Uzbek Vice Premier Fired After RFE/RL Report Revealed He Humiliated Farmers

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has fired a deputy prime minister, Zoyyir Mirzaev, after an RFE/RL report revealed that the powerful official humiliated farmers on a recent agricultural inspection trip to a rural area.

A statement posted on the president's website on October 29 said that Mirzaev was being dismissed "for serious shortcomings" and that one of Mirziyoev's policies was "to secure rule of law and preserve rights and freedoms for citizens."

The statement came two days after RFE/RL's Uzbek Service published a report after investigating a widely circulating photo that showed local officials and farmers in the Oqqurgon district near Tashkent apparently being forced to stand in a water-filled ditch.

The report identified the location where the incident took place as well as the identity of those present, including Mirzaev.

An Oqqurgon district official told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that three of the six men standing in the ditch were officials of the district administration, two were farmers, and one was an elderly leader of a local community.

They were forced to stand in the ditch by several regional officials and Mirzaev, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

The official said the men, who were being punished for their "failure" to water local wheat fields in a timely fashion, were forced to stand in the cold water for 40-45 minutes.

The idea of the "punishment" was "to water those responsible for being unable to water wheat fields," said the official, who added that the men were then forced to run about a kilometer in wet pants.

"The men then ran and a car was following them.... I have never seen anything like that before. It was terrible," the official said.

WATCH: In another example of official misconduct caught on camera in Uzbekistan, a policeman has been fired after slapping and kicking a local baker in his shop.

The RFE/RL report prompted a range of reactions on social networks. Many Facebook users took part in flash mob, tagged #Ariqchallenge, in which they condemned Mirzaev's conduct and mocked the officials' readiness to follow orders from their superiors.

Mirzoyev, a longtime prime minister who became president after autocratic predecessor Islam Karimov's death was announced in September 2016, has said that the protection of citizens' rights is one of his priorities.

Mirziyoev has taken steps to implement reforms in Uzbekistan, where torture and other rights abuses were widespread under Karimov, and improve ties with the outside world.

In May, Amnesty International regional director Marie Struthers said that "some positive steps taken by the authorities over the last 18 months are encouraging" but that "much remains to be done to fully address the grave human rights violations of the past."