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In Uzbekistan's Karakalpakstan, Trial Over Deadly Unrest Makes A 'Hero' Of Its Intended Villain

Karakalpak lawyer and journalist Dauletmurat Tajimuratov addresses supporters amid a period of unrest in the autonomous republic last summer.
Karakalpak lawyer and journalist Dauletmurat Tajimuratov addresses supporters amid a period of unrest in the autonomous republic last summer.

In previous years in Uzbekistan, a trial like the one that concluded on January 31 in the city of Bukhara would have played out behind closed doors.

These days, the government seems to prefer a spectacle.

Unprecedented protests exploded in Uzbekistan’s autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan last summer following the publication of draft constitutional amendments that would have done away with the 2 million-strong region’s unusual sovereign status. At least 21 people lost their lives.

The government walked back the changes but blamed the demonstrations that turned violent on unnamed “external forces.”

Officials have not announced any charges against security forces that fired into the crowds during the unrest or officials associated with that order. The chief of Karakalpakstan’s police at the time of the unrest has since become the chairman of parliament, Karakalpakstan’s top post.

Prosecutors identified Dauletmurat Tajimuratov, an outspoken ethnic Karakalpak lawyer and journalist, as the head of what they called an attempt to overthrow the region’s government and install himself as leader.

He was sentenced to 16 years imprisonment in the trial in Bukhara -- a full day’s drive from Karakalpakstan’s capital, Nukus, the scene of the largest demonstrations -- that saw 16 other defendants receive jail terms of up to eight and one-half years.

But Tajimuratov, who was alone in pleading his innocence, did not go quietly. Instead, he delivered a withering critique of justice in what Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev calls "New Uzbekistan."

He decried the charges against him one by one -- money laundering and embezzlement were added to the mix -- accusing the police of torturing him, and railing against the officials that he said had allowed the crisis to boil over.

“He asked questions, important systemic questions, maybe as many questions as the prosecution asked,” said Vitaly Ponomarev, a Russian human rights defender whose watchdog Memorial sent monitors to the trial and who plans to publish a report on the July unrest.

“He was already well known [in Karakalpakstan]. He understood that he was going to be sentenced for a long time. For many Karakalpaks his performances in court were nothing short of heroic,” the rights defender added.

“The prosecution’s attempt to argue that the protests were a conspiracy fell flat. He pointed out contradictions in the evidence,” Ponomarev said.

Protesters rally in Karakalpakstan in July last year.
Protesters rally in Karakalpakstan in July last year.

Five defendants, including another journalist, Lolagul Qallykhanova, were handed parole-like sentences and immediately released from custody around half a year after their arrests, some of them weeping uncontrollably.

Most defendants implicated Tajimuratov in their testimonies.

But he insisted in his presentencing speech, translated from Karakalpak into Russian by the private news website, that he was not a separatist.

“I've done nothing to try to achieve independence. The reason is that, so far, we have lived well [within Uzbekistan]. Dreaming of independence is not a crime. I will continue to dream, I will dream to the grave. But that isn’t a crime and it's not a step. Let me be free now and I will take no steps toward independence, though my dream will not die.”

In The Thick Of Things

For the Uzbek government, Karakalpakstan’s unusual status has long been a headache.

During the communist period it was an autonomous republic included in Russia’s Soviet Socialist Republic before being incorporated into the Uzbek Socialist Soviet Republic in the 1930s.

It maintained its status, however, and when Uzbekistan became independent it secured a constitutional right to hold a referendum on secession -- a quirk that along with a flag and other sovereignty trappings distinguishes it from autonomous “regions” in other ex-Soviet states.

The article that guaranteed this right disappeared from draft amendments to Uzbekistan's constitution published online in late June, sparking discontent in the region.

In court, Tajimuratov blamed the problems on Karakalpak lawmakers for proposing the alterations to the Uzbek constitution’s section governing Karakalpakstan’s status.

The subject was debated during a closed session of Karakalpakstan’s parliament, the republic’s highest authority, he said.

The proposal was subsequently forwarded to a commission that was shaping a new constitution for Uzbekistan, an exercise that observers believed was mainly aimed at extending Mirziyoev’s time in power.

The fact that Mirziyoev sacked his chief of staff in the aftermath of the bloodshed led to reports that the idea to change Karakalpakstan’s status was driven by factions in Tashkent.

But Tajimuratov spoke only positively of the Uzbek leader during his trial.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (file photo)
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (file photo)

The days leading up to the violence in Karakalpakstan were a blur of activity for Tajimuratov.

He said that during this period he held meetings and sent appeals to government officials, warning them of an impending disaster as anger over the changes grew.

He informed his audience of these efforts on YouTube and Telegram, mediums where he was increasingly active, in addition to serving as a lawyer and formerly chief editor of the El Khyzmetinde (In Service Of The People) newspaper.

None of these bids to preserve peace bore fruit, however, he said.

That stasis led to the fateful moment when Tajimuratov, standing on the steps of the mosque in Karakalpakstan’s capital, Nukus, addressed a group of Karakalpaks, reassuring them that he was asking authorities to allow a peaceful demonstration in Nukus against the proposals on July 5.

The next time Tajimuratov was seen in public was that evening, after police released him to pacify a crowd that had swelled to thousands in response to his disappearance.

Footage of the event shows elated members of the crowd glad-handing him.

In court, Tajimuratov mocked the police’s description of this first detention as “a preventative discussion.”

“A preventative discussion in ‘New Uzbekistan.’ I don’t know, is this when they throw a mask on you, handcuff you, throw you in a paddy wagon, poke you with electric shock batons, beat you, make you spit up blood, and then let you go?”

Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher for the Human Rights Watch (HRW) monitor that has to date released the most comprehensive report on the crackdown, said it is “highly worrying that Tajimuratov’s testimony, describing beatings and other abuses in detention, doesn’t appear to have prompted authorities to open an investigation.”

“This raises the serious concerns that evidence tainted by torture or other ill-treatment may have been accepted at trial,” she added.

HRW said that Uzbekistan's state troops used force "unjustifiably" during the fatal unrest, with small arms and heavy-duty stun grenades a focus of the group's November report.

'A Kind Of Robin Hood'

In Karakalpakstan, Tajimuratov had built a reputation as a fierce defender of Karakalpak values.

In 2021, he filed a lawsuit against the famous and controversial Uzbek singer Yulduz Usmanova after she called Karakalpaks “a people living under the Uzbek robe.”

Aqylbek Muratov, a Karakalpak activist who now lives in Kazakhstan, said this was merely the most well-known of several such instances.

“If someone had said something insulting about Karakalpaks in the Ferghana region, he would travel to that region and file a lawsuit there,” he said. “But he always acted within the framework of the law.”

Inside Karakalpakstan, Tajimuratov was known for offering his legal services pro bono or for nominal sums to residents of the region struggling with gas- and water-supply problems -- “a kind of Robin Hood to some people,” according to Muratov.

He was also a regular critic of the government, although this criticism had its limits.

“He never criticized Mirziyoev or [Murat] Kamalov, the former chairman of the Karakalpak parliament. People believed he was protected by Kamalov, since other journalists were not permitted to be so critical,” Muratov said.

Murat Kamalov, is now the chairman of the parliament of the Republic of Karakalpakstan. (file photo)
Murat Kamalov, is now the chairman of the parliament of the Republic of Karakalpakstan. (file photo)

At the trial, Tajimuratov credited Kamalov with “giving me the word.”

Yet according to the prosecution, Tajimuratov was trying to overthrow Kamalov, who stepped down a month after the unrest.

Tajimuratov was rearrested just hours after his release as clashes escalated between protesters and Uzbek security forces in the region where the Internet had been shut down. This time he would remain in captivity.

In September, a commission investigating the Karakalpakstan events and headed by Uzbekistan’s ombudswoman met with Tajimuratov and reported that he had not complained of ill-treatment.

A photo of the meeting showed Tajimuratov, but not his face.

The commission has yet to deliver any verdict on the state’s response to the protests.

Both the open trial and the commission mark a departure from the days of Mirziyoev’s predecessor, the autocratic Islam Karimov.

When hundreds of demonstrators in the Ferghana Valley city of Andijon were massacred by government troops in 2005, there was no investigation of the events.

'No Torture'

In July, as some drew comparisons between the two crackdowns, Bobur Bekmurodov, a lawmaker who is a member of the commission, tweeted that the analogies were “unfair.”

Journalists were able to visit Karakalpakstan immediately after the violence, he pointed out, and Karimov would have responded with greater force if he had still been ruler.

Bekmurodov would later refer to Tajimuratov’s account of his detention as “rough treatment,” insisting that no detainees from the unrest had reported torture.

The comments by those released from the courtroom, meanwhile, have raised concern that Tashkent is using former detainees to whitewash the kind of allegations made by Tajimuratov.

Lolagul Qallykhanova, an ethnic Karakalpak journalist whose detention in Tashkent on July 1 sparked statements of concern for her well-being from press freedom organizations, said that she assessed the work of the court as “10 marks out of 10” in comments to after she received a suspended sentence and walked free.

The investigators that interrogated her were “educated and intelligent,” and she was well treated throughout, Qallykhanova claimed. She was lucky to escape a long sentence, she added, underscoring that she and her one-time colleague Tajimuratov deserved to take the punishment for the unrest.

“All the good things that were happening before the constitutional amendments have now continued after that. I express my gratitude to the head of our country,” Qallykhanova said, in reference to Mirziyoev.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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