a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that 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, issued in January, to visit the country.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The country has laws governing the conduct of law enforcement officers and addresses torture, including language that states, “Employees of the internal affairs ministry may not employ torture, violence, or other cruel or degrading treatments. The employee of the internal affairs ministry is obliged to prevent intentional acts causing pain, physical or moral suffering to the citizen.” The law bans the use of evidence obtained by torture in court proceedings. In addition, an antitorture law includes 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.
In late September, local officials in Khorezm detained blogger Nafosat “Shabnam” Ollashkurova after she posted on Facebook content criticizing local government corruption, including postings about illegal demolitions. Prior to her arrest, Ollashkurova also documented a protest by journalist and poet Mahmud Rajabov against a criminal case that authorities had brought against him. Ollashkurova served 10 days of administrative detention, following which the Urgench district civil court ordered authorities to place her in the Khorezm regional psychiatric center for six months of forced evaluation and treatment. Early in her detention, officials did not allow her to contact her family. Following an October 21 visit by the ombudsman for human rights, the regional psychiatric center’s officials permitted her to speak with her mother as well as human rights activists. Ollashkurova was released from the regional psychiatric center on December 28.
While the constitution and law prohibit abuse, civil society reported law enforcement and security officers routinely beat and otherwise mistreated those held on criminal charges to obtain confessions, incriminating information, or for corrupt financial gain. Activists reported physical abuse of political and religious detainees somewhat decreased in the previous year, with methods shifted more to psychological manipulation, including humiliation, threats to activists’ family members, and threats to withhold medical treatment. There was at least one report of sexual assault against a female detainee.
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.
The government did take steps to prosecute officials suspected of human rights abuses. In one illustrative case, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek Service, citing a law enforcement source, reported in June that five senior security officials in Bukhara region were convicted of torture and abuse of office and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. A former chief of the State Security Service Directorate in Bukhara, Rustam Azimov, was reportedly also convicted at a closed trial and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Physical Conditions: Reports of overcrowding, severe abuse, and shortages of medicine were common. Officials generally provided inmates access to poor quality potable water and food. 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 commonly lacked heat or air conditioning. Upon release, political prisoners have in recent years reported to Human Rights Watch and others of being beaten and otherwise tortured, including being held in 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. International experts noted, however, that the rate of infectious diseases in prisons was not public knowledge and believed that the rates of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS were very likely higher in prisons than in the general population due to subpar sanitary conditions, population density, and lack of access to healthcare professionals. Poor compliance with treatment plans and other implementation issues undermined government efforts to lower infection rates.
Administration: On July 1, the Ministry of Internal Affairs issued new administrative rules governing the rights of prisoners in all penal institutions. Prisoners are entitled to outdoor exercise during nonworking hours, psychological treatment, and safe working conditions. In addition, prisoners are eligible for salaries and other work benefits. In the event of serious illness, prisoners can receive additional phone privileges and family visits upon a physician’s advice. The rules also state that prisoners should undergo a medical examination upon request and at intervals of not more than six months. No information on implementation of these rules was publicly available.
There was no information available regarding 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 an individual to prison if he or she has paid a fine in full. The government usually respected these injunctions unless authorities considered a case to be 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. Some family members of detained or released prisoners said the Ombudsman either did not respond to their complaints or referred them to the original sentencing court for redress.
Prison officials typically allowed family members to visit prisoners for up to four hours two to four times per year. 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. There was at least one case in which authorities did not allow family visits at all. Authorities relocated some religious and political prisoners to housing in prison colonies rather than formal prisons. The colonies often allowed prisoners to come and go regularly and to have more family contact. Some prisoners were allowed to work and earn money inside or outside the colony.
The government stated that prisoners have the right to practice any religion, but some prisoners complained to family members that prison authorities did not permit them to observe religious rituals that conflicted with the prison’s schedule. Such rituals included traditional Islamic morning prayers. While some activists reported this situation has improved, others said the practice continued. Authorities forbid all 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 all religious 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: Some human rights activists reported that lawyers had no problems meeting with their clients, although others disputed this, saying access was both limited and monitored. The NGO Ezgulik reported it had no problems accessing any prisoner. Some independent observers had 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 (ICRC) has not visited detainees since 2013.
Improvements: On August 2, President Mirziyoyev signed a decree to close the Jaslyk prison. No prisoners remain in Jaslyk; officials have transferred inmates to prisons closest to their home districts, in direct contrast to past practice. During the UN Committee against Torture’s review of Uzbekistan in November, the Uzbekistan delegation indicated that national-level officials transferred possession of the building and property previously used as the Jaslyk prison colony to local officials in Nukus. The delegation stated that Nukus officials would not use it as holding cells for pretrial detention and that local officials were still determining what to do with this property.
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 and continued to engage in such practices.
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 they should remain incarcerated or released before trial. Authorities often grant these hearings, but typically grant requests from prosecutors, thereby undermining the spirit of judicial oversight. 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. Civil society reported that authorities physically abused 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 a judge to extend detention an additional 48 hours, after which the person must be charged or released. Judges typically grant such requests and the judge who issues such an extension is often the same one that presides over the trial, which creates incentives to cover up violations. 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 seven months 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.
In some sensitive cases, authorities detained suspects incommunicado. In December 2018 officials detained Kadyr Yusupov, a former Uzbekistan diplomat, after a suicide attempt; in the hospital, Yusupov said he started spying for an unspecified Western country in 2015. His relatives disputed this, noting that he has suffered periodic, severe episodes of schizophrenia and took medication. Authorities denied his family access to him for more than 300 days. The family reported that detention facility officials denied Yusupov access to his medication and that authorities visited their home and threatened them after they went public with the story of how authorities treated Yusupov.
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities continued to arrest or detain persons arbitrarily, although religious groups reported that arbitrary detention of their members no longer occurs.
The government has phased out the use of preventative watch lists, which contained the names of those convicted for religious crimes or crimes against the regime. In July, Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov announced that since 2016, authorities removed more than 20,000 prisoners convicted on religious grounds from the watch list. It was unknown how many individuals remained on the watch list. Previously, authorities compelled named individuals on the watch list 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 law provides for a commission to review the prison profiles of convicts sentenced on charges of religious extremism. Based on the work of the commission, from 2017 to 2018 the president reduced or commuted the sentences of more than 3,000 religious prisoners. Another commission reviews the petitions of persons “who mistakenly became members of banned organizations.” While the commission has the power to exonerate citizens from all criminal liability, observers reported it has not exercised this power in the majority of cases the commission reviewed.
Pretrial Detention: Prosecutors generally exercised discretion regarding most aspects of criminal procedures, including pretrial detention. Authorities did not provide access to detainees to a court to challenge the length or validity of pretrial detention, despite the law granting detainees the right to do so. Even when authorities did not file charges, police and prosecutors frequently sought to evade restrictions on the length of time that persons could be held without charges by holding them as witnesses rather than as suspects. The Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the prison system, did not provide information regarding the number of persons held in pretrial detention centers or allow access to independent organizations.
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 were sometimes open to the public by request of the applicant. New evidence was rarely heard. Appeal courts generally reviewed previous trial records and asked applicants to declare for the record their innocence or guilt. Appeals rarely resulted in the courts overturning their original decisions.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for ajudiciary; however, the judiciary does not operate with complete independence and impartiality. The Prosecutor General’s Office or other law enforcement bodies occasionally exerted inappropriate pressure on members of the judiciary to render desired verdicts. Regardless of the length of their term, judges can still be arbitrarily dismissed by the Supreme Judicial Council, making them vulnerable to political pressure.
Judges are appointed by the Supreme Judicial Council, subject to concurrence by the Senate. According to the law, “lifetime” appointments are possible under certain circumstances. The law provides, “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.” Regardless of the term of appointment, the Supreme Judicial Council may dismiss judges.
Judges and prosecutors continued to engage in corruption. Authorities did take some measures to prosecute officials engaged in corruption. In July the head of the Chinaz Criminal Court (Tashkent region) was arrested on charges that he accepted a bribe of $3,000, and criminal proceedings were underway.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but in practice this was not always the case. The criminal code specifies a presumption of innocence. Judicial authorities officially opened most trials to the public and 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. Judges may close trials in exceptional cases, such as those involving state secrets or to protect victims and witnesses. Security services sometimes harassed family members when international observers attended trials, threatening them not to allow international observers to attend subsequent proceedings. Authorities generally announced trials only one or two days before they begin, and they frequently postponed hearings.
A panel of one professional judge and two lay assessors, selected by committees of worker collectives or neighborhood committees, generally presided over trials. Lay assessors rarely speak. 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 often declined defense motions to summon additional witnesses or to enter evidence supporting the defendant into the record.
On November 12, an administrative court in Chirchik ruled against Elena Urlaeva, the leader of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, and her colleague, Solmaz Akhmedova, on charges of hooliganism. The case centered on their attendance (as accredited representatives of the International Labor Organization) at a government meeting on implementation of cotton harvesting rules. When Urlaeva began to take photos, the meeting was halted and the activists removed. Neither Urlaeva nor her colleague were notified of the date of the court hearing until after it took place, and the judge ruled against them in absentia, ordering them to pay a fine of 22,300 s’om ($2.37).
While the overwhelming majority of criminal cases brought to trial resulted in guilty verdicts, the number of acquittals has risen. From 2011 to 2016, for example, judicial panels acquitted defendants in just seven criminal cases, according to the Supreme Court. In 2017 judicial panels acquitted the defendants in 263 out of 59,135 criminal court cases.
During a press conference following his September visit to the country, the UN special rapporteur on independence of judges and lawyers, Diego Garcia-Sayan, highlighted the creation of the Supreme Judicial Council, the increase in acquittals, and the establishment of a process to improve the public’s access to court rulings, as key steps toward promoting judiciary independence in the country. While acknowledging some progress, he listed areas that needed further improvement, including the need to institutionalize practices that protect the separation of powers among the three branches of government; end corruption and discipline judges; and increase the number and independence of lawyers, particularly outside of Tashkent. Although Special Rapporteur Garcia-Sayan met with a variety of stakeholders from the government and civil society during his visit, authorities did not grant his request to visit with a high-profile political prisoner. Contacts report that individuals who met with him experienced intimidation from government officials either prior to or following their meetings.
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.
On September 12, the Ministry of Justice registered the nongovernmental, nonprofit organization Madad, whose purpose is to help increase legal awareness and provide free legal advice and practical legal assistance, including through the operation of an online portal Advice.uz (e-maslahat.uz).
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 prevail. 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 that authorities in some cases allegedly extracted through abuse, threats to family members, or other means of coercion. Authorities commonly used these practices in religious extremism cases in particular. Both defense lawyers and prosecutors may call on judges to reject confessions and investigate claims of torture.
The government continued to broadcast live coverage of court hearings when both parties grant consent, limiting such broadcasts to minor cases typically involving administrative offenses or economic cases. Despite the Supreme Court’s recent efforts to publish rulings on its website, lower-level courts generally did not publish their rulings, making it difficult for defense lawyers to build arguments based on precedent.
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
The number of political prisoners and detainees is unknown. The government did not provide official numbers. Some civil society organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, estimated the government was detaining approximately two dozen political prisoners. The Tashkent-based human rights organization Ezgulik and other domestic human rights groups in the country reported only three remaining political prisoners.
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. Charges against these individuals included organizing illegal public gatherings and distributing materials that threaten public safety, attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, extremism, and treason.
According to numerous former political prisoners, the government provides released prisoners with an allowance upon parole to help them reintegrate into society, although some have 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 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.
High-level government officials periodically visited different regions of the country to conduct outreach to vulnerable social groups, such as former prisoners. In May, during a town hall-style meeting in the city of Fergana, a presidential advisor met with former political prisoners and families of current religious prisoners to hear their complaints. Participants voiced concerns about the difficulty of placing children into kindergartens, obtaining assistance in securing housing, and receiving medical treatment, and prisoners expressed concerns over their parole terms.
Some former political prisoners pointed out that, on paper, they are still considered criminals because authorities did not fully exonerate them upon release. For example, Samander Kukanov, a former member of parliament released in 2016 after serving part of a 23-year sentence, filed an appeal with the Tashkent Regional Court in May to review his criminal conviction. The court formally denied his appeal in September, citing the Tashkent Region State Archive’s destruction of the evidence in his case in 2017 “in accordance with established procedure” as the reason why it could not review his request for “full rehabilitation.”
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 during the year, without success. 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. President Mirziyoyev released or reduced the sentences of 776 prisoners detained on religious extremism or other grounds. On September 26, the Mirabod Regional Court acquitted Andrey Kubatin, a 35-year-old Uzbek scholar of Turkic languages and history, after a court sentenced him to 11 years’ imprisonment in 2017 for allegedly spying for Turkey and committing treason against the state.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Citizens may file suit in civil courts for alleged human rights violations by officials, excluding investigators, prosecutors, and judges. Civil society reported in the past that bribes accepted by judges influenced their court decisions in these cases.
Government urban renewal campaigns to demolish older, Soviet-era apartment blocks and private homes in both Tashkent and other regions resulted in authorities displacing tens of thousands of citizens from their homes and businesses, often without due process. Officials allegedly did not provide adequate compensation to many citizens for their property. Authorities moved thousands of individuals to unsanitary temporary shelters. The resulting public protests in several locations led to swift central government action in August to compensate financially many citizens. Authorities punished some local government officials responsible for the demolitions, including by firing these local officials from their jobs. Law enforcement authorities initiated or continued criminal investigations of some officials for their role in the demolitions.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
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.
The government adopted a unified statute addressing matters related to personal data protection and processing on July 2. Previously, numerous laws and resolutions regulated the government’s protection of and processing procedures for individuals’ personal data, which complicated compliance requirements. This law was the country’s first attempt to unify personal data regulations in line with international standards.
Activists noted that police stopped raiding the homes of religious groups’ members and unregistered congregations.
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, including the distribution of social welfare assistance to the elderly, single parents, or families with many children; intervention in cases of domestic violence; and adjudication of disputes between residents, but they also served as a way to feed information about local community members to the government and law enforcement entities. Mahallas in rural areas tended to be more influential than those in cities.