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Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Uzbekistan has carried out "some" human rights reforms in recent years, but continues to "severely" hinder the work of independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with "excessive and burdensome" registration requirements.

The government of President Shavkat Mirziyoev should amend the legislation and allow independent groups to register NGOs that seek to work on sensitive issues, including human rights and forced labor, the New York-based human rights watchdog said in a statement on January 7.

HRW said the Uzbek government has taken “some important steps” to ease the registration process since Mirziyoev took over Central Asia's most populous nation of 32 million in 2016, including reducing the registration fee, cutting the time period for government review of registration documents, and opening a portal that allows submission of applications by independent groups online.

However, “vague and burdensome” rules remain in place despite a commitment made by the president in 2018 to sweep away restrictions on NGOs, according to HRW.

It quoted representatives of six independent groups that have sought registration in Uzbekistan in recent years as saying that their registration applications had been rejected, often “for minor alleged mistakes, including grammar or even minor punctuation mistakes, missing information, or the language used in application documents.”

The legislation includes “excessive requirements for registration and an extensive list of reasons for rejection, making decision-making by authorities appear arbitrary,” according to the representatives.

One of the NGOs was finally allowed to register on its third attempt, HRW said.

Vladislav Lobanov, assistant Europe and Central Asia researcher at HRW, said the Uzbek government needs to respond to international calls for civil society be allowed to act freely.

Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed concern that “current legislation continues to impose restrictions on the right to freedom of association” and over “the small number of independent self-initiated NGOs registered [in the country, and] the high number of rejections for registration.”

The European Union and the United States have also expressed concern over registration barriers for NGOs.

Kazakh rights activist Serikzhan Bilash (file photo)

A naturalized Kazakh citizen from China's northwestern region of Xinjiang says his activities as a self-exiled activist in Turkey helped five ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizens obtain refugee status in Kazakhstan in 2020.

Serikzhan Bilash and his family moved from Kazakhstan to Turkey in September after he faced controversial charges of inciting ethnic hatred.

In an interview with RFE/RL published on January 6, Bilash said Kazakh authorities have been reluctant to give refugee status to ethnic Kazakhs who've fled Xinjiang to avoid incarceration in China's so-called reeducation camps for Muslim indigenous ethnic groups.

Bilash said that, after moving to Turkey, he met with Turkish rights activists about the cases of ethnic Kazakhs who've fled to Kazakhstan from China.

With their assistance, Bilash said Turkish authorities were asked to to give Turkish citizenship to five ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang -- Qaisha Aqan, Qaster Musakhanuly, Murager Alimuly, Baghashar Malikuly, and Tilek Tabarikuly.

All five were tried in Kazakhstan on charges of illegally crossing the border into Kazakhstan.

Bilash claims the effort in Turkey contributed to a decision by Kazakh authorities to provide the five with a one-year refugee status in Kazakhstan.

"After we publicly announced we were seeking Turkish citizenship for the five Kazakhs from Xinjiang, some people from Kazakhstan met with us in 2020 and asked us to withdraw the move, saying that Kazakhstan would soon solve the issue," Bilash said.

Shortly after that, Bilash told RFE/RL, the five received temporary refugee status in Kazakhstan.

2019 Arrest

Bilash himself was arrested in Kazakhstan in 2019 and charged with inciting ethnic hatred after he'd campaigned for the release of ethnic Kazakhs from the detention centers in China.

He was held in pretrial detention and under house arrest for five months.

Bilash led the Atazhurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Fatherland) group. The group staged a series of demonstrations during 2018 and 2019 that brought together ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang who've resettled in Kazakhstan.

The group has asked for help from Kazakh authorities to secure the release of relatives and friends held at the notorious camps in Xinjiang.

Bilash was also fined about $300 by Kazakh authorities in August 2019.

In November, the United Nations' Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that the Kazakh government violated international human rights law when it detained Bilash.

The U.S. State Department has said that as many as 2 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and members of Xinjiang's other indigenous, mostly Muslim, ethnic groups have been taken to detention centers in China.

Beijing says that the facilities are "vocational education centers" aimed at helping people steer clear of terrorism and allowing them to be reintegrated into society.

Kazakhs are the second-largest Turkic-speaking indigenous community in Xinjiang after Uyghurs.

The region is also home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Hui, also known as Dungans. Han, China's largest ethnicity, are the second-largest community in Xinjiang.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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