Uzbekistan's National Security Service (SNB) has wielded immense power for decades but its "time is up," according to the new sheriff in town.
President Shavkat Mirziyoev in his second year in office has made no bones about criticizing one of the pillars of his long-serving predecessor's strong-armed rule, accusing the SNB of committing atrocities, targeting innocent people, and "exceeding its authority."
During a meeting with local activists in Bukhara Province on February 16, Mirziyoev continued his recent criticism of the SNB -- used by former President Islam Karimov to maintain tight control over the country's people and politics. He said he had received evidence of how the SNB in Bukhara "unjustly imprisoned local businessmen."
"I even have photos showing torture," Mirziyoev said. "I know the names of the investigators who committed these atrocities."
The president didn't elaborate, but promised that "you will see it on television when the time comes." He vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice. "They will serve 20 years in prison, if needed," he said.
Calling members of the security services "mad dogs," Mirziyoev accused them of targeting "anyone who managed to become successful in business."
Mirziyoev accused the SNB of exceeding its authority, adding that "no other country has given so much power to these unscrupulous people in uniform."
"It wasn't like this even in 1937," Mirziyoev said, alluding to the deadly Stalin-era period of mass repressions and persecutions known as the Great Terror.
Increasing Speed Of Reform
Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist for 27 years and whose death was announced on September 2, 2016, heavily relied on the SNB to suppress dissent.
Mirziyoev, a former prime minister who was named Karimov's acting successor before being elected in December 2016, has vowed to reform the SNB and limit its vast behind-the-scenes power.
On January 31, he removed SNB chief Rustam Inoyatov, who led the agency for nearly 23 years.
Dubbed a gray cardinal, Inoyatov was a close Karimov ally and one of the most influential officials in tightly controlled Uzbekistan for years. He was replaced by Ikhtiyor Abdulloev, who has served as prosecutor-general since April 2015.
Just days before Inoyatov's dismissal, Mirziyoev criticized the SNB as a much-feared institution that even controlled high-ranking government officials.
Speaking in Inoyatov's native Surkhondaryo Province on January 19, Mirziyoev said, "For example, if the regional governor would dare to say something [that the SNB didn't like], he would face being slandered and removed from his post."
Mirziyoev pointed out that he didn't trust any security official, and would "rip off their epaulettes if I have to."
The SNB, the successor of the Soviet-era KGB, has gained a reputation for carrying out abuses in the name of fighting religious extremism in the predominantly Muslim country of some 32 million.
Thousands were sent to prison on extremist-related charges, and some 17,000 more were put on the so-called blacklist of potential extremists.
Mirziyoev announced on September 1 that 16,000 people had been removed from the list and that many of them had been provided with jobs.
It was widely believed that the SNB -- using a large network of agents -- spied on government officials.
Mirziyoev has ordered the SNB to remove its agents from the country's diplomatic missions abroad and banned law enforcement agencies from conducting searches and wiretaps without court orders.
Mirziyoev said Uzbekistan didn't need a security agency that "spies on governors and other government officials."
Reiterating his earlier remarks, Mirziyoev told the Bukhara activists that the security service's era of unchecked power had come to an end in Bukhara, Surkhondaryo, and the rest of the country. "We'll begin cleaning in Bukhara," he said. "We will establish justice."
However, the extent of Mirziyoev's planned reforms of the SNB remains unclear.
Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondent Sadriddin Ashur