(New York, September 2, 2016) –Uzbekistan’s authoritarian president, Islam Karimov, whose death was reported on September 2, 2016, leaves a legacy of political and religious repression, Human Rights Watch said today. His death provides a moment for concerned governments to press for concrete human rights and democratic reforms, and accountability for past abuses.

During Karimov’s over 26-year rule in Uzbekistan, authorities detained thousands of people on politically motivated charges, routinely tortured those in prison and police stations, and forced millions of citizens, including children, to pick cotton in abusive conditions. On May 13, 2005, Uzbek government forces shot and killed hundreds of largely peaceful protesters in the city of Andijan, for which no one has been brought to justice.

“Islam Karimov leaves a legacy of a quarter century of ruthless repression,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Karimov ruled through fear to erect a system synonymous with the worst human rights abuses: torture, disappearances, forced labor, and the systematic crushing of dissent. In terms of a single event in the last 27 years, he’ll be defined by the Andijan Massacre.”

Islam Karimov was born on January 30, 1938, in Samarkand in the then-Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union. He joined the Communist Party in 1964, working his way up to finance minister before taking over as the first secretary of the Communist Party of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1989. Following Uzbekistan’s independence in 1991, he became president of Central Asia’s most populous country. From the moment Karimov took the reins of power, political repression defined his rule, including the arrest, torture, and imprisonment of actual or perceived opponents, and an over-reliance on the much-feared National Security Services (better known by its Russian acronym, the SNB).

Dismantling the Political Opposition (1992-1997)

Beginning in 1992, Karimov waged a campaign to eradicate all political opposition. The campaign took the form of politically motivated arrests, beatings, and harassment, primarily targeting leading members of the secular political groups opposed to Karimov’s party, such as the opposition Birlik (“unity”) party, the Democratic party Erk (“freedom” or “will”), the Islamic Renaissance Party, Adolat (“justice”), and the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU). Some opposition figures were jailed or blacklisted; others were forcibly disappeared, were beaten, or were forced to flee the country. Members of the Uzbek parliament who spoke out against Karimov’s consolidation of power, faced prosecution and imprisonment.

Under extreme government pressure, opposition party structures and organized political activity largely disintegrated. For the next two decades, Karimov continued to prosecute and imprison individuals affiliated with the now-banned parties and movements. 

Persecution of Independent Muslims (1997 onward)

In the mid-1990s, Karimov’s repression spread to the suppression of independent religious expression. The government justified the tightening of control on independent Islam as an effort to prevent the chaos that was gripping neighboring Tajikistan, which was in the midst of a civil war. In 1998, in the name of preventing extremism, the Uzbek government adopted one of the world’s most restrictive laws on religion, outlawing most forms of public or independent worship, regulating religious clothing, and placing mosques under de facto control of the state.

Following Al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, Karimov framed his persecution of the country’s religious Muslims in the context of the “global war on terror.” The government aimed to eliminate a perceived threat of Islamist fundamentalism and extremism by arbitrarily imprisoning thousands of Muslims and key independent religious leaders who practiced their religion outside strict state control. At first, those arrested included members of congregations, including those who had occasionally attended services, the imams’ students, mosque employees, and their relatives. But soon any Muslim who engaged in private prayer, studied Islam, proselytized, shunned alcohol, prayed five times per day, observed religious holidays, learned Arabic to study the Quran, or wore a beard or a headscarf could be labelled as an extremist. By the end of 2003, according to Memorial, the Moscow-based human rights group, Karimov had already imprisoned nearly 6000 people on political or religious grounds, a number that continued to grow, with hundreds of new arrests each year. During this period, stories of political opponents tortured to death as a result of being immersed in boiling water made worldwide headlines, highlighting the particular cruelty of Karimov’s rule.

Andijan and its Aftermath

On May 13, 2005, government security forces shot and killed hundreds of largely peaceful protesters in Andijan to suppress demonstrations of up to 10,000 people in the city’s main square. Authorities sought to justify the violent response to the protests by casting the events in the context of terrorism and claiming that gunmen among the protesters were responsible for the deaths and injuries. The government propagated the view that the protest organizers were Islamist militants who sought to overthrow the government. Extensive Human Rights Watch research [hyperlink] found that while a small number of protesters had firearms, no evidence linked them or other protesters to an Islamist agenda.

The massacre marked a turning point in government repression that resulted in the European Union and the United States imposing sanctions on Uzbekistan and calling on the Uzbek government to allow an international, independent investigation, demands that Karimov rejected. Following Andijan, the government unleashed an unprecedented crackdown on civil society, pursuing and prosecuting anyone believed to have either participated in or witnessed the events. The string of criminal cases against witnesses and victims of the events included numerous human rights activists and journalists, many of whom remain imprisoned more than a decade later. At the same time, Uzbekistan became increasingly closed to any scrutiny by independent media or international human rights groups.

However, within several years, the US and EU, driven by an interest in Uzbekistan’s geo-strategic importance, began to mute their criticism of the government’s worsening human rights record and largely abandoned the firm stances they had adopted immediately after the Andijan massacre. By 2009, the US and EU (in particular Germany) had renewed close ties with Karimov, using Uzbekistan’s transport infrastructure to supply international military forces in Afghanistan, including through the so-called Northern Distribution Network.

Searching for New Enemies

In the years since the Andijan massacre, Uzbek authorities have continued to persecute human rights groups, journalists, independent lawyers, and independent Muslims, dismantling Uzbekistan’s civil society and perpetuating a climate of fear for the few courageous activists who continue to try to work in the country. Karimov’s government employs total control of the internet, and prevents the International Committee of the Red Cross, independent media outlets, United Nations human rights experts and international human rights groups from working inside the country. Up until his death, Karimov increasingly relied on a narrative that Western powers and their internal agents had attempted to import alien social, cultural, or religious phenomena and destabilize the country. He continued to search for new enemies among the population to target, such as independent lawyers, migrant laborers returning home from abroad, and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

“Instead of using the collapse of the Soviet Union to build a rights-respecting and democratic Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov created an increasingly authoritarian and corrupt state,” Swerdlow said. “His death means his countless victims, and the Uzbek people will never see Karimov brought to justice for his crimes. As long as his abuses go unpunished, his dark legacy will hang over Uzbekistan for many years to come.”