Ahead Of Vote And Amid Attacks On Critics, Uzbek President Criminalizes Online Insults

Six months ahead of a planned presidential election and with physical attacks on government critics mounting, Uzbekistan has criminalized "insult and slander" of the president in digital and online form.

The Uzbek Justice Ministry announced the immediate implementation of the defamation clauses via Telegram on March 31 and said offenders could face up to five years in prison.

It cited amendments to that post-Soviet Central Asian republic's Criminal Code and legislation signed the previous day by President Shavkat Mirziyoev, who took over in a disputed handover after the death of his long-serving predecessor in 2016.

The changes also threaten up to five years in prison for public calls for mass disorder and violence and up to 10 years in prison for doing so in groups using media, telecommunication networks, or the Internet.

Mirziyoev's first term expires later this year, but he is expected to run for a second term.

He took over as head of the Central Asia's most populous state, with 32 million citizens, after authoritarian leader Islam Karimov's death was announced in September 2016.

Mirziyoev has since positioned himself as a reformer, releasing political prisoners and opening his country to its neighbors and the outside world, although many activists say the changes have not gone nearly far enough.

Although Mirziyoev has said he is not against having opposition political groups in Uzbekistan, it has been nearly impossible for genuine opposition parties to get registered since the country gained independence in late 1991.

As if to underscore the problem as the new clampdown on defamation came into effect, unknown assailants attacked activists for a freshly created opposition group called Truth And Development on April 1 while supporters were gathering signatures in support of registration by the Justice Ministry.

The attackers beat activists and destroyed tables and chairs set up outside the new party's offices.

Meanwhile, international watchdog group Human Rights Watch (HRW) on March 31 urged Uzbek authorities to find and punish those responsible for a "vicious attack" this week on a blogger and popular critic of the government, Miraziz Bazarov.

Bazarov had recently spoken out for LGBT rights before he was attacked by a group of men outside his home in Tashkent on March 28.

“The police should thoroughly and impartially investigate this violent assault on Miraziz Bazarov, examining all possible motivations,” HRW Europe and Central Asia Director Hugh Williamson said, adding, "At a time when homophobia is on the rise in Uzbekistan, it’s critical for the authorities to bring those responsible to justice."

The next presidential election in Uzbekistan will be held on October 24.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

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