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Uzbekistan Clamps Down On Activists, Critics Ahead Of Presidential Election

Like his predecessor, Islam Karimov, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev exercises virtually unrestrained political power in his country
Like his predecessor, Islam Karimov, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev exercises virtually unrestrained political power in his country

Just days before Uzbekistan’s president election, former presidential hopeful Jahongir Otajonov was told that he had been barred from leaving the country.

“I was prevented from boarding a plane to Turkey last week on a false accusation that I’ve failed to pay child support,” Otajonov said on October 20.

“Since then, police are summoning for questioning everyone who was in touch with me to ask about what I talk about, what I am planning,” he told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.

Otajonov, a professional singer-turned-politician announced in January that he intended to join the October 24 presidential race and the banned opposition party Erk backed his nomination.

But several months later, Otajonov said he changed his mind about running for president amid pressure being put on his family.

Jahongir Otajonov (file photo)
Jahongir Otajonov (file photo)

Otajonov isn’t the only one who has been targeted by Uzbek authorities ahead of the election, which is widely seen as a formality to give incumbent Shavkat Mirziyoev, 64, a second term in office.

Many Uzbek activists, government critics, and rights defenders say they have faced threats from police and other officials in recent days.

Mahmud Davronov, a political activist and outspoken government critic, was told this week that he can’t leave the country because he has “utility bill debts.” But Davronov said he doesn’t own a home and lives in an apartment registered under his wife’s name.

“Authorities are probably just trying to prevent me from leaving the country [until the election is over] so I can't go abroad and make statements about the situation in Uzbekistan,” Davronov told RFE/RL on October 20.

Davronov has accused the Uzbek government of depriving voters of the right to choose their leader. He said there is no genuine competition in the upcoming election in which Mirziyoev is competing against four candidates from pro-government parties that have never challenged the president or state policies.

Nadejda Atayeva, a human rights activist based in France, said Davronov told her on October 21 that his and other family members' mobile phones had been disconnected and that the Internet at their home was blocked. He added that later the family's electricity was turned off.

Disappointment In The President

Davronov said that, like many Uzbeks, he has been disappointed with Mirziyoev, who came to power in 2016 after the death of his strongman predecessor, Islam Karimov.

Mirziyoev did open up Central Asia's most-populous nation to foreign investment, improved Uzbekistan’s relations with its neighbors, and eased the Karimov-era restrictions on religious freedoms while also releasing dozens of political prisoners.

But like his predecessor, Mirziyoev exercises virtually unrestrained political power in Uzbekistan and his relatives have been accused of using his political clout to amass wealth.

One close relative is said to have received tens of millions of dollars from the country's sovereign wealth fund.

An investigation by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service in February revealed that that hundreds of millions of dollars were secretly plowed into a project to build a luxury residence outside the capital, Tashkent for use by Mirziyoev.

Uzbek activist and blogger Aleksei Garshin, who contributed to the investigation, recently left Uzbekistan “temporarily” after coming under intense harassment.

Aleksei Garshin (file photo)
Aleksei Garshin (file photo)

In July, Garshin announced a plan to set up a new political party to fight against corruption in Uzbekistan.

“Persecution against me started since the moment I made that announcement. I’ve been constantly monitored. They followed my every step and anyone who communicated with me was called in [by the security services] for interrogation,” Garshin told RFE/RL on October 19. “These measures have increased as the election neared.”

Garshin, 50, doesn’t want to disclose his current place of residence due to security concerns.

'Stay Home Or Face Arrest'

Prominent rights activist Yelena Urlaeva and several of her fellow campaigners received a warning from Tashkent police that they should not leave their homes.

“People want to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the government, while the authorities are trying to show that there is no discontent in society ahead of the election,” Urlaeva said.

She added that activists who wanted to stage protest rallies before the election were told by law-enforcement officers to “quietly stay home” or face arrest.

Yelena Urlaeva (file photo)
Yelena Urlaeva (file photo)

Several activists who came from Bukhara to Tashkent to attend the rallies were ordered by authorities to return to their homes, Urlaeva told RFE/RL.

Another Tashkent-based activist, Klara Sakharova, was recently summoned by police for questioning.

Aside from her political activism, Sakharova works at the Bektemir Quality Service, a private firm that renovates apartments.

Sakharova said police officials pretended she was being questioned about the company’s work, but in reality “they were warning me ahead of the election.”

“A police officer accused me of intentionally dragging out my company’s work in some places and allegedly trying to turn people against the state, criticizing the government, and calling for rebellion,” Sakharova told RFE/RL. “[The officer] also threatened me by saying that I could face 15 days in jail.”

Uzbekistan has never held an election that was deemed fair or democratic by Western observers. Many Uzbeks believe the upcoming presidential vote won’t be any different from previous elections, all won overwhelmingly by the authoritarian Karimov.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by Khurmat Babajanov, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

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