A court in Uzbekistan has sentenced an activist that prosecutors claim provoked deadly unrest in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan in July to 16 years in prison.
Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, a Nukus-based lawyer and activist, stood nervously in the defendant’s glass box, swaying gently and clutching prayer beads, as he listened to the judge in the Bukhara court delivering his ruling on January 31.
Tazhimuratov’s brother, Renat, told a Eurasianet correspondent that he deemed the trial “a circus” and said that they would mount a legal appeal.
Another leading figure in the trial, Lolagul Kallykhanova, a prominent journalist also identified by investigators as a ringleader, was sentenced to eight years of restricted liberty. Prosecutors had asked for an 11-year prison term.
Fully 22 people were in the dock in Bukhara in the trial that started in November.
Out of that total, 16 were ordered to serve from three to 16 years in prison — only Tazhimuratov got the most severe punishment — on an array of public disorder charges. Tazhimuratov has been accused of plotting to overthrow the political order in Karakalpakstan.
Another five, who included Kallykhanova, received relatively more lenient treatment and were allowed to go free. They will nevertheless carry criminal records and will be subject to close post-trial controls. Before this group could leave the courtroom, however, they were compelled to stand and weep before the defendant’s glass box with their heads bowed as a huddle of journalists snapped photos and craned their necks to get a better look. Only Kallykhanova was not weeping.
One man whose leg had to be amputated as a consequence of injuries sustained in the turmoil received a suspended prison sentence.
Uzbekistan’s authorities may hope the end to this trial will serve as an opportunity to draw a line under the events that unfolded in Karakalpakstan in July.
The troubles began at that time when thousands of people in the autonomous republic’s capital, Nukus, came out onto the streets in protest at plans to amend the constitution in a way that would deny Karakalpakstan the nominal right to hold an independence referendum. Accounts vary as to how the demonstration spiraled into violence. But what appears strongly certain is that law enforcement used considerable — excessive in the view of rights activists — force in quelling this show of discontent.
Fully 21 people died as a result of the turmoil on July 1-2. Four among those killed were law enforcement officers. The circumstances that led to the 17 civilian fatalities is shrouded in mystery. Copious photographic evidence shows people bearing catastrophic wounds that look to be the result of the deployment of live rounds and explosive material.
Human Rights Watch studied videos and photos showing 38 people who had been killed or injured during the unrest and found that “14 of them apparently suffered injuries highly consistent with explosive trauma, including penetrating lacerations and losing large portions of flesh.”
No police or National Guard officers are yet known to have been investigated for how they acted in quashing the Nukus protests.
The authorities made a notable show of casting this trial as an exercise in transparency and fairness.
Journalists have been permitted to attend hearings, which has rarely happened in Uzbekistan for such contentious and high-profile cases. In the first days of the trial, the public was able to follow a live video feed of proceedings, although some complained that almost nothing was audible. In any event, the judge, Elubay Abibullayev, who also hails from Karakalpakstan, ruled a few days in to suspend the internet video feed at the request of the prosecutors.
Hearings were held in Karakalpak, the native language of the defendants. Officials insist that all defendants received adequate legal representation and were able to solicit the services of their own handpicked lawyers, although there is scant evidence this happened in reality.
Although the trial was open to the public, it was held in Bukhara, a city many hundreds of kilometers away from where most of the relatives of the defendants live. Some nevertheless made it to the court for the final day. Female relatives sobbed as they greeted the group of four that was allowed to leave the courtroom. One elderly woman overcome with emotion fainted.
Once hearings began, prosecutors had a relatively easy job to perform.
All the defendants but Tazhimuratov admitted at least some degree of guilt. At one hearing attended by a Eurasianet correspondent in December, the penitent men and one woman, who comprised the majority of the 22 people on trial, delivered a collective performance of contrition, at one stage reciting the words “we ask for forgiveness” in unison as they bowed with their hands on their hearts.
Nobody has volunteered an explanation as to how the defendants were induced to engage in this self-incriminating behavior.
In another departure from precedent, the authorities in mid-July consented to allow the creation of what they have sought to cast as an independent commission to investigate the run-up to the events in Nukus and the subsequent treatment of detainees. The 14-person commission included members of parliament, rights advocates, and public figures from Karakalpakstan among their membership.
Commission members have at various times told reporters, including Eurasianet correspondents, that they have been zealous in ensuring that detainees were treated humanely. The commission, whose members also personally monitored the trial, reprised this line ahead of the verdict in Bukhara.
“The issue of the use of torture against detainees during the suppression of demonstrations and detentions was investigated by members of the independent commission,” the commission said in a statement on January 30. “During meetings held with persons held in detention facilities, as well as with those who faced administrative sanctions and were then released, no information was found of any instances of mental and physical torture.”
Tazhimuratov told the court on December 1, however, that he had been tortured. He said in a fiery testimony captured in the live stream transmitted over the internet that he was subjected to sustained beatings and shocked with a stun gun.
It was a few days later that the judge ruled to suspend the video feed.
Edit: The original version of this article was edited to more clearly reflect the details of the verdict.