Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that Uzbek authorities have taken "some positive steps" to improve the human rights situation during President Shavkat Mirziyoev’s first year in office, and is urging his government to transform those advances into institutional change and "sustainable" improvements.
In a report issued on October 26 and titled Uzbekistan: A Year Into New Presidency, Cautious Hope For Change, the rights group said that Tashkent should make fulfillment of its international human rights obligations a hallmark of the Central Asian country's new political era.
New York-based HRW called on Uzbek authorities to send a clear message that peaceful criticism of government policies -- whether by the media, activists, or others -- will not be merely tolerated but genuinely valued in what it said should be a transition to a more democratic society.
"The optimism and heightened expectations of millions of Uzbeks are palpable inside the country," HRW said. "But it is far from clear if Uzbekistan’s still-authoritarian government will transform the modest steps it has taken thus far into institutional change and sustainable human rights improvements.”
"Grave abuses such as torture, politically motivated imprisonment, and forced labor in the cotton fields remain widespread," the report said.
Mirziyoev was made acting president in September 2016, following the death of authoritarian President Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan for 27 years. A longtime prime minister under Karimov, he was elected in a tightly controlled vote in December.
The HRW report said that "unlike Karimov," Mirziyoev has been "willing to acknowledge the persistence of human rights abuses, even on the international stage.”
"The president’s highly publicized National Action Strategy 2017-2021, which is invoked regularly in official discourse and slogans that are prominently displayed, includes pledges to improve public administration, strengthen protections for vulnerable segments of the population, and liberalize the economy, as well as new legislation to strengthen judicial independence," the report said.
During Mirziyoe's year in power, Uzbekistan has released at least 16 political prisoners, removed thousands of people from the security services' notorious "black lists," and increased the accountability of the government agencies to citizens, the HRW report said.
The 16 people who were freed from jail include opposition activists, human rights advocates, journalists, and religious figures.
However, thousands of others sentenced on politically motivated charges remain behind bars and many have been tortured or subjected to other ill-treatment, the report said.
Uzbek authorities have yet to fulfill the longstanding recommendations by the United Nations agencies to close Jaslyk prison, which has been associated with flagrant torture cases, the rights group said.
In contrast to Karimov's administration, Mirziyoev’s has slightly relaxed restrictions on the holding of modest peaceful rallies. It recently allowed a demonstration in Tashkent by a small group of rights activists led by veteran human rights campaigner Yelena Urlaeva.
However, critical voices, including independent human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers still remain largely suppressed, the report said.
While the media remains under tight control, some local outlets such as Kun.uz have acquired a reputation for more critical reporting, HRW said.
The Internet is still closely censored, with access to many websites -- including those of media organizations such as Fergana and RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service -- blocked.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2017, Mirziyoev spoke about Uzbekistan’s goal to build "a democratic state and a just society" in which "human interests come first."
The modest measures taken by Mirziyoev’s administration in the past year raised hopes that he may break the ruthless legacy of his predecessor and improve the country's abysmal human rights record.
But analysts say it remains to be seen whether Uzbekistan will end grave human rights abuses, including widespread torture, politically motivated imprisonments, and forced labor in cotton fields.
'Moment Of Hope'
Human Rights Watch said it is a real moment of hope for the human rights of the Uzbek people. In its report, the rights group issued a list of recommendations to the Uzbek government to make enduring structural improvements.
HRW urged Uzbekistan to free all prisoners jailed on politically motivated charges, end the practice of arbitrarily extending prison sentences, and end the practice of torture.
It also called on the authorities to ensure genuine media freedom, end religious persecution, and to allow international human rights groups to operate in the country without government interference.
The rights group urged the government to end forced labor in the cotton sector.
HRW called on Uzbekistan to ensure accountability for the crackdown in 2005 in the eastern city of Andijon, where government forces shot and killed hundreds of mostly peaceful protesters.