Only one week after a mass trial of people arrested over their involvement in unrest in Uzbekistan’s autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan ended, another 39 defendants are in the dock on similar charges.
Defendants in this second trial, which opened on February 6, also in the city of Bukhara, several hundred kilometers from Nukus, where the disturbances occurred, include lawyers, journalists, bank employees, drivers, and unemployed people.
The trial that closed on January 31 saw all 22 of the accused found guilty. Most got prison sentences. The stiffest punishment, a 16-year prison sentence, was reserved for Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, a Nukus-based lawyer and activist the authorities blame for whipping up an unruly uprising on July 1 and leading hundreds, if not thousands, into battle against the authorities. The spark for the demonstrations was a planned – and then swiftly scrapped – change to the Uzbek constitution that would have abolished Karakalpakstan’s legally enshrined privilege to invoke a referendum on independence.
Over two months of hearings, a clear narrative emerged for the trial. Twenty-one of the defendants recanted and pled forgiveness for their alleged offenses, and then turned in unison on Tazhimuratov, accusing him of tricking them into turning against the government.
A similar dynamic appears to be forming in the next trial.
Fully 20 of the defendants are facing charges of violence, arson, vandalism, rioting, and resisting public officials. A further seven have been charged with grievous bodily harm. Four people are on trial for illegal possession of firearms, explosives or explosive devices. One defendant is accused of robbery. The final seven, a group which includes two reporters, are accused of producing or disseminating material deemed to threaten public order.
Members of this last group appear poised to play the same role as the one played by Tazhimuratov in the trial that ended in January.
Descriptions of their purported illegalities as described in material for the press released by the Supreme Court do not at first glance look strongly like criminal acts.
One lawyer, Oralbai Dosnazarov, is said to have “held a meeting of lawyers to discuss disagreement with the proposed changes to the constitution.” Later, when Tazhimuratov was arrested, in the wake of thousands turning to protest in downtown Nukus, Dosnazarov is said to have summoned a crowd to mount a protest at the jail where his fellow lawyer was being kept.
Another man, Abdimalik Khozhanazarov, the chief editor of a local newspaper called El Khyzmetinde, is accused of publishing articles containing separatist themes. He is further accused of “collecting proposals from citizens on proposed amendments to the constitution.”
The Uzbek constitution contains specific language allowing for the possibility of Karakalpakstan seceding in a lawful manner from Uzbekistan. It is unclear how Khozhanazarov’s writing would have violated the spirit of that passage of the constitution.
Strong questions continue to linger over the circumstances that induced many defendants in the first trial to self-incriminate by freely admitting their guilt. A group of the accused that was found guilty but was nevertheless permitted to leave the courtroom actively volunteered to grant interviews to journalists present in the courtroom and once again reiterate their guilt and plead for forgiveness from the president.
The suspicion that detainees have been subjected to less-than-ideal conditions will only have been compounded by the sudden death last week, just days after the first Nukus trial ended, of a former police officer imprisoned for his alleged involvement in the unrest. Officials say Polat Shamshetov died of heart failure.