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A little girl peeks around the curtain as a family member casts her ballot.

TASHKENT -- Votes are being tallied after Uzbekistan's first parliamentary elections since President Shavkat Mirziyoev came to power nearly three years ago.

Mirziyoev has promised reforms since taking over leadership of a country that boasts Central Asia's second-largest economy but has also been among the region's most authoritarian following independence from the Soviet Union.

The Central Election Commission said preliminary results from the December 22 vote would be announced at 2 p.m. local time (0900 GMT) on December 23.

The commission said turnout appeared to have been around 70 percent.

The elections were being held under the slogan "New Uzbekistan, New Elections."

But analysts said during the campaign that the country's 20 million eligible voters again faced a limited choice, and significant curbs on freedom of assembly and other rights that could make political races truly competitive.

Uzbek Central Election Commission Chairman Mirzo-Ulugbek Abdusalomonov, speaking on election day, appeared to acknowledge the limited role of any true opposition parties so far in the country.

"We hope that our political system will be further developing and the political parties will also be developing," Abdusalomonov told RFE/RL after a midday press conference. "There should be new parties. We expect that alongside the currently existing parties, opposition parties will be established. This is the main thing, because there will be no development without an opposition."

The five political parties running in the parliamentary elections are all represented in the current body, long viewed as a rubber-stamp institution.

The Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (LDPU) currently holds 52 seats, the most in the 150-seat Oliy Majlis, the lower house of parliament. Next is Milli Tiklanish (National Revival party) with 36.

But Mirziyoev has urged lawmakers to take a greater role in policymaking, and preelection debate was said to have been more robust than in years past.

Polls opened early on December 22 in the capital to sunshine despite a light snowfall the evening before.

Hojiakbar Adulazizov, a 25-year-old working in the natural gas industry: "I believe we live in the 21st century. Everyone has a gadget where they can find any information any minute."
Hojiakbar Adulazizov, a 25-year-old working in the natural gas industry: "I believe we live in the 21st century. Everyone has a gadget where they can find any information any minute."

And although two Uzbek TV channels had round-the-clock election coverage, there was little sign on the streets of Tashkent that the day was anything but a mild first winter's Sunday.

A toy store employee seemed surprised that it was election day but told RFE/RL with a slight grin that he would be voting later.

A couple waiting for a bus outside a Russian Orthodox Church said they had other things to do.

During the day, there were reports of violations at some polling stations, including attempts by voters to cast multiple ballots.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service posted a video that appeared to show an attempt to stuff at least 20 ballots into a box at a Ferghana Province polling station.

Abdumanap Rustavletov, a 68-year-old retiree, casts his ballot. "The future is with the young ones," he said.
Abdumanap Rustavletov, a 68-year-old retiree, casts his ballot. "The future is with the young ones," he said.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had warned that many features of past, deeply flawed votes remained in place.

Its election observers were expected to present their conclusions on December 23.

The legal process for registering new parties remains "burdensome and open to arbitrary application," the OSCE warned in an interim report released on December 13.

It said the election campaign did not meet international standards. "Very few campaign posters are visible,” it said.

“So far, very little evidence of outdoor campaign activities has been observed," the report said.

At a voting station in Tashkent, Hojiakbar Adulazizov told RFE/RL that if voters were uninformed it was their own fault.

"I believe we live in the 21st century. Everyone has a gadget where they can find any information any minute. It's up to that person, whether he wants to get some kind of information or not," Adulazizov said.

While some media restrictions appear to have been eased under Mirziyoev, Freedom House ranked Uzbekistan "not free" in its Freedom On The Net 2018 assessment and said the Internet environment there remained "repressive." The group cited obstacles to access for many Uzbeks, limits on content, and violations of users' rights.

But it noted "a slight opening," along with signs of a newfound willingness to "promote citizen engagement using online tools."

Uzbek Abdumanap Rustavletov said on election day that he was voting to put a new generation in power.

"The future is with the young ones," he said.

Voting station No. 220 was relatively quiet by midafternoon on December 22, with two or three people at a time filing in to cast ballots until a group of about 40 men showed up.

A local election official, Murtazin Ravil, told RFE/RL that the group consisted of construction workers who were from outside the city but were temporarily working in Tashkent. He said they had been brought here to give them a chance to vote.

A polling station in Tashkent was quiet until this group of men arrived.
A polling station in Tashkent was quiet until this group of men arrived.

The party with some of the boldest promises is Milli Tiklanish, which opposes Uzbekistan's potential entry into a trade bloc led by ally Russia and wants to replace Prime Minister Abdula Aripov with its own candidate.

But Milli Tiklanish backs Mirziyoev's reform agenda, just like all the other four parties.

Uzbekistan's political evolution "will need time," the party's chairman Alisher Kadyrov told AFP. "Our problems did not appear yesterday but over a number of years."

Narimon Umarov, the leader of the Adolat (Justice) Social Democratic Party, echoed that sentiment in comments to RFE/RL.

"Our political parties also need to have some real work experience. Freedom of speech is a very difficult thing. It's something that takes real responsibility. We understand that responsibility. We, as a political party, in this election process, got real experience," Umarov said.

Umarov also dismissed criticism that all five parties running in the election support Mirziyoev.

"The president is the leader of the country. The elected president. Therefore, we respect him, we recognize him. On this common process for development, we work together on today's reforms," Umarov said.

Though no genuine opposition parties are registered to compete, there was a new party running in these elections: the Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan (OEH), which was registered in January.

However, the new party has already stirred controversy, with reports of some “members” being forced to join. It has also backed plans to build a nuclear power plant in Uzbekistan, prompting some commentators to say it is the only “green” party in the world to support atomic energy.

Mirziyoev released more than 50 high-profile political prisoners since coming to power, but there are still unknown numbers locked away. And despite legislation outlawing it, there are continued reports of torture in Uzbekistan's prisons.

U.K.-based The Economist awarded its annual "Country of the Year" prize for the greatest improvement to Uzbekistan, saying "no other country traveled as far."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, AFP, and Reuters

MULTAN, Pakistan -- A Muslim professor in Pakistan has been sentenced to death after being convicted of blasphemy.

A court in Multan on December 21 found Junaid Hafeez guilty of spreading anti-Islamic ideas.

Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law carries an automatic death penalty for anyone accused of insulting God, Islam, or religious figures.

Defense attorney Shahbaz Gormani said he would appeal the verdict, stating his client had been wrongly convicted.

Hafeez was also fined half a million Pakistani rupees (over $3,200) on December 21.

Police arrested Hafeez in 2013 for allegedly displaying blasphemous content while a visiting professor at Bahauddin Zakariya University in the city of Multan, which is located in central Punjab Province.

Hafeez had been held for six years awaiting trial. He's spent most of that time in solitary confinement.

Amnesty International in September appealed to the Pakistani authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the 33-yaer-old Hafeez.

“Junaid’s lengthy trial has gravely affected his mental and physical health, endangered him and his family, and exemplifies the misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws,” said Rabia Mehmood, Amnesty International's regional researcher.

While authorities have yet to carry out a death sentence for blasphemy, even the mere accusation can cause riots.

Domestic and international human rights groups say blasphemy allegations have often been used to intimidate religious minorities and to settle personal scores.

A Punjab governor was killed by his own guard in 2011 after he defended a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who was accused of blasphemy.

She was acquitted in January after spending eight years on death row in a case that drew international media attention. Faced with death threats from Islamic extremists upon her release, she flew to Canada to join her daughters in May.

With reporting by AP

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