Uzbek authorities say they are probing the cause of a dam collapse that killed at least four people and drove tens of thousands more out of their homes earlier this month.
Officials blame the mishap on "anomalous severe windstorms."
But there have been calls, particularly via social media, for the government to hold the individuals in charge of the Sardoba Dam's construction -- a multimillion-dollar, eight-year project that concluded in 2017 -- responsible.
President Shavkat Mirziyoev's official website says that as prime minister at the time, Mirziyoev was behind the initiative to build the dam -- designed to hold 922 million cubic meters of water -- to irrigate farmlands in the Jizzakh and Sirdaryo provinces.
The collapse of the dam on May 1 prompted questions among Uzbeks about potential corruption, cronyism, and a lack of transparency that might have surrounded the project from its early stages.
It has also shone a spotlight on a wealthy senator, Abdughani Sanginov, who was closely involved in the construction of the project through a private company that he owns.
The 61-year-old Sanginov is said to have a close "friendship" with Mirziyoev allegedly dating back decades to their university days.
In a government meeting on May 5, Mirziyoev vowed that "those responsible for the tragedy at the Sardoba Reservoir will be held liable before the law, regardless of who they are."
Just two days later, Sanginov was publicly named to a special government commission to probe the dam's collapse.
Sanginov's Ties To Sardoba
Documents show that the contract to build the dam was put to a tender in 2010 by the UzSuvEnergo association, which reports to the Uzbek Water Resources Ministry.
But there appears to have been no public announcement to say that a lucrative contract was on offer to potential bidders.
Official documents say Sanginov was the head of UzSuvEnergo at the time.
He was in charge of the association from 2008 until 2017, when it was converted into a joint-stock company called UzbekHydroEnergo. Sanginov is now the chairman of UzbekHydroEnergo's board.
The contract was subsequently awarded to the Topalang Water Construction Company, a private business registered in the Sariosiyo district of Surkhondaryo Province.
Multiple sources in Uzbekistan told RFE/RL that Topalang is controlled by Sanginov, a native of the Sariosiyo district.
RFE/RL's Uzbek Service could not independently confirm his ownership of Topalang.
But if true, Sanginov appears to have been in a key post and well placed to simply hand over a profitable state contract to his own company.
And now he is a member of a commission that is expected to probe the collapse of a dam that his own company is alleged to have built and report what might have gone wrong during the construction process.
The commission has been given a month to submit its findings.
Sources who have known Sanginov for a long time claim that the president and the senator’s ties go back decades to when they purportedly shared a rented residence as students.
RFE/RL could not confirm that claim.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one Uzbek official told RFE/RL that the two men have a "close friendship" and share a loyal mutual friend.
"Sanginov was also a very close friend of the late Fakhriddin Nizomiddinov, whose younger brother Zainilobiddin is the head of the presidential administration," the source said.
"Fakhriddin Nizomiddinov, who worked as a deputy chief of Sariosiyo district, had maintained very good relations with Mirziyoev," the source added. "Nizomiddinov mentored his younger brother, Zainilobiddin, and sent him as a protege to work for Mirziyoev."
"Sanginov and the Nizomiddinovs have always had close friendly ties with Mirziyoev," the official said.
With Uzbek social media focusing on Sanginov’s Sardoba connections and his alleged ties to Mirziyoev, many wonder where the blame will land for the dam's collapse.
The dam burst early on May 1, prompting the evacuation of some 70,000 people in 22 villages in the Sardoba, Oqoltin, and Mirzoobod districts.
At least four people were killed, another is missing, and 56 more were hospitalized with injuries, officials say.
Some 5,000 people were evacuated to neighboring Kazakhstan in the aftermath of the flooding.
Uzbek officials say severe windstorms that swept through the region in early May caused "powerful water waves" in the reservoir, damaging lower sections of the dam.
"The highest point of the dam is 32 meters, the lowest is 28 meters," said Sharifjon Quchqorov, the head of the Reservoir Monitoring Department of the Water Resources Ministry. "The lower part of the dam collapsed as a result of waves and washed off."
However, several Uzbeks familiar with similar projects told RFE/RL that they suspect the collapse was the ultimate result of "corruption" and "theft."
One Uzbek expert involved in dam construction speculated about what he described as "theft schemes" to illegally cut corners in every aspect of the project.
"The theft scheme is very simple: For example, according to the design, you must use 1,000 cubic meters of sand in a certain part of the project. Instead, you use just 500 cubic meters. You do the same with other building materials, such as stone and concrete," the source said.
He did not purport to have specific information about the Sardoba project.
"Had it been built according to the rules and without any wrongdoing, the dam wouldn’t have collapsed at the first windstorm," the expert said.
He added that those behind such schemes become "fabulously rich."
A contractor from Sirdaryo Province who worked on the Sardoba Dam's construction told RFE/RL that the theft of construction materials was widespread.
"I know firsthand that the amount of building materials, like stone and crushed stone, used in the construction was much less than the required norms," he said.
WATCH: Uzbek Dam Catastrophe Under Investigation; Kazakhstan Also Hit By Flooding
Some of the materials were sold to residents of neighboring villages along the way, he said, right off trucks transporting them to the construction site.
"The project might have been designed according to rules, with accurate, professional calculations, but the construction process was carried out with the so-called Uzbek version of doing business," the man said.
The former contractor added that such practices are widespread in Uzbekistan.
All of those who spoke to RFE/RL requested anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the subject and the high-placed officials linked to it.
Swept Under The Rug?
Uzbekistan ranked 153rd among 180 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index in 2019.
With the special government commission nearly halfway through its investigation period, some Uzbeks believe that officials will try to sweep the matter under the carpet.
However, the Reservoir Monitoring Department's Quchqorov has sought to reassure the public that the Sardoba probe will be transparent and fair.
"Predictions that everything will be blamed on strong winds and that the true culprits will escape punishment are completely baseless," Quchqorov told RFE/RL.
"The government commission will study all the causes of the Sardoba incident and will make a fair conclusion," he added.