The reform process in Uzbekistan is off to a bad start in 2020.
A former diplomat who attempted to commit suicide was convicted of being a spy in a closed trial and a genuine opposition party was told by the justice minister to forget about ever participating in Uzbekistan’s political system.
Kadyr Yusupov’s case was strange from the start.
On the morning of December 3, 2018, the 67-year old Yusupov threw himself on the tracks at a subway station as a train approached.
He was luckily only hospitalized with broken ribs and a concussion. Police did not call his family about the incident until the evening and soon after family members arrived at the hospital, so did two employees of the State Security Service (SGB).
Yusupov’s son, Temur, told RFE/RL that the SGB had questioned Yusupov for more than one hour and taken notes of what he had said.
By 9 p.m., the SGB employees told Temur his father had confessed to spying for "the West." They asked him if they could take his father’s computer and wanted him to sign a document agreeing to the seizure.
Temur declined both requests and the SGB agents then got a warrant and removed many items from Yusupov's apartment.
Yusupov was discharged from the hospital on December 10, 2018, and was immediately taken into custody. His family would not see him again until January 9, 2020, when a military court convicted him of treason and sentenced him to 5 1/2 years in prison.
Yusupov’s family says the career diplomat takes medication for schizophrenia. Temur said the disorder runs in the family and that Kadyr Yusupov’s older brother suffers from it also.
Temur said that just before the subway incident his father, recently returned from a trip to China, had been unable to sleep and spoke about having hallucinations. Temur said the incident at the subway station left his father further disoriented and in such a condition could have admitted to anything.
To make matters worse, the investigation and trial process were shrouded in secrecy.
Human Rights Watch reported Yusupov’s lawyer had a meeting with Yusupov right after he was taken into custody but was unable to see his client again for nearly five months. Before the second visit, the attorney "signed a nondisclosure agreement on the case and cannot discuss it with anyone except the client’s family."
The family remained silent until they were informed about the treason charge against Yusupov. At that point, Temur said the family decided they had to go public.
Temur’s brother Babur, who lives in Britain, was on Sky News to talk about the case and family members used social networks and contacted diplomats to draw attention to Yusupov’s case.
As a result, Uzbek authorities started pressuring the family.
According to HRW, "Yusupov said that between December 2018 and late March 2019, two State Security Services officers entered his cell two or three times each day and threatened that if he did not admit his guilt, they would rape him with a rubber baton, rape his wife and daughter, and arrest his two sons, including a son who lives abroad, by means of extradition." HRW said prison staff also withheld medicine from Yusupov.
A Eurasianet report also noted the trial for “all intents and purposes wrapped [up] by October” but the date for the reading of the verdict was postponed several times.
Yusupov worked in Uzbekistan’s diplomatic missions in the United Kingdom, Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria, including international organizations based in Vienna, before retiring in 2009. More recently, he was an adviser to the Association of Uzbek-China Trade, so the charges Yusupov was spying for the West seem odd.
Temur said that prior to the suicide attempt, authorities had not shown any interest in Yusupov.
Even the prison sentence of 5 1/2 years seems light given the serious charge of treason for which Yusupov was convicted. Temur said there was no indication the SGB or anyone else was interested in his father’s activities until after the suicide attempt.
No Justice For Erk
On January 10, the day after Yusupov was convicted and sentenced, representatives of the Erk Democratic Party met with Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov, reportedly the first time since 1997 that a justice minister had met with Erk party members.
Erk is an opposition party founded in 1990 and registered by the Justice Ministry on September 3, 1991, two days after Uzbekistan declared independence, making it the first registered political party in Uzbekistan.
Erk leader Muhammad Solih ran against Soviet-era appointee Islam Karimov in the December 29, 1991 presidential election, taking an amazing 12.7 percent in a poll many decried as heavily rigged.
It was the last time Solih, or any genuine opposition figure or party, would ever run in an Uzbek election. Solih had to flee the country in 1993 and continues to live in exile.
Erk leader in Uzbekistan Otanazar Oripov led a delegation that included Agzam Turgunov, Salavot Umrzakov, Hamidulla Nurmatov, and Sanjarali Imamov to meet with Davletov and inquire if the party could openly resume its activities.
Davletov told them not to bother.
According to Turgunov, the justice minister said, “This party is part of the past, forget about it."
It was not the first time Erk had tried to get official permission to restart political activities inside Uzbekistan.
In April 2018, then-SGB chief Ikhtiyor Abdullaev (who was sentenced to 18 years in prison in September 2019) said "the nongovernmental parties Erk and Birlik [Movement]" had contacted the Justice Ministry. He added that "their main goal is to legalize their activities and tomorrow, destroy peace and harmony in our country."
Uzbekistan held parliamentary elections on December 22 and one of the main criticisms going into the poll was that the race again included only pro-government parties and excluded any real opposition parties or even independent candidates.
The chairman of Uzbekistan’s Central Election Commission, Mirzo-Ulughbek Abdusalomov, addressed the issue on the day of the parliamentary elections, proclaiming that both Erk and Birlik could be registered.
And on December 27, Mirziyoev spoke about the inclusion of opposition parties in Uzbek politics, adding that they should not be groups from outside the country, but parties that “know the problems of the people, who have lived through these problems, who have been drinking the water and eating the bread here.”
Erk and Birlik have members who qualify based on those criteria, but Uzbekistan is apparently still not ready for authentic opposition, despite the promises of officials.
Since Mirziyoev came to power in late 2016, officials have uttered the constant refrain that Uzbekistan is changing, and long-overdue reforms are being implemented with more on the horizon.
But the disturbing case of Kadyr Yusupov and the situation surrounding the refusal to register the Erk party closely resemble the old practices that Mirziyoev's government has so often promised to leave behind.