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Uzbekistan

Executive Summary

Uzbekistan is a constitutional republic with a political system dominated 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 in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR), in its final election observation report, noted, “the campaign lacked competitiveness and voters were not presented with a genuine choice of political alternatives,” with OSCE/ODIHR observers citing “serious irregularities inconsistent with national legislation and OSCE commitments, including proxy voting and indications of ballot box stuffing.” Parliamentary elections took place on December 22. According to the OSCE observer mission’s preliminary conclusions, the elections took place under improved legislation and with greater tolerance of independent voices but did not yet demonstrate genuine competition and full respect of election-day procedures. Parliamentary elections in 2014 did not meet international commitments or standards, according to that election’s OSCE observer mission.

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 those officers accused of human rights violations. In March the National Guard took over many functions of the Ministry of Interior, including to ensure public order, security of diplomatic missions, security of radio and television broadcasting, and security of other state entities. The State Security Service, headed by a chairman who reports directly to the president, deals with national security and intelligence issues, including terrorism, corruption, organized crime, border control, and narcotics. 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.

Significant human rights issues included: Reports of physical and psychological abuse of detainees by security forces; arbitrary arrest and incommunicado and prolonged detention; political prisoners; restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, and the internet, including censorship, criminal libel, and website blocking; 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; criminalization of sexual relations between men and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons and conduct; and human trafficking, including forced labor.

Impunity remained pervasive, but government prosecutions of officials on corruption charges significantly increased during the year.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government restricted these rights for both online and offline media.

Freedom of Expression: The government exercises official and unofficial restrictions on the ability of individuals to criticize the government or to discuss matters of general public interest. The law restricts criticism of the president, and publicly insulting the president is a crime for which conviction is punishable by up to five years in prison. The law specifically prohibits publication of articles that incite religious conflict and ethnic discord or that advocate subverting or overthrowing the constitutional order.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: While authorities relaxed some controls, independent media did not operate freely because the state exercises control over media coverage. All media entities, foreign and domestic, must register with authorities and provide the names of their founder, chief editor, and staff members. Print media must also provide hard copies of publications to the government. The law holds all foreign and domestic media organizations accountable for the accuracy of their reporting, prohibits foreign journalists from working in the country without official accreditation and subjects foreign media outlets to domestic mass media laws. The government used accreditation rules to deny foreign journalists and media outlets the opportunity to work in the country. For example, the government continued to deny Radio Free Europe/Radio Libertys accreditation request. Nevertheless, the government accredited the BBC Uzbek service. Two reporters also received accreditations: One who writes for The Economist and other publications, and one who writes for Eurasianet.

The law holds bloggers legally accountable for the accuracy of what they post and prohibits posts potentially perceived as defaming an individual’s “honor and dignity.” The law also prohibits perceived calls for public disorder, encroachment on constitutional order, posting pornography or state secrets, issuing “threats to the state,” and “other activities that are subject to criminal and other types of responsibilities according to legislation.”

The government prohibited the promotion of religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism as well as the instigation of ethnic and religious hatred.

Articles in state-controlled newspapers reflected the government’s viewpoint. The main government newspapers published selected international wire stories. The government prohibited legal entities with more than 30 percent foreign ownership from establishing media outlets. The government allowed publication of a few private newspapers with limited circulation containing advertising, horoscopes, and some substantive local news, including infrequent stories critical of the government’s socioeconomic policies. Some government-controlled print media outlets published articles that openly criticized local municipal administrations.

A few purportedly independent websites consistently reported the government’s viewpoint. During the year, however, press and news organizations broadcast and published a wider variety of views and news, to include criticisms of policies enacted under former president Karimov. The government launched Ozbekiston, a 24-hour news channel that broadcasts current affairs and news in Uzbek, Russian, and English, in 2017. The channel interviewed visiting high-level foreign officials.

Violence and Harassment: Police and security services subjected print and broadcast journalists to arrest, harassment, and intimidation as well as to bureaucratic restrictions on their activity. According to reports by BBC Uzbek and Radio Ozodlik, local authorities in Shahrikhan arrested blogger Nodirbek Khojimatov in September after he published a piece on Facebook calling on President Mirziyoyev to investigate two local officials for corruption. A district court convicted Khojimatov for violating the administrative code’s Article 41, which addresses offenses against a person’s dignity. Khojimatov’s father reported that the court did not allow him or his son to testify at trial, where Khojimatov was not represented by a lawyer. The court sentenced Khojimatov to 10 days in prison, even though the stated penalties for violating this provision of the code includes only a fine. Prior to his arrest, Khojimatov announced that the officials he alleged engaged in corruption had threatened him and a local prosecutor had pressured him no longer to publish blog posts criticizing government officials.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists and senior editorial staff in state media organizations reported that some officials’ responsibilities included censorship. In many cases the government placed individuals as editors in chief with the expressed intent that they serve as the main censor for a particular media outlet. Continuing the past trend of moderate criticism of the government, online publications like Kommersant.uz and Nuz.uz published critical stories on issues, such as demolitions, ecological problems, electricity outages, currency, trade, and the black market. In addition, Adobiyat Gazetesi, a literary journal, published stories by authors who are still on a “black list” that limits their ability to publish elsewhere.

During the year the government unblocked the website of privately owned Kun.uz, blocked in 2018. The outlet published articles critical of the government, including about regional and district officials’ involvement in illegal demolitions.

There was often little distinction between the editorial content of government and privately owned newspapers. Journalists engaged in limited investigative reporting. Widely read tabloids occasionally published articles that presented mild criticism of government policies or discussed some problems that the government considered sensitive, such as trafficking in persons.

Libel/Slander Laws: The criminal and administrative codes impose significant fines for libel and defamation. The government has used charges of libel, slander, and defamation to punish journalists, human rights activists, and others who criticized the president or the government. Some bloggers and activists nonetheless openly criticized the government on social media without reprisal.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government sometimes restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and laws provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: Authorities required citizens to have a domicile registration stamp in their internal passport before traveling domestically or leaving the country. The government at times delayed domestic and foreign travel and emigration during the visa application process. Individuals needed permission from local authorities to move to Tashkent City or the Tashkent Region from other parts of the country, but permission is no longer required to work in Tashkent. The law stipulates that Tashkent City or Tashkent Region registration are required for individuals to be eligible to receive city services, work legally, send their children to school, or receive routine medical care.

The government requires hotels to register foreign visitors with the government on a daily basis. The government requires foreigners staying in private homes to register their location within three days of arrival. Authorities recently simplified these registration procedures, which allow foreigners to register through an online portal.

Foreign Travel: The government officially abolished the Soviet-era exit visa, which citizens previously needed for most foreign travel. Citizens must obtain a separate passport issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the purpose of foreign travel. This passport has a 10-year validity for adults and a five-year validity for minors, as opposed to a two-year exit visa validity for all ages with previously issued passports. The government generally granted passports to travel or emigrate outside the Commonwealth of Independent States. Authorities sometimes interfered in foreign travel, such as that of former political prisoners. Former political prisoner Bobomurod Abdullayev reported that it took almost two months for him to receive his travel passport, though the law requires issuance within 10 working days.

Girls and women living in the capital are no longer required to be interviewed by the migration and citizenship departments to obtain permission to travel abroad. In addition, girls and women no longer need permission from their spouse or a warrant from an authorized person, certificates from the mahalla, or to take any tests in order to qualify for foreign travel.

f. Protection of Refugees

Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.

As of 2018, there were 14 individuals (10 cases) remaining under the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mandate. UNHCR undertakes the following activities in coordination with the UN Development Program (UNDP) office in Tashkent, through its staff under UNDP contract, and under the overall supervision of the UN resident coordinator: Issuing mandate refugee certificates to existing refugees, monitoring their rights situations and providing counseling and making interventions for them when necessary, and providing financial assistance to some of the refugees, based on their specific vulnerability.

In addition, UNHCR or UNDP staff can provide counselling to asylum seekers when they arrive.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The government did not conduct free and fair elections, restricted freedom of expression, and suppressed political opposition.

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.

Corruption: President Mirziyoyev and the courts took steps to hold officials accountable for their corrupt practices. The Supreme Court sentenced the former prosecutor general, Rashidjon Qodirov, on June 26 to 10 years in prison for bribe-taking, extortion, financial fraud, tax evasion, obstruction of justice, and money laundering. President Mirziyoyev dismissed Qodirov’s successor, Otabek Murodov, on June 21. Authorities subsequently arrested Murodov and began investigating him for bribery.

Financial Disclosure: 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 are registered with the government. Ezgulik representatives reported substantially improved cooperation with government officials over the year. The government continued to deny the registration requests submitted by all other domestic groups.

International NGOs, including those that focus on human rights, continued to face obstacles in legally registering. The government does not allow unregistered international organizations to open or use local bank accounts, limits the periods of validity for international NGO workers’ visas for them to legally live and work in the country, and has not created a path to overcome previous Supreme Court rulings banning certain organizations from the country, thereby allowing them to register again.

In June a representative of Human Rights Watch was verbally harassed and physically intimidated in the lobby of his hotel in Tashkent when a video blogger and four others surrounded him and blocked his attempts to leave. After berating the representative for 20 minutes regarding his NGO work, the group told him to “get the hell out of Uzbekistan.”

Human rights activists and political opposition figures generally assumed that security agencies covertly monitored their telephone calls and activities. One group reported police surveillance of cotton harvest monitoring, including around-the-clock surveillance of an activist’s telephone and apartment, although International Labor Organization (ILO)-affiliated cotton harvest monitors reported no harassment. Security service personnel, including a detective from an antiterrorism unit, visited one activist at home to discuss issues pertaining to family members. Other activists reported finding listening devices that authorities planted to record their meetings with international human rights interlocutors.

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.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government cooperated with and sometimes permitted visits by UN representatives as well as those from UN specialized agencies, such as the ILO and other international organizations that monitor human rights. The government hosts the regional office of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and has signed a “roadmap” with UNODC that includes, among other things, projects on criminal justice reform.

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 mediated disputes among citizens who contacted it and made recommendations to modify or uphold decisions of government agencies, but its recommendations were not binding. The Ombudsman’s Office is permitted to make unannounced inspections of prisons and has established 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.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law allows workers to form and join independent unions and bargain collectively. Individuals have not been able to exercise these rights because no independent labor unions operated in the country. The law neither provides for nor prohibits the right to strike but does prohibit antiunion discrimination. The law on trade unions states that workers may not be fired due to trade union membership, but it does not clearly state whether workers fired for union activity must be reinstated. Volunteers in public works and workers employed by individuals without documented contracts do not have legal protection.

There is no public information available regarding government enforcement of applicable laws, as there are no known cases of attempts to form independent unions. The law provides penalties for violating freedom of association laws equal to five to 10 times the minimum salary. The government amended the law on “professional unions, rights, and guarantees of their activities.” Despite legal protections, in practice, as stated above, workers have not successfully formed or joined independent unions. Workers continued to worry that attempts to create independent alternative unions would be repressed. Unions remained centralized and dependent on the government.

The state-run Federation of Trade Unions of Uzbekistan incorporated more than 35,000 primary organizations and 14 regional trade unions, according to official reports. Regional and industrial trade unions remained state managed.

Government-organized unions demonstrated minimal bargaining power. For example, government ministries, including the Ministry of Agriculture, in consultation with the Federation of Trade Unions, continued to set wages for government employees and production quotas in certain sectors. In the emerging private sector, management established wages or negotiated them individually with persons who contracted for employment. There was no state institution responsible for labor arbitration.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, except as legal punishment for such offenses as robbery, fraud, or tax evasion or as specified by law. Certain sections of the criminal code allow for compulsory labor as a punishment for offenses including defamation and incitement of national, racial, ethnic, or religious enmity. Penalties are not sufficient to deter violations.

Inspectors from the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations have authority to enforce laws on forced labor. The lead for issues related to forced labor or trafficking in persons is the special rapporteur of the National Commission on trafficking in persons and forced labor. The ILO increased the scope of its third-party monitoring on child and forced labor in the cotton harvest during the year.

The government continued its efforts to combat all forms of forced labor. During the year the government informed the public of the prohibition against forced labor, including in the annual cotton harvest.

A July 30 presidential decree instructed the government to begin a process of criminalizing forced labor violations, which heretofore had been punished only by administrative fine. In December the parliament adopted legislation criminalizing forced labor, however, forced labor violations are only criminalized in the second instance. The first violation is still punished by administrative fines. The decree additionally created a national commission for trafficking in persons and forced labor to oversee and coordinate government efforts. The national commission is divided into subcommittees for trafficking in persons, chaired by the minister of the interior, and for forced labor, chaired by the minister of employment and labor Relations. Both act as deputy chairs to the national commission itself.

The government appointed a special rapporteur for the national commission, Tanzila Narbaeva, who also serves as chair of the Senate. The government empowered the special rapporteur to report on the issue directly to the president and to set up regional or territorial commissions to oversee the implementation of the decree at the local level. This decree also called for the drafting of an amendment to the law on combatting trafficking in persons to include a mechanism for identifying trafficking victims and mandated an update to legislation on human trafficking and forced labor that criminalizes forced labor.

While the government maintained formal prohibitions on the use of forced labor in all economic sectors–and enforced these provisions–the laws as written were not sufficient to comply with international labor standards. Because cotton production quotas remained in place, there continued to be pressure on local officials to meet production targets. Such pressure encouraged the use of forced labor. Administrative penalties against the use of forced labor were increased: The minimum fine for first offense is between 10- to 30-times the minimum monthly salary, and for repeated offenses the penalty is 30- to 100-times the minimum monthly salary. As stated above, the law adopted in December will impose criminal penalties for repeated instances of forced labor. In October the president approved the Agriculture Development Strategy 2030, which is designed to phase out quotas for agricultural products by 2023.

The government allowed the ILO access in real time to its feedback mechanism for reporting labor violations to see how it responded to complaints. The government additionally made efforts to meet with international organizations, NGOs, civil society organizations, and local activists to discuss the issue of forced labor publicly and to receive feedback including suggestions and criticism to enable it to improve its approach to forced labor in the cotton harvest. The government acknowledged its problem with forced labor and sought assistance to eliminate it.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The law sets the minimum working age at 16 and provides that work must not interfere with the studies of those younger than 18. The law does not allow children younger than 15 to work at all, but this provision was not always observed. Children aged 15, with permission from their parents, may work a maximum of 24 hours per week when school is not in session and 12 hours per week when school is in session. Children who are 16 through 18 may work 36 hours per week while school is out of session and 18 hours per week while school is in session. Decrees stipulate a list of hazardous activities forbidden for children younger than 18 and prohibit employers from using children to work under specified hazardous conditions, including underground, underwater, at dangerous heights, and in the manual harvesting of cotton, including cotton harvesting with dangerous equipment.

Children were employed in agriculture; in family businesses, such as bakeries and convenience stores; and in services, such as street vending and scrap metal collection.

Inspectors from the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations have authority to enforce laws on child labor. No information was available on the enforcement of these laws. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations. There was no systemic use of child labor, although individual instances of child labor violations continued to exist.

There was no evidence of any government-compelled child labor. The government prohibition against the use of students remains in force.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Laws and regulations prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on race, gender, religion, and language. The labor code states that differences in the treatment of individuals deserving of the state’s protection or requiring special accommodation, including women, children, and persons with disabilities, are not to be considered discriminatory. The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, age, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, or social origin. HIV-positive individuals are legally prohibited from being employed in certain occupations, including those in the medical field that require direct contact with patients or with blood or blood products as well as in cosmetology or haircutting. There were insufficient publicly available data to determine government enforcement of these laws and regulations. There were no reliable data on employment discrimination.

The Uzbek labor code prohibits refusing employment based on an applicant’s criminal record or the criminal record of a close relative.

Foreign migrant workers enjoy the same legal protections as Uzbek workers as long as their employers follow all legal procedures for their employment. The law provides for a number of punishments of Uzbek employers who do not follow all legal procedures. The government did not strictly enforce employment law, primarily due to insufficient staffing of relevant entities and endemic corruption.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law provides for a national minimum wage. The government did not provide an estimate for poverty income levels. According to international estimates, 11.4 percent of the population met the definition of being below the poverty line in 2018. No figures were available for 2019.

The law establishes a standard workweek of 40 hours and requires a 24-hour rest period. The law provides for paid annual holidays. The law provides overtime compensation as specified in employment contracts or as agreed with an employee’s trade union. Such compensation may be provided in the form of additional pay or leave. The law states that overtime compensation should not be less than 200 percent of the employee’s average monthly salary rate. Additional leave time should not be less than the length of actual overtime work. An employee may not work more than 120 hours of overtime per year, but this limitation was not generally observed, particularly in the public sector. The law prohibits compulsory overtime. The government effectively enforced these laws in the formal economy. No data was available on enforcement of these laws in the informal economy.

The Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations establishes and enforces occupational health and safety standards in consultation with unions. According to the law, health and safety standards should be applied in all sectors. The government effectively enforced these laws in the formal economy. No data was available on enforcement of these laws in the informal economy.

Employers are responsible for ensuring compliance with standards, rules, and regulations on labor protection as well as obligations under collective agreements. The law provides that workers may legally remove themselves from hazardous work if an employer fails to provide adequate safety measures for the job, and the employer must pay the employee during the time of the work stoppage or provide severance pay if the employee chooses to terminate employment. Workers generally did not exercise this right because it was not effectively enforced and employees feared retribution by employers. The law requires employers to insure against civil liability for damage caused to the life or health of an employee in connection with a work injury, occupational disease, or other injury to health caused by the employee’s performance on the job. In addition, a company’s employees have the right to demand, and the administration is obliged to provide them with, information on the state of working conditions and safety at work, available personal protection means, benefits, and compensations.

The number of labor inspectors increased throughout the year, and there was a rise in the number of public complaints received as well as penalties issued.

The Ministry of Labor maintains protocols requiring investigation into labor complaints within five business days. The ministry or a local governor’s office could initiate a selective inspection of a business, and special inspections were conducted in response to accidents or complaints. A 2017 presidential decree prohibited unannounced inspections of private businesses, including labor inspections, in an effort to crack down on corrupt government practices, but the government reversed itself, and unannounced inspections are legal again.

Reports suggested that enforcement was uneven. The law remained unenforced in the informal economy, where employment was usually undocumented. Despite an increase in the number of labor inspectors, the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations still lacks adequate staff to enforce compliance. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations in the informal sector.

The government continued with the extension of the ILO’s Decent Work Country Program until 2020. The most common labor violations were working without contracts, receiving lower than publicly announced payments, delayed payments, and substandard sanitary or hygienic working conditions.

Many employees had official part-time or low-income jobs and many continued to work informally. The government worked closely with the ILO’s Decent Work Country Program on efforts to shift more of the economy from an informal to the formal economy and to provide labor and social protections to those working informally.

Workers did not report any occupational health and safety violations. Private sector employers most commonly committed violations of wage, overtime, and occupational health and safety standards. Although regulations provide for safeguards, workers in hazardous jobs often lacked protective clothing and equipment. More specific information on sectors in which violations were common and on specific groups of workers who faced hazardous or exploitative working conditions was not available.

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