2012, http://www.worldcourts.com/hrc/eng/decisions/2012.03.21_Musaeva_v_Uzbekistan.pdf.

[12] See Steve Swerdlow and Andrew Stroehlein, “Beyond Samarkand,” Los Angeles Review of Books, March 3, 2019, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/beyond-samarkand/

[13] Interview with Chuyan Mamatkulov, Qarshi, November 2018; Telephone interview on March 22, 2020.a

[14] “Суд в Кашкадарье полностью оправдал экс-политзаключенного Чуяна Маматкулова,” Radio Ozodlik, March 19, 2020, https://rus.ozodlik.mobi/a/30496604.html?withmediaplayer=1; “Правозащитник Чуян Маматкулов полностью оправдан,” March 20, 2020, https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2020/03/20/mamatkulov/?utm_source=push&utm_medium=telegram.  

[15] Article 83, Uzbekistan’s Code of Criminal Procedure, https://www.legislationline.org/documents/action/popup/id/8932.

[16] “Why is a Turkic languages scholar imprisoned in Uzbekistan?” Al Jazeera, Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, August 4, 2019,

https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/turkic-languages-scholar-imprisoned-uzbekistan-190801120104671.html

[17] Current Article 157 prisoners include former Uzbek diplomat Kadyr Yusupov, analyst journalist Vladimir Kaloshin, current or former soldiers Ravshan Kosimov, Alisher Achildiev, Viktor Shin, former policewoman Alyona Kim, and the former director of the presidential Institute for Strategic and Interregional Research, Rafik Saifulin.

[18] See Tweet by Alice G. Wells, Acting Principal Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, September 27, 2019, https://twitter.com/State_SCA/status/1177630285644607491.

[19] A recently recorded podcast on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Majlis Podcast tells the stories of many of these cases and includes a discussion with the relatives of imprisoned journalist Vladimir Kaloshin and former diplomat Kadyr Yusupov. See “Majlis Podcast: Spy Games In Uzbekistan,” June 20, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/majlis-podcast-spies-in-uzbekistan/30670139.html.  

[20] See “Uzbekistan sparks hope with registration of NGOs, March 11, 2020,

https://eurasianet.org/uzbekistan-sparks-hope-with-registration-of-ngos.

[21] According to human rights activist Agzam Turgunov, who was an original co-founder of Huquqi Tayanch, Justice Ministry officials pressured the group’s co-founders to remove him from the organization as a condition for registration.

[22] Opening remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein at a press conference during his mission to Uzbekistan, Tashkent, May 11, 2017, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21607&LangID=E

[23] See “Andijon voqealarida tinch aholiga o’q uzilganmi? Svetlana Ortiqova bilan suhbat,” Qalampir.uz, February 7, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-mmRknUZMqo&; See also https://www.rferl.org/a/uzbekistan-andijon-assacre-officials-willingness-talk-analysis/30442215.html

[24] See Ichhki Ishlar – ichichimizdagi ishkalmi yoxud xiyonat?, www.adolat.uz, June 16, 2020, http://adolat.uz/partiya/ichki-ishlar-ichimizdagi-ishkalmi-yohud-xiyonat.   

[25] Shelton, D., Remedies in International Human Rights (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 275.

 

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