Human Rights and Democracy Report 2015 - Human Rights Priority Country update report: July to December 2016 - Uzbekistan

There have been positive developments between July- December 2016, but overall, we still have significant concerns about the human rights situation in Uzbekistan. Following President Karimov’s death on 2 September, then Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev was appointed interim President. Mirziyoev subsequently won the presidential elections on 4 December. He has prioritised the introduction of greater transparency and accountability in government, announced reforms dealing with criminal justice and anti-corruption, and released 2 prisoners of concern. We welcome these positive developments. There have also been some encouraging signals on the freedoms of expression and political association, but we have not yet seen evidence of fundamental change. Consequently, we continue to have significant concerns in these areas.

In October, the Embassy supported a visit by Baroness Stern to attend a conference organised by the National Human Rights Centre (NHRC). She spoke about parliamentary oversight on human rights and prison reform and presented an Embassy-funded Uzbek translation of a torture prevention handbook for law enforcement officials. At this conference, the NHRC signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the UN on Uzbekistan’s National Human Rights Action Plan, which aims to implement recommendations from the UN Universal Periodic Review. This should open the way to further international engagement in support of Uzbekistan’s human rights priorities. On 21 October, then Acting President Mirziyoev issued a decree “on judicial reforms and strengthening human rights” which contains a number of provisions that the UN and international experts have long encouraged, including:

  1. indefinite terms for judges, after reviews at the 5 and 10 year points
  2. the transfer of control over the courts from the Ministry of Justice to the Supreme Court
  3. the reduction of the period of detention without charge from 72 hours to 48 hours
  4. the reduction of the period of pre-trial investigation from one year to 7 months

Mirziyoev also called for there to be more acquittals by the courts, criticising their 100% conviction rate in recent years.

During the autumn two prisoners of concern were released. Bobumurad Razzoqov, head of the Bukhara office of the Ezgulik human rights organization, was released a year early. He was imprisoned for four years in 2013, on charges of human trafficking. In November, 72 year old Samandar Kukanov was also released. Formerly an opposition party MP, he was imprisoned in 1993 for 20 years on fraud charges. We also welcome the news that Ezgulik has been able to visit M. Bekjanov, A. Farmonov, A. Abdurahmanov and G. Mamatkhonov in prison this year and that they have been given permission to visit a further 10 detainees. We are concerned at reports that a further prisoner of concern, Muhammad Bekjanov, has been put into solitary confinement despite being in poor health. He has been in prison for 17 years.

Despite the above reforms, the highly restrictive Ministry of Justice Order 177 on procedures regulating NGO activity in Uzbekistan remains in force. This obliges NGOs to seek official permission to organise activities, including for each individual event. This has resulted in a number of NGOs not being able to carry out project activity. Having said this, in December, permission was granted for a first small protest to take place outside the Presidential office. Although protesters were very small in number and the picket of short duration, the fact that formal permission was granted is unprecedented.

Freedom of expression and the media in Uzbekistan is limited, partly by government restrictions and partly by entrenched self-censorship. Social media has greater freedom but is still closely monitored. A report by Freedom House stated that the Uzbek media is among the most repressed in world. In a Constitution Day speech in December, President Mirziyoev urged an end to “turning a blind eye to the problems”. This was followed by tentative steps by national media to openly discuss problems affecting Uzbek society.

The 2016 cotton harvest took place during the autumn. Since the 2015 harvest, the government has made further commitments against child and forced labour. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) monitored the harvest and continued to engage with the government under the terms of the Decent Work Country Programme for 2014-2016. The ILO has not yet published its findings from 2016 but concluded in 2015 that the use of children in the cotton harvest is no longer systemic and that the authorities have taken significant measures to reduce the use of child labour and make it socially unacceptable, including prosecuting officials found to be continuing the practice. However, they also made clear that the large scale mobilisation of adult labour remains widespread and that the risk of forced, or involuntary, labour remains. There were concerning reports of harassment of members of civil society and journalists undertaking their own monitoring of the cotton harvest.

Uzbekistan’s Department for Labour and Trade Unions continue to express strong commitment to improving the situation. They have set up two whistle-blowing hotlines, although public confidence in them remains limited, and there has been a campaign on TV, in other media and via text message to raise public awareness of labour rights. Recognising the progress that has been made in respect to the elimination of the use of Child Labour, the European Parliament voted on 14 December to include textiles in the 1999 EU-Uzbekistan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. They encouraged further work towards eliminating adult forced labour, noting that they would closely monitor the situation and should there be any regression could ask the European Council to suspend the whole partnership agreement.

In December, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sent the first full observation mission to monitor the presidential elections. The UK contributed significantly to the mission, including through the provision of 2 long-term and 12 short-term observers. They found that the election campaign lacked genuine competition due to the dominance of political discourse by state actors and limits on freedoms of association and expression. Other shortcomings found included proxy or family voting, despite a widespread government campaign to discourage the practice. On the positive side, they noted significantly increased transparency in the conduct of the elections, and a commitment to further improvement on the part of the government. The embassy also undertook its own informal monitoring of the elections, which corroborated the OSCE findings. The Uzbek authorities have committed to continue working with the OSCE to address outstanding issues.

Among the first actions of Mirziyoev on becoming Acting President was to create an online ’virtual reception’: a conduit for members of the public to raise complaints and suggestions. This has proved popular and, reportedly effective in resolving many issues of concern to individual citizens. Officials and government departments who have not been meeting the required response times have been publicly criticised and punished. Many government departments and officials have now followed suit in creating their own portals, including one that allows the families of prisoners to raise issues about prison conditions.

Between July and December, there continued to be reports in the online media and by NGOs of actions by law enforcement authorities against individuals engaged in religious activities outside state-sanctioned structures.

From July to December, the embassy continued support for project and programme work on human rights and good governance. Some of these activities were disrupted by the uncertainty surrounding the change of government. However, during the period the Embassy began its support for a major new 2-year programme supporting anti-corruption, human rights and regional government accountability. It also supported programmes aiming to improve the quality and diversity of media, and to improve “media literacy” in Uzbekistan. The Minister for Europe and the Americas, Sir Alan Duncan, visited Tashkent on 16 December. He encouraged the continuation of the reform programme and discussed human rights with the President Mirziyoev and Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov.