Uzbekistan is a constitutional republic with a political system dominated by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his supporters. In 2016 former prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev won the presidential elections with 88 percent of the vote. The Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe’s 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 in 2014. According to the OSCE’s observer mission, those elections did not meet international commitments or standards.
Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces, but security services permeated civilian structures, and their interaction was opaque, making it difficult to define the scope and limits of civilian authority.
Human rights issues included torture and abuse of detainees by security forces, arbitrary arrest, and incommunicado and prolonged detention; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, and the internet, including censorship, criminal libel, and site 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; severe 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 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) conduct; and human trafficking, including forced labor.
Impunity remained pervasive, but government prosecutions of officials on corruption charges significantly increased during the year.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were no reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
There were no reports of politically motivated long-term disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
In its 2018 annual report, the Geneva-based UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances noted it had seven outstanding cases from previous years. According to the working group, the government did not respond to the group’s latest request to visit the country, issued in January.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
While the constitution and law prohibit such practices, law enforcement and security officers routinely beat and otherwise mistreated detainees to obtain confessions, incriminating information, or for corrupt financial gain. Sources reported that torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment occurred primarily in pretrial facilities, and local police and security service precincts for those arrested or detained on religious or extremism charges. Reported methods of abuse included harsh beatings, denial of food and the use of a toilet, and tying of hands. There were also continued reports that authorities exerted psychological pressure on detainees, including threats against family members and blackmail. Torture continued for members of faith communities organized outside of the state religion, including Muslims, Protestants, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, according to members of the religious communities.
In 2010 the UN Human Rights Committee expressed concern that the definition of torture in the criminal code did not conform to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which the country is a party. In March 2017 the government approved rules governing the conduct of law enforcement officers and addressed torture. Article 8 of the updated Law on Police states, “employees of the internal affairs may not employ torture, violence, or other cruel or degrading treatments. The employee of the internal affairs is obliged to prevent intentional acts causing pain, physical or moral suffering to the citizen.” In November 2017 the law banned the use of evidence obtained by torture in court proceedings.
In April President Mirziyoyev signed an antitorture law, which increases liability for the use of torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment. Prior to the adoption of the law, there were formal obstacles to the prosecution of persons involved in torture. These restrictions have been eliminated. According to human rights advocates, the torture law, while drafted without the participation of independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), addresses the ambiguities of the previous legislation with a concrete definition of torture as well as sentencing guidelines. In September 2017 Journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev was arrested by officers from the former National Security Service (NSS), renamed the State Security Service (SSS) in January) and charged with plotting to overthrow the government. Human rights monitors, including Human Rights Watch, noted the openness of his trial, which took place in Tashkent in May; nonetheless, human rights observers believed there was clear evidence Abdullaev was tortured by the security services. According to Abdullayev’s open court testimony, police investigators beat him, kept him naked in a freezing cell, and did not allow him to sit down or sleep for six days. On May 7, Abdullayev was released from custody. Following an investigation of Abdullayev’s case and a criminal trial, a Military Tribunal convicted Colonel Nodir Turakulov and, on October 25, sentenced the former deputy head of the National Security Service (now the State Security Service), who was reportedly involved in torture of Abdullayev, to 16 years in prison. Turakulov was tried in accordance with the antitorture law.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were in some circumstances harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care.
Physical Conditions: Reports of overcrowding, severe abuse, and shortages of medicine were common. Inmates generally had access to potable water and food, but both reportedly were of poor quality, and visiting family members often brought provisions to detained family members. There were sporadic reports of prisoners of conscience held in cells without proper ventilation and subjected to temperatures below freezing in winter and more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit in summer; detention facilities, such as Jaslyk Prison, commonly lacked heat or air conditioning. Family members of inmates did not report any incidents of sexual abuse. Upon release, political prisoners reported to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and others of being beaten and otherwise tortured, including the use of stress positions, while in prison.
Prison administration officials reported an active World Health Organization tuberculosis program in the prisons and an HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention program. Visiting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials noted continued high rates of TB infection in the prison system. Government efforts to lower infection rates were largely unsuccessful due to poor compliance with treatment plans. Officials reported hepatitis was not present in high numbers and that hepatitis patients received treatment in existing medical facilities and programs. Reports of such treatment could not be verified independently access to such facilities was frequently denied.
Administration: There was no information available whether recordkeeping on prisoners was adequate. Authorities frequently used administrative measures such as bail, house arrest, and correctional work as alternatives to criminal sentences for nonviolent offenders. In addition, the criminal code mandates that courts may not sentence individuals to prison if he or she has paid a fine in full. The government usually respected these injunctions unless a case was considered politically sensitive.
The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office and the Prosecutor General’s Office may investigate complaints from detainees and the public. The Ombudsman’s Office may make recommendations on behalf of specific prisoners, including changes to the sentences of nonviolent offenders to make them more appropriate to the offense. Family members of detained or released prisoners said their complaints to the ombudsman went unanswered or were referred to the original sentencing court for redress.
Prison officials allowed family members to visit prisoners for up to four hours two to four times per year. Relatives of prisoners held on religious or extremism charges reported occasional denial or delay of visitation rights. Officials also permitted longer visits of one to three days two to four times per year, depending on the type of prison facility, as well as overnight stays. Family members of political prisoners reported that officials frequently delayed or severely shortened visits arbitrarily.
The government stated prisoners have the right to practice any religion or no religion, but prisoners frequently complained to family members that they were not able to observe religious rituals conflicting with the prison’s schedule. Such rituals included traditional Islamic morning prayers. Authorities forbid prisoners to observe religious holidays such as Ramadan, with no fasting allowed. Although some prison libraries had copies of the Quran and the Bible, family members continued to complain that authorities did not allow prisoners access to religious materials.
According to official government procedures, prisoners have the right to “participate in religious worship and family relations, such as marriage.” “Close relatives” also have the right to receive oral and written information from prison officials regarding the health and disciplinary records of their family members. Families continued to report that the government provided limited to no information or withheld information contained in health and prison records.
Independent Monitoring: Independent observers had extremely limited access to some parts of the penitentiary system, including pretrial detention facilities, women’s prisons, and prison settlements. UNICEF regularly accessed the country’s four juvenile offenders’ colonies. The International Committee for the Red Cross has not visited detainees since 2013. In October 2017 the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, visited Jaslyk, a maximum-security prison.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and the law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, but authorities continued to engage in such practices. During the year several prominent political prisoners were released from prison. Nonetheless, arbitrary arrest on political grounds continued amidst such releases.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The government authorizes three different entities to investigate criminal activity. The Ministry of Interior controls the police, who are responsible for law enforcement, maintenance of order, and the investigation of general crimes. The Prosecutor General’s Office investigates violent crimes such as homicide as well as corruption by officials and abuse of power. 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.
Impunity remained widespread, although the government was taking steps to address it. The Ministry of Interior investigates and disciplines those officers accused of human rights violations. The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, affiliated with parliament, also has the power to investigate cases, although its decisions on such investigations have no binding authority.
The government did take steps to prosecute officials suspected of human rights abuses. According to Radio Freedom’s Uzbek Service, citing a law enforcement source, in June, five senior security officials in Bukhara region were convicted of torture and abuse of office and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Reportedly, a former chief of the NSS Directorate in Bukhara, Rustam Azimov, was convicted at a closed trial and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Four former associates of Azimov, including head of the NSS Anticorruption Department for Bukhara region Inam Marupov, deputy head of the Internal Security Division of the NSS in Bukhara Azim Yunusov, Special Interrogator Umid Bobomurodov, and deputy of the head of Bukhara Regional Tax Agency Rovshan Rajapov, were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 16 to 18 years. In addition, four former guards at a detention center in Bukhara were sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment each after being convicted on similar charges.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
By law a judge must review any decision to arrest accused individuals or suspects. Judges granted arrest warrants in most cases. Defendants have the right to legal counsel from the time of arrest. State-appointed attorneys are available for those who do not hire private counsel. Officials did not always respect the right to counsel and occasionally forced defendants to sign written statements declining the right. Authorities’ selective intimidation and disbarment of defense lawyers produced a chilling effect that also compromised political detainees’ access to legal counsel. The law authorizes the use of house arrest as a form of pretrial detention.
The law allows detainees to request hearings before a judge to determine whether the detainees remain incarcerated or may be released before trial. Authorities rarely granted these hearings. The arresting authority is required to notify a relative of a detainee of the detention and to question the detainee within 24 hours of arrest. There were complaints authorities tortured suspects before notifying either family members or attorneys of their arrest to gain confessions.
Suspects have the right to remain silent and must be informed of the right to counsel. Detention without formal charges is limited to 48 hours, although a prosecutor may request an additional 48 hours, after which the person must be charged or released. Authorities typically held suspects after the allowable period of detention, according to human rights advocates. After formal charges are filed, the prosecutor decides whether a suspect is released on bail (or on the guarantee of an individual or public organization acting as surety), stays in pretrial detention, or is kept under house arrest. The judge conducting the arrest hearing is allowed to sit on the panel of judges during the individual’s trial.
The law requires authorities at pretrial detention facilities to arrange a meeting between a detainee and a representative from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office upon the detainee’s request. Officials allowed detainees in prison facilities to submit confidential complaints to the Ombudsman’s Office and the Prosecutor General’s Office.
Once authorities file charges, suspects may be held in pretrial detention for up to three months while investigations proceed. The law permits an extension of the investigation period for as much as one year at the discretion of the appropriate court upon a motion by the relevant prosecutor, who may also release a prisoner on bond pending trial. According to human rights advocates, authorities frequently ignored these legal protections. Those arrested and charged with a crime may be released without bail until trial on the condition they provide assurance of “proper behavior” and that they would appear at trial.
A decree requires that all defense attorneys pass a comprehensive relicensing examination. In past years several experienced and knowledgeable defense lawyers who had represented human rights activists and independent journalists lost their licenses after taking the relicensing examination or because of letters from the bar association under the control of the Ministry of Justice claiming that they violated professional ethical norms. As a result several activists and defendants faced difficulties in finding legal representation.
In July the Samarkand city criminal court reviewed and upheld the request of the regional Prosecutor’s Office to arrest Sanat Umarov, a Kattakurgan district police officer accused of abuse of power and using torture and other cruel treatment. Umarov and others allegedly forced a woman, who was detained on suspicion of theft, to strip naked. The Interior Ministry announced Umarov’s dismissal and a general “cleansing” of law enforcement bodies. Ombudsperson Ulugbek Mukhammadiyev called the incident “an outrageous case of inhumanity and degrading treatment to a woman and mother,” deserving “public censure and punishment under the law.”
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities continued to arrest or detain persons arbitrarily on charges of extremist sentiments or activities and association with banned religious groups. Local human rights activists reported that police and security service officers frequently detained and mistreated family members and close associates of registered religious and banned religious groups. Allegations of coerced confessions and testimony in such cases were commonplace.
In June 2017 the government began to phase out the use of preventative watchlists, which contained the names of those convicted for religious crimes or crimes against the regime. Authorities compelled named individuals on the watchlist to submit to police for interrogation, denied issuance of passports and travel visas, and, in some cases, prohibited the purchase and use of smartphones. The government asserted it removes individuals from the “blacklist” after a government commission examines the offenders for suitability to reintegrate into society. According to the government, more than 16,000 individuals have been removed from this watchlist since 2017.
In 2017 President Mirziyoyev signed a decree authorizing the creation of a commission to review the prison profiles of convicts sentenced on charges of religious extremism. Based on the work of the commission, since 2017 the president pardoned more than 3,000 prisoners. During the year the president signed another decree establishing a commission to review the petitions of persons “who mistakenly became members of banned organizations.” The commission has the power to exonerate citizens from all criminal liability.
Based on a resolution adopted by the Cabinet on March 22, the Tashtyurma detention center was closed. Tashtyurma Prison, officially known as Detention Center No. 1 and built in 1891, was the oldest in the country, and, according to human rights defenders, it was dilapidated and substandard. In January its former inmates were moved to a newly built jail in the Zangiota district outside the capital.
Pretrial Detention: Prosecutors generally exercised discretion regarding most aspects of criminal procedures, including pretrial detention. Detainees had no access to a court to challenge the length or validity of pretrial detention, despite the right to do so granted by law. Even when authorities did not file charges, police and prosecutors frequently sought to evade restrictions on the length of time persons could be held without charges by holding them as witnesses rather than as suspects. Human rights defenders noted incidents where security personnel used pretrial detention from one to three months without formal charges or a court hearing. The government did not provide information regarding the number of persons held in pretrial detention centers.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law detainees or former detainees are able to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court. Appeals are sometimes open to the public by request of the applicant. New evidence is rarely heard. Appeal courts generally review previous trial records and ask applicants to declare for the record their innocence or guilt. Appeals rarely resulted in the courts overturning their original decisions.
Amnesty: Authorities annually grant amnesty and release individuals imprisoned for religious extremism or political grounds. For example, in February journalist Dilmurod Saidov was released after eight years in jail for conviction of alleged charges of extortion. Additionally, in March civil society activist Gaybullo Jalilov was released. Jalilov, who was sentenced in 2009 on security related charges and for membership in an unregistered religious organization, consistently maintained his innocence. In 2013 the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Arrest and Detention called for Jalilov’s release. Also in March, journalist Gayrat Mikhliboev and activists Yuldash Rasulov, Chuyan Mamatkulov, and Kudrat Rasulov were released. More than 16 other prisoners of conscience were released during the year. In May the Committee for the Protection of Journalists reported the country’s prisons were free of journalists for the first time in more than two decades. According to Human Rights Watch, since September 2016 Uzbek authorities have released approximately 40 persons imprisoned on politically motivated charges.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, there were some instances in which the judiciary did not operate with complete independence and impartiality. Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, members of the judiciary reportedly rendered verdicts desired by the Prosecutor General’s Office or other law enforcement bodies. This was due in part to a shortage of judges and high caseloads, which the government was moving to address by increasing the number of law students.
Under amended Articles 63, 63-1, and 63-2, which came into effect in April 2017, judges are appointed by the newly established Supreme Judicial Council, subject to concurrence by the Senate. “Lifetime” appointments became possible, “a judge shall be appointed or elected in accordance with the established procedure for an initial five-year term, a regular 10-year term and a subsequent indefinite period of tenure.”
The criminal code specifies a presumption of innocence. Most trials were officially open to the public, although access was sometimes restricted. Judges may close trials in exceptional cases, such as those involving state secrets or to protect victims and witnesses. Judges generally permitted international observers at proceedings without requiring written permission from the Supreme Court or court chairmen, but judges or other officials arbitrarily closed some proceedings to observers, even in civil cases. Authorities generally announced trials only one or two days before they began, and hearings were frequently postponed.
A panel of one professional judge and two lay assessors, selected by committees of worker collectives or neighborhood committees, generally presided over trials. Lay judges rarely speak, and the professional judge usually accepts the prosecutors’ recommendations on procedural rulings and sentencing.
Defendants have the right to attend court proceedings, confront witnesses, and present evidence, but judges declined defense motions to summon additional witnesses or to enter evidence supporting the defendant into the record. While the overwhelming majority of criminal cases brought to trial resulted in guilty verdicts, the number of acquittals has risen. From 2011 to 2016, there were just seven acquittals, according to the Supreme Court. In 2017 there were 162 acquittals out of 59,135 criminal court cases. By contrast, as of September, the country’s courts acquitted 569 individuals. The number of acquittals has risen in recent years due to criminal justice reforms that include greater transparency in court procedures and broader access for defense teams to prosecutorial evidence.
Defendants have the right to hire an attorney although some human rights activists encountered difficulties finding legal representation. The government provided legal counsel and interpreters without charge when necessary. According to credible reports, state-appointed defense attorneys routinely acted in the interest of the government rather than of their clients because of their reliance on the state for a livelihood and fear of possible recrimination.
By law a prosecutor must request an arrest order from a court, and courts rarely denied such requests. Prosecutors have considerable power after obtaining an arrest order: they direct investigations, prepare criminal cases, recommend sentences to judges, and may appeal court decisions, including sentences. After formal charges are filed, the prosecutor decides whether a suspect is released on bail, stays in pretrial detention, or is kept under house arrest. Although the criminal code specifies a presumption of innocence, a prosecutor’s recommendations generally prevailed. If a judge’s sentence does not correspond with the prosecutor’s recommendation, the prosecutor may appeal the sentence to a higher court. Judges often based their verdicts solely on confessions and witness testimony, which authorities allegedly were thought to extract through abuse, threats to family members, or other means of coercion. This was especially common in religious extremism cases. Lawyers may, and occasionally did, call on judges to reject confessions and investigate claims of torture.
Following the president’s December 2017 decree prohibiting the use of evidence derived from torture, judges increasingly responded to claims of torture. In September Jahongir Umarov, a businessman who was earlier sentenced to five years in prison for conviction of drug abuse, was released after he claimed in court proceedings that he was tortured by security service personnel into providing a false confession. A court-ordered examination revealed a rib fracture from physical abuse.
In September the government introduced live coverage of court hearings. Online translation services allow the real time monitoring of court hearings in Uzbek and Russian, including for mobile phone users. Legal protections against double jeopardy were not applied.
The law provides a right of appeal to defendants, but appeals rarely resulted in reversals of convictions. In some cases, however, appeals resulted in reduced or suspended sentences.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
International and domestic human rights organizations estimated that authorities held hundreds of prisoners on political grounds. The government allows limited access to such persons by human rights or humanitarian organizations such as the Tashkent-based independent human rights organization Ezgulik. According to Human Rights Watch and the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, Uzbekistan continued to release prisoners of conscience during the year, which resulted in no imprisoned journalists or civil society activists for the first time in more than two decades. Also according to Human Rights Watch, since September 2016 Uzbek authorities have released approximately 40 persons imprisoned on politically motivated charges; however, many others are still being held. The exact number of political prisoners has not been determined.
According to numerous former political prisoners, the government provides released prisoners with material compensation upon parole. Such compensation includes travel expenses to one’s place of residence, health benefits, and the issuance of a 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 typically includes a prohibition on travel abroad for up to one year. 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.
HRW reported that “though Uzbek authorities have amnestied some political prisoners and released others early, in some cases such prisoners were unable to obtain materials necessary to appeal their unlawful convictions.” In May, Samandar Kukanov, a former member of parliament released in November 2016 after a 23-year sentence that human rights organizations claimed was the result of peaceful opposition activity, filed an appeal with the Tashkent Regional Court to review his criminal conviction. According to HRW, in September, Kukanov received a letter from the court informing him that in April the “materials of his criminal case” had been “destroyed in accordance with established procedure” by the Tashkent Region State Archive and thus his requests for “full rehabilitation” could not be reviewed.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Citizens may file suit in civil courts for alleged human rights violations by officials, excluding investigators, prosecutors, and judges. There were reports that bribes to judges influenced civil court decisions.
Although the constitution and law forbid arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence, authorities did not respect these prohibitions. The law requires that prosecutors approve requests for search warrants for electronic surveillance, but there is no provision for judicial review of such warrants.
There were reports that police and other security forces entered the homes of human rights activists and members of religious groups without a warrant. According to Forum 18, a Norwegian NGO that reports on religious freedom, members of Baptist, Protestant, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other minority churches holding worship services in private homes reported that armed security officers raided services and detained and fined church members for religious activity deemed illegal. Among such incidents were raids in Fergana in February, in Karakalpakstan in July and in Chust in August. Baptist congregants reported home intrusions by authorities even when they gathered to celebrate important occasions such as birthdays. They also reported harassment and interference by authorities when publicly reading the Bible.
Human rights activists and political opposition figures generally assumed that security agencies covertly monitored their telephone calls and activities.
The government continued to use an estimated 12,000 neighborhood (mahalla) committees as a source of information on potential “extremists.” The committees provided various social support functions, but they also functioned as an informational link from local society to government and law enforcement. Mahallas in rural areas tended to be more influential than those in cities.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
In 2016 parliament approved a new law to fight corruption. The law strengthens criminal penalties for conviction of official corruption. Despite some high-level corruption-related arrests, corruption remained endemic, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
Corruption: In July the governor of Samarkand province, Turobjon Juraev, and his deputy resigned in connection to construction projects in UNESCO-protected areas of Samarkand city that caused public outrage. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek language service, Ozodlik, reported that after Prime Minister Aripov’s personal investigation into the case, law enforcement officials found a number of violations of construction norms. Companies that built residential apartments affecting historical sites had paid a substantial amount of money to obtain approval from the local government. According to Ozodlik, the governor and his deputy have been in custody since July 10.
Financial Disclosure: Government officials are required by law to disclose only income from outside employment, and such disclosures were not publicly available.