The appeal trial of a group of people imprisoned over their involvement in last summer’s protests in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic of Uzbekistan, is poised to reach its climax this week.
The Supreme Court has announced that a verdict will be handed down on June 5.
Signs are that this judicial process will prove little relief to the accused.
The main figure in the dock, Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, a 44-year-old lawyer and activist whom the authorities have accused of instigating the unrest, told the court he was pressured not to seek to overturn his 16-year prison sentence. His supporters have said the appeal was rushed and marred by procedural violations.
The protests that landed Tazhimuratov and his fellow prisoners behind bars took place in Karakalpakstan’s capital, Nukus, in the first few days of July 2022 and were triggered by proposed constitutional reforms that would have further diluted Karakalpakstan’s largely nominal autonomy. Peaceful rallies quickly degenerated into violence that led to the death of at least 21 people.
Authorities have sought to pin the turmoil on demonstrators bent on seizing power. Tazhimuratov was prosecuted at his first trial, which ran from November to January, on charges of seeking to “overthrow the constitutional order.” Rights activists have noted that the bulk of the fatalities were among unarmed civilians and that riot police used indiscriminate and deadly force in quelling the protests.
Throughout the appeal hearings, which opened on May 10, Tazhimuratov's defense lawyer, Sergei Mayorov, challenged the credibility of prosecution expert witnesses and denounced the testimonies of witnesses as “false, baseless, and contradictory.” Examination of video footage featuring Tazhimuratov was conducted unlawfully and undermined by factual distortions, the lawyer said.
Tazhimuratov’s brother, Renat, took issue with the conduct of the judge, Askar Bekmanov.
“The judge guided the witnesses on what to say and tried to silence us (the lawyer, me, Dauletmurat) when we questioned the witnesses,” he told Eurasianet.
In his concluding statement, Mayorov argued that Tazhimuratov was the subject of "a political trial being framed as a criminal one.”
“This trial aims to instill fear among the citizens of Uzbekistan, to deprive our people of freedom of speech. My client was not afraid and is not afraid to tell the truth, and that is why I believe this trial is political,” he said.
As to the deaths last July, Mayorov attributed those to an inadequate and violent law enforcement response.
“Military actions were deployed against the protesters. The first victims were the result of the illegal actions of the security forces," Mayorov said.
Tazhimuratov was also given a chance to speak. He reiterated his innocence and pushed back against claims that he is opposed to President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. His activism was centered on upholding Karakalpakstan’s sovereignty, he said.
"Dreaming of independence is not a crime," he told the court.
The section of the constitution that would have been removed under the amendments that triggered the Nukus protest would have deprived Karakalpakstan of the purely theoretical privilege to one day invoke an independence referendum.
Tazhimuratov said that his campaign to have his conviction overturned has incurred the displeasure of the authorities. He told the court that while he was being held in an isolation ward, he was visited by a high-ranking official, whom he did not name, and was given a warning: “Do not play games with us.”
Tazhimuratov is the only one among the people at the appeal maintaining his innocence. The remainder of the prisoners expressed remorse for the offenses with which they had been charged and pleaded for forgiveness.
The prosecution accordingly requested that the court impose non-custodial sentences on eight of the defendants and that they reduce sentences for six others.
For some defendants, however, the prosecutors want stiffer treatment. Prosecutors said that the four people who were found guilty but allowed to leave the courtroom in January should be assigned real time in prison. Among that group is Lolagul Kallykhanova, a Karakalpak journalist who was identified by investigators as being one of the purported ringleaders. She was sentenced to eight years of “restricted liberty” – a punishment that meant she was permitted to return home.
The prosecution did not provide any motivation for their desire to see these penalties stiffened.