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Karakalpakstan: The process in Bukhara – the opinion of a human rights activist

February 01, 2023

Yesterday (January 31), a verdict was announced in Bukhara in the case of 22 people accused in connection with the unrest in Karakalpakstan on July 1–2, 2022. I would like to express my position on this resonant case.

The process was indeed unusual in terms of the realities prevailing in Uzbekistan. An online video broadcast of part of the hearings was available, where the defendants and their lawyers presented their position. Access to the press and observers is allowed. Despite the political nature of the case, the court sentenced most of the defendants below the lower limit provided for by the relevant articles of the Criminal Code (the prosecutor’s office also asked for a lighter punishment).

At the same time, the completed trial can hardly be called a model of a fair trial. Numerous questions arise about the position and actions of various state structures and the “independent commission” created under their auspices.

1. I’ll start with the verdict. As can be seen from the official communication of the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan (–3/) several defendants, including the journalist Lolagul Kallykhanova, who was released from custody, were found guilty of conspiracy to seize power or overthrow the constitutional order of the Republic of Uzbekistan (Article 159 Part 4 of the Criminal Code). However, convincing evidence that the participants in the July events in Karakalpakstan encroached on the constitutional order of Uzbekistan was not heard during the process. Quite the contrary: the protesters advocated the preservation of the norms of the current Constitution regarding the sovereignty of Karakalpakstan. The conspiracy was also not proven. Some far-fetched episodes disappeared during the trial. In other cases, it was about the discussion of plans for a peaceful rally on July 5, and not about any illegal actions that took place during the unrest on July 1-2.

In many cases, the accusation of participating in mass riots, in the organization or active participation in which (Article 244 part 3 of the Criminal Code) all the defendants were found guilty, also looks clearly unfounded. Mass riots are group violent actions accompanied by violence, pogroms, arson, damage to property, etc. Indeed, during the events of 1-2 July there were isolated acts of violence by civilians. However, the majority of the defendants did not commit such acts and did not call for them. The vast majority of the demonstrators acted peacefully, as evidenced by the numerous videos available online. At the same time, some of the 22 defendants were convicted of organizing mass riots only on the fact of speaking at rallies in regional centers, during which they tried to calm people down, that is, clearly unlawfully.

Another typical charge was Article 244-1 part 3 of the Criminal Code, which provides for liability for the production and distribution of materials that threaten public safety. Basically, she was charged with those who posted videos on the Internet with protests against the amendments to the Constitution of Uzbekistan later excluded from the bill or possible illegal actions of the authorities. The formal grounds for bringing charges under Article 244-1 part 3 of the Criminal Code were expert examinations, which stated that the video materials contained signs of propaganda of separatist ideas. Here, however, it is important to note that in the context of a criminal charge, “separatism” can only be a legally illegal act aimed at separating part of the territory from the state. However, in the case of Karakalpakstan, there is a special situation, since the constitutions of Karakalpakstan, and Uzbekistan provides for the possibility of this sovereign country, which is currently part of Uzbekistan, to secede by referendum. Therefore, the call for the secession of Karakalpakstan within the framework of this constitutional norm, contrary to the opinion of the experts involved by the authorities, from the point of view of law, cannot in itself be considered a criminal offense.

Without going into further details, I will note that the grounds already listed above are enough to cast doubt on the validity and fairness of the verdict announced yesterday. Anticipating criticism, I agree that some of these arguments may look too revolutionary for the state system and law enforcement agencies of Uzbekistan, which have not yet cleared themselves to a noticeable extent from the legacy of Karimov’s totalitarianism. But should human rights activists and international organizations curtsey in favor of this kind of “historical tradition”? The answer is obvious. 

2. The next issue that I would like to touch upon is the tools to influence the defendants so that they repent during the investigation and trial, accuse other “rebels” and give evidence necessary to justify the version of events proposed by the prosecutor’s office.

Versions, by the way, were different. Thank God, the authorities rather quickly abandoned the initially voiced statements about the serious influence on the protesters of some “external forces”, allegedly seeking to destabilize the region (now this version is supported only by Russian politicians such as Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev). They say that during some interrogations it sounded: who is behind you – Russia or America? But no evidence was found, except for obvious links with the homeland of Karakalpak labor migrants in some post-Soviet countries (the local diasporas were not indifferent when the fate of their homeland was decided, and they were used to expressing their opinions more openly than at home).

Returning to the instruments of influence. There were three of them: torture, pressure on relatives and the promise of release immediately after the trial.

I’ll start with torture. On the eve of the announcement of the verdict, an “independent commission” created with the participation of the Uzbek authorities criticized the HRW report, noting, in particular, that “in the course of meetings held with persons held in closed institutions, as well as with those brought to administrative responsibility and released, information about no cases of mental and physical torture have been identified.” In addition, the main person involved in the case, Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, at a meeting with members of the commission, reported “the absence of torture and psychological pressure in the place of his detention” ( ).

In these formulations there is, to put it mildly, a half-truth. As far as it is known from the media, the commission spoke with Tazhimuratov in Khorezm. Later, he told the court in detail that after being transferred to the pre-trial detention center in Khorezm, he really was not subjected to torture. However, he (not only him) was subjected to severe torture after being detained in Nukus, violence also took place during the transfer from Nukus to Khorezm. Traces of torture were recorded upon his admission to the pre-trial detention center. In one case, immediately after the torture, the current head of Karakalpakstan, and at that time the minister of internal affairs of the republic, Amanbai Orynbaev, spoke to him. Do the members of the commission still not know about these testimonies of Tazhimuratov? Why haven’t they or the prosecutor’s office verified these testimonies so far?

In connection with the topic of torture, attention is drawn to reports of specific individuals, whose names were named in court and confirmed by other sources, who died shortly after their detention by security forces. The Commission did not comment on these reports.

As for the fact that none of the respondents for six months confirmed the facts of torture, perhaps this is so, but the explanation is different than what the commission is trying to give: it is logical to assume that the Karakalpaks simply do not trust this structure created with the participation of the authorities. I have repeatedly heard this opinion from the Karakalpaks themselves. My colleagues who worked in Karakalpakstan and other sources report that the torture of detainees in connection with the events of July 1-2 in Karakalpakstan was far from isolated. Some victims of torture spoke about it on condition of anonymity. At the same time, many were convinced that the complaints would not be effectively investigated by the official structures of Uzbekistan, but could provoke new pressure on the victims and their families. All this happened against the backdrop of fears that participants in the unrest can be given very cruel sentences. Until recently, this fear has literally paralyzed some families.

Torture is undeniable. The question of the extent of their application requires further study and documentation. Still, I do not rule out that torture after detention (unlike in the times of Karimov) could not be used in all cases and, perhaps, did not play a central role in obtaining evidence for the prosecution. But they broke the spirit of some of the accused. At the trial, facts were also cited that testify to the attempts of those under investigation to alleviate the fate of relatives by “cooperating with the investigation.” As a result, some of them agreed to sign the confessions needed by the investigators with accusations and false facts about other people, not paying attention to serious discrepancies in such testimony during different interrogations. When questions arose at the court about the reasons for discrepancies or false testimony, explanations were often heard: “I signed,

But this is a consequence. And by the time the trial began, the most serious instrument of influence was the promise that the defendants (except for the main accused Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov ) could be released immediately after the verdict was announced, if they supported the version of the prosecution. The presence of such unexpected preliminary promises was reported by several sources, during the process itself, a similar fact was also stated in one of Tazhimuratov’s petitions .

As a result, the process, which included elements of theatricality, began with the confession of guilt of 22 defendants in full (majority) or in part. But very soon everything went beyond the original script. During interrogation on specific episodes, the defendants, who fully admitted their guilt at the beginning of the trial, denied all or a significant part of the incriminated charges. In some cases, this can probably be explained by the legal illiteracy of individual participants in the process, but there were similar inconsistencies with more than literate people. And such elements of the court performance as the compliments of some defendants to the SIZO, where everything is fine, they feed meat three times a day, wash clothes, and kind investigators treat them to coffee and peaches, were, of course, designed not for judges, but for an external audience, demonstrating progress in the field of human rights in Uzbekistan.

How many of the 22 defendants would be released and whether they would be released remained the main intrigue of the entire process. As a result, we saw yesterday that the authorities partially fulfilled their promise: some of the defendants, who actively declared remorse and confession of guilt, were released. But the number of those released appeared to be noticeably smaller than some had expected. So, there will inevitably be an appeal and the release into the public space of facts that were not known before.

3. Another topic that I would like to touch upon is the numerous violations and restrictions on rights that took place during the investigation.

To name just a few from a possible long list:

– detention in a pre-trial detention center without a court order (the latter, in the case of Tazhimuratov, was obtained after the fact);

– the presence of only state lawyers and the refusal to provide lawyers and investigators who speak the Karakalpak language (the only exception was the satisfaction of Tazhimuratov’s demand for the appointment of a relative of his relative during the trial, while Tazhimuratov noted that the former state-appointed lawyer worked so poorly that he could not collect all the materials necessary for the defense by the beginning of the trial);

– Some of the defendants stated that they did not read and did not have a copy of the indictment before the start of the process;

– fragments of video recordings appeared in court as evidence, but the prosecution did not present their more complete versions, which could confirm the testimony of the defendants, which contradicted the official version;

– some important video recordings of the episodes related to the events of July 1 near the parliament building in Nukus, taken from the video cameras of the headquarters of the State Security Service and the nearby building, were not studied and included in the case file, although they could help eliminate significant contradictions in the testimony of witnesses about the initial stage of events …

Yesterday’s official report of the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan notes that the court that considered the “case of the 22” issued a private ruling regarding some errors and omissions made during the investigation of the criminal case. It is not yet clear what exactly is being discussed.

4. The last topic I want to touch on today is the question of how the question of the dead and the misuse of weapons that led to the victims was raised during the trial.

Despite a December request from an “independent commission,” the prosecutor’s office refused to release the official death toll, stating only a general figure. In July, authorities reported 18 deaths and 3 who later died of wounds. Of these, only 4 security officials, the rest are civilians. The number 19 sounded in court. An unofficial list compiled on the basis of materials from the Karakalpak opposition contains about 50 names (with only one name from the original version of the list, published in August, was later excluded as included erroneously). But not all names are known now. wrote in one of the materials about 77 dead. At the level of Internet posts and oral discussions inside Karakalpakstan, huge numbers sometimes sound – starting from 200-250 and up to completely unrealistic 2000. It would seem that you can easily reassure people: publish the list and then that’s it. who report the victims will be able to check if there are names known to them on the list. At one time, fierce discussions in society on the number of victims during the events in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010 were removed in this way. But for some reason, Tashkent does not take such a step. Afraid that the figure may rise? Or will such a publication be too bold for the security forces, who have not yet departed from the traditions of the Karimov era?

The question of victims was also touched upon in the course of the completed process. In some cases, there were facts related to the unjustified use of weapons in Nukus and beyond. Eyewitnesses report similar facts outside the courtroom. But here’s what’s interesting. Speaking of cases of civilian deaths, the testimonies of some defendants describe incidents in relative detail, where only one or two deaths are mentioned. But the bloody massacre arranged, for example, at the Shorsha Baba cemetery (near the airport), where at least three of the participants in the Bukhara process were present, is only mentioned in passing in the available video recordings of the court. Two say about this tragedy only that they tried to calm people there, and one – that he does not remember anything. The other day I discussed this episode with diplomats, after their questions I clarify: According to eyewitnesses, there were also casualties from a hit-and-run by a truck that had backed up after the start of shooting to kill, and there were many deaths from bullet wounds. The ambulance took away mostly only the wounded, and the bodies of many of the dead were taken away in their cars by protesters who were unable to enter Nukus from this direction.

The prosecutor’s office promised the commission that the names of the dead would be named during the trials on the facts of the unjustified use of weapons. But so far, there is no information that one of the security forces has been arrested or that witnesses are being actively questioned in these episodes. It is no coincidence that the US Embassy in Uzbekistan, immediately after the completion of the process in Bukhara, again called on Tashkent to “fulfill its obligations regarding public transparency and hold accountable any members of the security forces who violated the laws of Uzbekistan” ( elchixonasi-bayonoti/ ).

The issue of misuse of weapons may also be related to the remarkable moment regarding the disappearance of sound in the available online video recordings of testimony in court by the former head of the department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Karakalpakstan, Polat Shamshetov. Only from the subsequent recording, when a representative of the prosecutor’s office read out fragments from telephone conversations intercepted by the State Security Service, could it be understood that Shamshetov told his acquaintances about the conflict between the Karakalpak security forces and their Uzbek colleagues who arrived in Nukus precisely in connection with the unlawful use of firearms by the latter against civilians.

Finishing the topic. During the process in Bukhara, a large number of facts related to the events that took place in Karakalpakstan were voiced. Some materials are not yet available. There are also many eyewitness accounts, the descriptions of which do not always correspond to the official version. For an external audience, many other aspects of the “Karakalpak problem”, the existence of which, until recently, international institutions knew little about, remain unclear. We will continue to research the topic and ask everyone who has information to share it with us.

More details about the events will be discussed in the report, which a group of human rights activists from different countries plans to publish in the spring.

Vitaly Ponomarev,

Center for the Protection of Human Rights “Memorial”

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