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Uzbek City's Authorities Demolish Historic Building Before Presidential Visit

The demolished building was located in Samarkand's historic district which has been under UNESCO protection since 2001. (file photo)

SAMARKAND, Uzbekistan -- Authorities in Uzbekistan's ancient city of Samarkand have torn down a historic building ahead of a visit by President Shavkat Mirziyoev despite an outcry by activists.

An official with the Samarkand city administration who asked not to be named told RFE/RL on September 14 that the building was demolished on September 11 before a final court ruling regarding the legality of the decision to demolish the building constructed in 1904 by Russia's imperial authorities.

"The president is scheduled to visit Samarkand in the coming days and may visit the construction site of the new Samarkand Medical Institute that should have been completed in February but wasn't. The administration of the Samarkand region decided to demolish the building that stood next to the site out of concern that the president could be irritated at the sight of an old construction overshadowing the unfinished new building," the official said.

An expert from Uzbekistan's office for the protection of cultural heritage told RFE/RL that the decision to demolish the building considered for many years a UNESCO cultural landmark contradicted Uzbek legislation.

In mid-October last year, Uzbekistan's Culture Ministry decided that the building in question was a historic site that must be preserved. However, two weeks after that decision, Samarkand's Mayor Bobumirza Oblakulov signed an order to demolish the building, which was supported by a subequent court decision.

The building’s owner, Ilona Volova, who currently lives in Israel, was unable to attend a hearing into her case due to coronavirus restrictions and the court's ruling to demolish her property was made in her absence.

Volova's lawyer Maqsud Abdujabbarov, who was barred from attending the hearing, formally appealed the ruling.

"Our appeal was accepted and the hearing into it was scheduled for September 8 at the Samarkand regional court but it never took place. When I came to court to take part in the hearing, they gave me a letter, saying that the case was for unknown reasons returned to the city court. According to the law, the implementation of the initial court ruling had to be suspended before a final decision on the issue, but that was not the case," Abdujabbarov said.

Farrukh Ibragimov, a judiciary official in Samarkand, told RFE/RL that the city authorities decided to pay $62,250 to Volova as compensation for her demolished property.

Shuhrat Qilichev, the Samarkand region's cultural heritage chief, told RFE/RL that the demolished building was not included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, but was located in the city's historic district which has been under UNESCO's protection since 2001.

Qilichev added that, according to the law, his office should have been consulted and invited to attend the hearing, but that did not happen.

Tashkent-based architect and arts expert Abdumalik Turdiev accused the local authorities of "vandalism."

"Despite the court ruling, the demolition was not legal since the building was in the part of the city that is under UNESCO protection," Turdiev said.

Before 2010, it officially was under the Uzbek state's protection as well. In 2010, local authorities argued that after repair works the building had lost its historic significance and struck it off the protected sites list.

"The Culture Ministry was planning to restore the protected status of the building, but, unfortunately, the vandals, using President [Shavkat Mirziyoev's] visit to Samarkand as an excuse, demolished it," Turdiev told RFE/RL.

Volova has said that the building had been erected as a residence for the head of a carriage company in Samarkand.

In 2018-2019, almost a dozen local officials in Samarkand were arrested and sentenced to various prison terms for approving and conducting construction works in the city’s historic zone that is under UNESCO's protection.