One morning in December, defendants in a landmark trial now nearing its close in Bukhara delivered a performative show of contrition.
“We ask for forgiveness,” they recited in unison as they bowed with hands on hearts inside the crammed glass cage serving as a dock.
The penitent men and one woman comprised the majority of the 22 people on trial on charges of instigating the deadly violence that unfolded in Uzbekistan’s autonomous Karakalpakstan region last summer.
Their pleas were addressed to the state, to the person of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and to parliament. Two legislators, Alisher Qodirov and Bobur Bekmurodov, who are members of a parastatal commission investigating the events of early July, watched from the gallery.
This trial is being presented by the government and its proxies as a model for transparent justice. The public confessions serve as evidence that investigators did their job well. The appeals from the defendants to the ruling political class are intended to underline the sense that confidence in the system, even among criminal suspects, remains robust.
Two figures in the courtroom in Bukhara, a city more than 500 kilometers away from where the unrest occurred, spoiled the picture.
One was Salamat Kalilayev. He too joined in the collective show of remorse, but he was unable to stand. Kalilayev has been confined to a wheelchair since the lower part of one of his legs was amputated after he was struck by a stun grenade during the troubles in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan. During hearings he sat outside the dock, frequently massaging his stump, which rested on a chair.
None of the riot police that rights observers have argued used disproportionate force in quelling the disturbances, which left at least 21 people dead, have yet been called to account.
Another irritant in the trial is Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, a lawyer and blogger who has been fingered as the chief ringleader in what the state claims was an orchestrated separatist conspiracy. Like other defendants, he is facing charges of plotting to overturn the ruling order in Karakalpakstan, organizing mass unrest and causing bodily harm. Prosecutors insist none of it would have happened without Tazhimuratov.
But unlike his fellow Karakalpaks in the dock, Tazhimuratov has mounted a fiery defense, rejecting all the accusations leveled at him.
Over three days of hearings attended by a Eurasianet reporter from December 21 to 23, Tazhimuratov sat in one corner of the dock, avoiding eye contact with the other defendants. In the diagonally opposite corner sat Lolagul Kallykhanova, a prominent journalist also identified by investigators as a ringleader.
On January 11, prosecutors called for an 18-year prison term for Tazhimuratov and 11 years for Kallykhanova.
The trial has pitted Tazhimuratov against those prepared to confess to their charges in possible return for a mitigated sentence.
“He messed up my thoughts and induced me to go out onto the street. I ask forgiveness from the president and the people of Uzbekistan,” Nurlan Naipov, one of the defendants, reportedly said in his testimony. “If I am given another chance, I will dedicate my life to fighting the enemies of Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan, people like Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov.”
Tazhimuratov has been passionate in his pushback. His rectangular glasses on his angular face glinting as he leapt to his feet to quiz witnesses, with a folder stuffed with papers in hand, Tazhimuratov challenged incriminating testimonies emotionally and aggressively.
In one scene viewed by a Eurasianet correspondent, a female witness giving evidence via video link from Nukus, which was at the epicenter of the turmoil, confessed to giving false testimony against Tazhimuratov.
Initially, the woman told the court that one million som, around $100, had been paid out at one point to coax some demonstrators onto the street. The implication of this testimony was that the anti-government demonstration that took place in downtown Nukus on July 1 was entirely choreographed; that the emotions clearly visible in the copious footage of the peaceful gathering with which the events began had been induced through petty bribes.
Under cross-questioning from an angry Tazhimuratov, however, the witness broke down in tears and admitted she had been lying.
The court did not explore how her false testimony was extracted.
Tazhimuratov clashed bitterly with Naipov over the former’s constant interrogation of witnesses, which the latter asked the judge to stop as it was dragging out proceedings. The two men, both of them inside the defendants’ cage, rowed angrily, prompting attendant police officers to rap on the glass and Judge Yelubai Abibullayev to call for order.
Taking pains to demonstrate evenhandedness, Abibullayev rejected Naipov’s request. The defendant had every right to question the evidence, he said.
Questions have been raised over a potential conflict of interest for Abibullayev, since Tazhimuratov had previously accused him of corruption and abuse of office. Feruza Eshmatova, the chairwoman of the commission observing the trial, defended Abibullayev, telling Eurasianet that he had “fully observed” the criminal procedural code to the letter.
For all the boasts of transparency, rigorous scrutiny has been sorely lacking, according to critics of the trial and the investigation that preceded it. Human Rights Watch has complained that the work of investigators has been “shrouded in secrecy” and that prosecutors have yet to seriously address claims that security forces used excessive force against protesters.
Few relatives have overcome the logistical and financial challenges of reaching Bukhara, which lies a full day’s travel from Nukus. Authorities maintain that ongoing refurbishment work at the Nukus detention center meant the trial could not be held there.
The narrative of the prosecutors has hinged heavily on two concepts, encapsulated in the words tapsyrma and makhset, “order” and “objective” in Karakalpak, respectively. Hearings have been held in the native language of the defendants.
For prosecutors, the Nukus demonstrations of July 1 were not, as many people in the city have told Eurasianet, an organic event; they were carefully planned. Many in the crowd turned up because they were ordered to do so, the state argues. The objective, they claim, was to sow chaos and lay the ground for troublemakers to seize power.
But one after another, witnesses denied receiving orders from Tazhimuratov or anyone else. Most claimed they had no specific objective in attending the protests. They were drawn in out of curiosity after seeing video footage circulating on social media, many said.
The alternative explanation for what happened – the one that Tazhimuratov and similar-minded people offer – is that the popular anger was real: It ignited in the wake of a surprise move to amend the constitution in ways that would have obliterated Karakalpakstan’s sovereignty and stripped the Karakalpaks of their constitutional right to seek independence for their autonomous republic.
In a detail that lends credence to this version of events, President Mirziyoyev hastily dropped those Karakalpakstan plans from a package of mooted constitutional reforms in the days after the unrest. Proposed amendments to the basic law are to be put to a referendum later this year. The adoption of a new constitution will allow Mirziyoyev to seek further terms in office, which he is not at present permitted to do.
In one telling piece of testimony, Tazhimuratov described striving to make Karakalpak officials understand the risks of the hastily announced reforms.
Uncertainty still prevails about who exactly came up with the incendiary notion of diluting Karakalpak sovereignty, which arguably exists more on paper than in reality.
To illustrate what he sees as the disingenuousness of the Uzbek government, Tazhimuratov shared with the court a conversation he claims to have had with a Karakalpak judge.
One time, the judge asked Akmal Saidov, a well-known Uzbek lawmaker who had been assigned the job of overseeing the constitutional reforms, whose idea it was to strip Karakalpakstan of its sovereignty.
“Why, it was your idea,” Saidov responded, according to Tazhimuratov’s second-hand testimony, seemingly referring to Karakalpak decision-makers in general.
From the very moment that the constitutional reforms regarding Karakalpakstan were unveiled, Uzbek officials, all the way up to Mirziyoyev, have sought to maintain that they were responding to a groundswell of public demand. The Karakalpak portion of the amendments were introduced by a Karakalpak lawmaker, as if to drive home that point.
There is no available evidence that a critical mass – or even a vocal minority, for that matter – of Karakalpak citizens were demanding any such reforms, however.
The court rejected a motion from Tazhimuratov to summon a man who might have shed light on this and more: Murat Kamalov, the chairman of Karakalpakstan’s parliament who was with Tazhimuratov trying to calm down crowds in Nukus before the violence erupted. Kamalov has since been removed from that post.
While Tazhimuratov has taken a combative route, the strategy of the other defendants has been to repent demonstratively in the hope of receiving clemency.
Kalilayev, the amputee, was bullish about his chances of receiving justice.
Asked by Eurasianet if the trial would be fair, he responded with a firm nod: “It will, it will.”