Renewed efforts to improve the country’s image saw the President prioritize a reform agenda. However, freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly remained tightly regulated. Human rights defenders continued to face targeted surveillance. Progress in the eradication of forced labour in the cotton sector was marred by harassment of independent monitors. A significant increase in domestic and gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic was exacerbated by the closure of virtually all crisis centres during lockdown. Consensual sexual relations between men remained a criminal offence. A draft bill was introduced on an independent torture complaints mechanism, although reports of torture and other ill-treatment, including deaths in custody, continued.
The President’s reform agenda included setting up a National Council on International Ratings to undertake a systematic review of reforms, and a National Human Rights Strategy setting out monitoring mechanisms including on the prevention of torture.
In March, for the first time since 2003, the authorities granted registration to Huquqiy Tayanch (Legal Support), an independent NGO. However, they continued to reject or obstruct the applications of other independent human rights organizations.
Human rights defenders and journalists, including those in exile, continued to be under secret surveillance and were the target of sophisticated phishing and spyware attacks. The legal framework for such surveillance provided insufficient safeguards against abuse. The security services were able to bypass some security tools that activists use to protect themselves against surveillance and carried out a campaign of malicious emails using fake websites, along with spyware embedded in legitimate software.1
Draft legislation on public meetings, published in August, severely restricted the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. It barred NGOs without official registration from organizing or holding public meetings, required organizers to apply for permission 15 days in advance, limited the duration of any public meeting to two hours during daytime, and proscribed meetings from taking place within 300m of various premises. A public meeting would include flash mobs and single person protests, making it virtually impossible for anyone to exercise their right to freedom of peaceful assembly.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Prosecutor General’s Office set up an inter-agency working group to monitor social media for “fake news” or misleading information on the spread of the virus. Amendments to the Criminal Code at the end of March introduced stricter punishment for the dissemination of false information on the spread of the virus, increasing sentences from five to a maximum of 10 years in prison.
In May, a young blogger from Margilan was briefly detained by police for allegedly not wearing a face mask in public after he had posted a comment on his Facebook account endorsing an article critical of the local authorities’ handling of the pandemic.2
Significant progress in the eradication of forced labour in the cotton sector was marred by continued harassment of human rights defenders monitoring the implementation of ILO reforms during the cotton harvest. Police in Namangan detained and beat four independent monitors in June as they were recording adolescents working in the cotton fields. Police confiscated cameras, mobile phones and notes, forcibly tested the activists for COVID-19 and placed them under supervised quarantine. In April, the authorities had cited economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to put pressure on the Cotton Campaign to endorse lifting the boycott of Uzbekistani cotton.
Consensual sexual relations between men remained a criminal offence despite promises by the authorities to revise the criminal code. A member of the Uzbekistani UN delegation stated in September that non-heterosexual relations were contrary to “traditional” values and that the public was not ready to endorse decriminalization. Programmes on national television stigmatized LGBTI people and declared them a “dangerous foreign influence”.
LGBTI people faced increased discrimination in accessing health care during the COVID-19 pandemic. LGBTI youth were at particular risk of domestic and gender-based violence during lockdown; they were without access to community resources and support structures since they could not leave their homes and were forced into cohabitation with unsupportive and/or abusive families.
Domestic and gender-based violence increased significantly during the pandemic and human rights activists said that the problem was exacerbated by the fact that only five out of the 197 national crisis shelters were able to operate during lockdowns and other restrictive measures.
In July, a group of young female activists faced a backlash on social media, including online abuse and threats of violence, when they organized a flash mob action to protest gender-based violence and discrimination following a highly publicized assault on a 17-year-old girl. In August, a programme on national television denounced their protest action as dangerous and criticized them for not respecting “traditional” values.
In May, the authorities signalled their intention to set up independent mechanisms to investigate complaints of torture; provide effective redress and compensation to victims and their families; and monitor places of detention to prevent torture and other ill-treatment. The announcement followed a Presidential Resolution on additional measures to improve the prevention of torture.
Reports of torture, however, continued. In July, the authorities launched investigations into the deaths in January, June and July of three men in prison and police custody and charged the alleged perpetrators with torture. In September, five police officers were found guilty and sentenced to up to nine years in prison for the torture of Yusuf Abdurakhmanov in January. A forensic investigation found blood that matched Yusuf Abdurakhmanov’s on the inside of a gas mask. In November Andijan Regional Court sentenced five police officers to 10 years in prison for the torture of Alijon Abdukarimov.
In March, in a retrial, a court in Kashkadaria acquitted human rights defender and torture survivor Chuyan Mamatkulov of all charges and quashed his sentence. In October, the Supreme Court granted him financial compensation. Other human rights activists, however, have not been granted the right to challenge their convictions, despite compelling evidence that the charges against them were fabricated and that they were tortured to “confess”.