Uzbekistan is a constitutional republic with a political system led by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his supporters. In 2016 Mirziyoyev, the former prime minister, won the presidential elections with 88 percent of the vote. The Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights noted in its final election observation report that “the campaign lacked competitiveness and voters were not presented with a genuine choice of political alternatives,” with the European observers citing “serious irregularities inconsistent with national legislation and OSCE commitments, including proxy voting and indications of ballot box stuffing.” Parliamentary elections took place in December 2019. The OSCE observer mission’s preliminary conclusions noted the elections occurred under improved legislation and with greater tolerance of independent voices but did not demonstrate genuine competition and full respect for election-day procedures.
The government authorizes four different entities to investigate criminal activity and provide security. The Ministry of Interior controls the police, who are responsible for law enforcement, maintenance of order, and the investigation of general crimes. It also investigates and disciplines its officers if they are accused of human rights violations. The National Guard ensures public order and security of diplomatic missions, radio and television broadcasting, and other state entities. The State Security Service, whose chairperson reports directly to the president, deals with national security and intelligence issues, including terrorism, corruption, organized crime, border control, and narcotics. The Prosecutor General’s Office ensures rule of law, protects the rights and freedoms of citizens and legally protected interests of the state, conducts preliminary investigations of crimes, and prosecutes persons and entities accused of crimes. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces, but security services permeated civilian structures. Civilian authorities opaquely interacted with security services’ personnel, making it difficult to define the scope and limits of civilian authority. There were reports that members of the security and law enforcement agencies, particularly police and prison officials, committed abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of physical and psychological abuse of detainees by security forces, including abuses that resulted in the death of detainees; arbitrary arrest and incommunicado and prolonged detention; political prisoners; politically motivated reprisal against an individual located outside of the country; restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, and the internet, including censorship and intentional slowing of social media digital platforms; restrictions on assembly and association, including restrictions on civil society, with human rights activists, journalists, and others who criticized the government subject to harassment, prosecution, and detention; restrictions on religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation in which citizens were unable to choose their government in free, fair, and periodic elections; human trafficking, including forced labor; criminalization of sexual relations between men; and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons and consensual same-sex sexual conduct.
Impunity remained pervasive. Government prosecutions of officials on abuse charges increased somewhat during the year.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. In January a man died as a result of beatings suffered while in detention at the Chirakchi District Ministry of the Interior branch office in the Kashkardarya Region, and on September 21, two officers who had been charged in the case received from four to nine years in prison. The first deputy chief of the police department resigned his position following the death.
In a separate case on May 30, press reported that Alijon Abdukarimov suffered critical wounds from the Andijan police while in detention on May 29 over charges of theft. After allegedly being beaten at a police station, Abdukarimov was taken to a hospital, where he died on June 11. The Prosecutor General’s Office launched an investigation into his case, leading to the June 13 arrest of six police officers. The Prosecutor’s Office subsequently filed charges against them, and an additional 19 law enforcement officers faced disciplinary measures. On November 27, the Andijan regional criminal court announced that the six police officers were sentenced from one to 10 years in prison.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and the law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government did not always observe these requirements.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
In August the government released four high-profile prisoners. Three of these (Rustam Abdumannopov, Iskandar Khudaiberganov, and Akrom Malikov) were considered by Tashkent-based human rights organization Ezgulik and other domestic human rights activists to be the only three remaining political prisoners in the country. The fourth prisoner released was Rukhitdin Fakhrutdinov, a well known religious prisoner. It was unknown how many other religious prisoners remained in custody.
In years past the government targeted peaceful political dissidents and convicted them of engaging in terrorist and extremist activities or for belonging to what the government called religious fundamentalist organizations. NGO representatives stated they could not independently verify the numbers of such individuals who remained in detention. There were no reports of such detentions during the year.
Authorities sometimes did not provide political prisoners and detainees the same protections as other detainees, including by holding some incommunicado for prolonged periods of time, limiting their access to lawyers of their choosing, and psychologically intimidating some of them. The government sometimes did not permit access to such persons by human rights or humanitarian organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.
According to numerous former political prisoners, the government provides released prisoners with an allowance upon parole to help them reintegrate into society, although some reported not receiving all promised benefits. Such allowances include travel expenses to one’s place of residence, health benefits, and the issuance of an internal passport, which is the primary form of identification in the country. Upon release, convicts sign a document acknowledging they understand the terms of their parole. This document typically includes a prohibition on travel abroad for up to one year. In years past, several former prisoners reported that authorities levied a fine against them as a condition of their parole. Failure to abide by the terms of payment may result in the termination of parole. One former prisoner, for example, was reportedly required to pay 20 percent of his monthly salary to the government for 18 months following his release.
In 2019 high-level government officials periodically visited different regions of the country to conduct outreach to vulnerable social groups, such as former prisoners, and the government said it maintained this policy. COVID-19-related movement restrictions and strict quarantine protocols issued throughout the country likely affected the ability of officials to conduct such visits. In years past, former prisoners expressed concerns regarding the difficulty of placing children into kindergartens, obtaining assistance in securing housing, and receiving medical treatment, as well as concerns over their parole terms.
Some former political prisoners pointed out that they were still considered criminals because authorities did not fully exonerate them upon their release from prison. Three former political prisoners, including Azam Farmonov, whom authorities released in 2017 after serving 11 years of a 13-year sentence, attempted to register an NGO named Restoration of Justice three times in 2019, without success. On March 9, the Ministry of Justice registered the NGO under a new name, Hoquqiy Tayanc (Legal Pillar); the NGO sought redress for the unlawful detention of political prisoners, including clearing their records through exoneration, expungement, or other means.
Amnesty: Authorities annually grant amnesty and release individuals imprisoned for religious extremism or other crimes. In five separate instances during the year, President Mirziyoyev released or reduced the sentences of 243 prisoners detained on religious extremism or other grounds.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Freedom of Association
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right. Authorities sought to control NGO activity, internationally funded NGOs, and unregulated Islamic and minority religious groups. The operating environment for independent civil society, in particular human rights defenders, remained restrictive, although several activists reported improved cooperation with government officials. Several independent NGOs continued to face barriers to registering locally due to earlier court orders against them or other objections by officials.
The Ministry of Justice, which oversees the registration of NGOs, requires NGOs to obtain the ministry’s approval to hold large meetings with nonmembers, including foreigners; to seek the ministry’s clearance on any event where materials are to be distributed; and to notify the ministry in writing of the content and scope of the events in question.
The government has a legal framework for public oversight of the activities of government bodies and government officials. In accordance with the law, citizens, citizens’ self-government bodies, noncommercial organizations, and mass media have the right to exercise oversight regarding activities of government bodies and officials.
There are legal restrictions on the types of groups that may be formed. The law requires that organizations with an operating budget and funds register formally with the government. The law allows for a six-month grace period for new organizations to operate while awaiting registration from the Ministry of Justice, during which time the government officially classifies them as “initiative groups.” Several NGOs continued to function as initiative groups for periods longer than six months.
In 2018 the government issued a number of regulations that affected NGO activity. The Ministry of Justice no longer requires NGOs to obtain approval in order to conduct events, but they still need to notify the ministry of plans to conduct public programs. The minimum period for informing the ministry of planned activities is 10 days before the start of an event without the participation of foreign citizens, and 20 days before the start of event with the participation of foreign citizens. The ministry provides NGOs with written notice only in cases of refusal to conduct the event. The law also requires that NGOs file annual reports to the government. In 2018 the Ministry of Justice adopted the Regulation on Monitoring and Studying Activities of Nongovernmental, Noncommercial Organizations, which establishes a separate procedure on monitoring and studying NGOs’ activities.
The law grants the Ministry of Justice authority to inspect and audit NGOs.
Due to the burdensome challenges registering NGOs, many prominent and respected organizations have not received registration from the government. As a result, civil society remains stifled and the level of regulations prevents organizations from gaining a footprint in the country.
On January 18, shortly after Ezgulik assisted blogger and activist Nafosat Olloshkurova as she fled the country, authorities seized the registration certificate, charter, computers, and other documents of the Ezgulik branch office in the Jizzakh Region. According to Ezgulik, prosecutors stated they had a warrant to conduct the search but did not produce it when asked. The next day the prosecutor’s office filed a corruption case against the head of the branch office, Zifa Umrzakova. In June the Criminal Court of Jizzakh sentenced her to two years of “restricted movement.” The case was pending appeal, with a hearing scheduled for January 11, 2021.
The administrative liability code imposes large fines for violations of procedures governing NGO activity as well as for “involving others” in “illegal NGOs.” The law does not specify whether the term refers to NGOs suspended or closed by the government or merely NGOs not officially registered. The administrative code also imposes penalties against international NGOs for engaging in political activities, activities inconsistent with their charters, or activities the government did not approve in advance.
Registered NGOs are allowed to receive grants from domestic and foreign donors. Receiving organizations must notify the Ministry of Justice of their grants and present a plan of activities to the ministry that details how the NGO would allocate the funds. If the ministry approves, no other government approvals are required. The ministry requires yearly financial reports from NGOs.
Parliament’s Public Fund for the Support of Nongovernmental, Noncommercial Organizations, and Other Civil Society Institutions continued to conduct grant competitions to implement primarily socioeconomic projects. Some civil society organizations criticized the fund for primarily supporting government-organized NGOs. The law criminalizes membership in organizations the government broadly deemed “extremist.”
c. Freedom of Religion
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides for criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
On June 29, a presidential decree established the Anti-Corruption Agency, which is mandated to develop and implement national anticorruption policies. The Agency may also: request, receive and conduct research over budget expenditures, sale of state-owned assets, public procurement, implementation of investment projects and government programs; review letters from individuals and legal entities on corruption issues and take measures to restore their violated rights and protect their interests; conduct administrative investigations of corruption offenses; and, make binding orders on the suspension of performance or annulment of decisions of executive authorities, economic management bodies, and their officials if signs of corruption are detected in them. The agency is subordinated to the President and reports to the Legislative chamber of parliament.
Corruption: On June 24, authorities detained the head of the Main Department for Capital Construction in the Khokimiyat of Chilanzar (district of Tashkent) for allegedly taking a bribe of $50,000 (after allegedly asking for $1.4 million). The bribe was reportedly intended for assistance in registering an expensive land plot. Investigators opened a criminal case against the detainee under Article 210 (Bribery) of the criminal code.
On November 19, the government’s Anti-Corruption Agency reported the damage from corruption offenses of officials in 2020 surpassed 200 billion soum, ($20 million). According to the agency, law enforcement agencies opened 838 criminal cases of corruption, in which 647 officials were prosecuted in 454 cases. Most of the officials (40.3 percent) committed crimes under embezzlement charges. Of those prosecuted, four were officials at the state level, 15 at the regional level, and 626 at the city and district levels. Further, seven were deputy mayors, 57 were employees of the Ministry of Health, eight were from the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations, 15 were from the Ministry of Higher and Secondary Special Education, 89 were from the Ministry of Public Education, 36 from the Ministry of Preschool Education, 13 from the Bureau of Compulsory Enforcement under the Prosecutor General’s Office, 59 from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, two from the National Guard, six from the State Tax Committee, and three from the Ministry of Defense. In addition, among those accused of corruption were 34 executives of banks and 184 executives of enterprises with state shares.
On December 1, the Anti-Corruption Agency reported that judges of the Tashkent city administrative court had embezzled eight billion soum ($766,000). According to the agency, “Several judges and their assistants conspired with the officers of the Tashkent city traffic police department. They made an estimated five thousand fake decisions without initiating administrative cases on traffic violations. They reviewed cases without the participation of the parties and deliberately destroyed some administrative cases resulting in damage to the state budget.” The agency reported that the General Prosecutor’s Office had opened a criminal case against judges and other employees of the Tashkent City Administrative Court.
On December 17, media reported that a study conducted by law enforcement officials revealed 1,525 cases of corruption regarding the supply of electricity, natural gas, and coal worth 59 billion soum ($5.6 million). The report also noted the Prosecutor’s Office and tax authorities identified 110 cases related to the purchase and sale of coal.
On February 5, in response to international pressure, officials released Aramais Avakian, who had been imprisoned since 2016 on charges of “plotting anticonstitutional activities” and participating in an extremist organization. Charges against Avakian, an ethnic Armenian Christian, stemmed from the failure by local authorities to attempt to take over his successful fish farm through coercion.
Financial Disclosure: Some government officials are required by law to disclose income from outside employment, but such disclosures were not publicly available. While many officials received income from outside employment, there were no reports of an official’s disclosure being questioned or sanctions being employed for not complying with the law.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A number of domestic human rights groups operated in the country, although the government often hampered their ability to operate, investigate, and publish their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views, but at times the government harassed and intimidated human rights and civil society activists. Governmental decrees and administrative orders on civil society sought to encourage its growth and offered procedural rules and some new limitations for the actions of Ministry of Justice inspectors (see section 2.b.).
Two domestic human rights NGOs, Ezgulik and the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan, were registered with the government. Ezgulik representatives reported improved cooperation with government officials during the year. The government continued to deny the registration requests submitted by most other domestic groups.
Harassment of activists took place. On September 4, three strangers who introduced themselves as journalists allegedly visited local human rights activist Haitboy Khaydarov at his home in Khorezm to speak to him about human rights issues. When the three men began taking photographs of him and demanding information about journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev (extradited to the country in August), Khaydarov became concerned and asked to see their documentation as journalists. The men then threatened him, telling him it would be better to “talk” about where and when he had worked with Abdullayev and suggested they could “take him” away.
International NGOs, including those that focus on human rights, continued to face obstacles in legally registering. The government did not allow unregistered international organizations to open or use local bank accounts, limited the periods of validity for international NGO workers’ visas for them to legally live and work in the country, and did not create a path to overcome previous Supreme Court rulings banning certain organizations from the country, thereby allowing them to register again.
Human rights activists and political opposition figures generally assumed that security agencies covertly monitored their telephone calls and activities. Government officials spoke informally with domestic human rights defenders, some of whom were able to resolve cases of human rights abuses through direct engagement with authorities if they did not publicize these cases.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The goals of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office included promoting observance and public awareness of fundamental human rights, assisting in shaping legislation to bring it into accordance with international human rights norms, and resolving cases of alleged abuse. The Ombudsman’s Office is tasked with mediation of disputes among citizens who contact it and makes recommendations to modify or uphold decisions of government agencies, but its recommendations are not binding. The Ombudsman’s Office is permitted to make unannounced inspections of prisons and had a separate division to investigate government abuse of businesses.
The National Human Rights Center is a government agency responsible for educating the public and officials on the principles of human rights and democracy and for ensuring that the government complies with its international obligations to provide human rights information.
In its 2019 annual report, the Geneva-based UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances noted it still had seven outstanding cases from previous years. In its September 2019 report, the working group reiterated its request to visit the country. The request was first issued in 2011, with the most recent formal reminder was sent in January 2019.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups
The law does not require Uzbek language ability to obtain citizenship, but language often was a sensitive issue. Uzbek is the state language, and the constitution requires that the president speak it. The law also provides that Russian is “the language of interethnic communication.”
Officials reportedly reserved senior positions in the government bureaucracy and business for ethnic Uzbeks, although there were numerous exceptions.
Complaints of societal violence or discrimination against members of ethnic minority groups were rare.