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Life Changes For Karakalpaks In Kazakhstan Since Deadly Crackdown In Homeland

A meeting of the Karakalpak diaspora in Almaty in June 2022
A meeting of the Karakalpak diaspora in Almaty in June 2022

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Aqylbek Muratov, a 35-year-old computer programmer in Almaty, says he wants to strengthen ties among his fellow ethnic Karakalpaks living in Kazakhstan.

Muratov, who was born in Uzbekistan's Navoi region, began reaching out to members of the diaspora via social media about 10 years ago. It was during his online searches that Muratov met fellow ethnic Karakalpak Koshkarbai Toremuratov, who also lives in Kazakhstan.

The two men decided to set up a Karakalpak diaspora group in Almaty in 2013, calling on fellow Karakalpaks to meet up regularly.

"I had an office at the time, and I called on people to get together on Sundays," Muratov told RFE/RL.

Aqylbek Muratov (right) and Koshkarbai Toremuratov
Aqylbek Muratov (right) and Koshkarbai Toremuratov

Muratov recalls that "only three to five people would turn up one Sunday," then 50 people would come to the next meeting, and "again five people in another gathering."

"It was sluggish but…people would gather every Sunday."

Muratov and Toremuratov set up a website on which they would publish articles about the culture and history of Karakalpaks. They also started an online radio station.

When the group organized a party to celebrate Norouz in March 2014, about 180 people came for the gathering, Muratov said. The guests wore traditional Karakalpak clothes and hats.

Muratov described the gatherings as social and cultural events aimed at building and improving ties among the diaspora.

Increased Scrutiny

But the group quickly came under the scrutiny of Kazakh and Uzbek authorities. It began in 2014 and intensified following the July 2022 protests in their homeland: Uzbekistan's sprawling Karakalpakstan region.

At least 18 people were killed and more than 200 others were injured during a crackdown on protesters and riots fueled by Tashkent's plan to curtail the autonomous region's constitutional right to secede from Uzbekistan.

Tashkent blamed what it called malicious forces abroad for the rare protests in Karakalpakstan, the mostly desert region of some 1.8 million people.

In Kazakhstan, some ethnic Karakalpaks have been interrogated by police, while several activists were taken into custody -- reportedly at Uzbekistan's request -- following the protests.

Other diaspora members have had their asylum requests in Kazakhstan denied. Five people from Muratov's close circle -- including Toremuratov -- were detained by police and still remain in custody.

A demonstration in Nukus in July 2022
A demonstration in Nukus in July 2022

The four others are activists Zhangeldy Zhaqsymbetov, Tleubeke Yuldasheva, Ziyar Mirmanbetova, and Raisa Khudaiberganova. Initial charges against some of them include undermining the constitutional order of Uzbekistan.

RFE/RL contacted both Uzbek and Kazakh authorities but didn't receive any replies.

The exact number of ethnic Karakalpaks in Kazakhstan is unknown.

Controversial Statement

State pressure on Karakalpak activists in Kazakhstan started in 2014, Muratov said.

After Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, a member of the Karakalpak diaspora abroad, Aman Sagidullaev, issued an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin asking him for support for the self-determination of Karakalpakstan.

Muratov and friends at a Norouz celebration on March 21, 2022, in Almaty
Muratov and friends at a Norouz celebration on March 21, 2022, in Almaty

"Sagidullaev began to openly claim that ‘we too, want to return to our real homeland,' meaning that Karakalpakstan used to be part of the Russian Federation [in the 1920s – early 1930s]. His statement swiftly caught media attention," Muratov said.

"It put us in the spotlight. The situation was aggravated by Sagidullaev's claim that all ethnocultural Karakalpak groups outside Uzbekistan are indeed underground cells of supporters of secession from Uzbekistan, although this is not what we did or declared," Muratov said.

Sagiduallev's statement negatively impacted the mood among the diaspora in Kazakhstan, according to Muratov.

People began to avoid get-togethers because they feared "being drawn into politics," he said.

Muratov and Toremuratov added a disclaimer to their website that they don't belong to any political group and that their work entirely focuses on Karakalpak history and culture.

It didn't convince the authorities in Uzbekistan, however.

In September 2014, Toremuratov was allegedly lured into visiting Uzbekistan, where he was arrested and sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison on charges of illegally crossing the border.

Muratov called the case politically motivated.

'Like Being Tied To A Chair'

Toremuratov was granted an early release from prison in 2017. He returned to Kazakhstan and began writing blogs on political and social-economic issues.

Muratov's work, meanwhile, continued to focus on organizing cultural events and assisting the diaspora members in their everyday issues, such as problems with employment or documentation.

Diaspora members resumed their cultural events, such as Norouz celebrations.

Diaspora at the celebration of the Day of Unity of the People of Kazakhstan on May 1
Diaspora at the celebration of the Day of Unity of the People of Kazakhstan on May 1

Muratov said the situation eventually calmed down again until June 2022 -- the days leading to the deadly protests. Uzbekistan published draft amendments to its constitution, including one that set to remove Karakalpakstan's constitutional right to secede from Uzbekistan and become an independent country.

He said he initiated a petition expressing disagreement with the amendments. He planned to have the petition signed by the diaspora members and hand it over to the Uzbek Embassy.

Muratov said he was approached by unnamed officials from the Almaty city government who told him to call off his action.

Protests soon erupted in Karakalpakstan. He said watching the rallies and their aftermath from afar felt like "being tied to a chair and forced to watch your relatives being tortured before your eyes."

Unlike other Karakalpak activists in Kazakhstan, Muratov has been spared interrogations and jail. Muratov believes his interactions with journalists, rights activists, and European Parliament members have played a role, as authorities don't want to risk more negative publicity by arresting him.

Human rights organizations have urged Kazakhstan not to hand the jailed Karakalpak activists to Uzbekistan.

Written by Farangis Najibullah in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Khadisha Aqaeva

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