A case of sustained sexual abuse of three young girls in an orphanage that was swept under the carpet by officials has provoked a swell of national outrage and even prompted the president’s influential daughter to intervene.
Such is the anger that the Supreme Court on April 3 announced, in an unusually rapid concession to public sentiment, that it will this week review the case.
Full details of the story were initially reported on March 31 by a Tashkent-based nongovernmental group devoted to combating violence against women and children, which explained how the head of an orphanage had made three vulnerable girls available to various men in return for money and favors. This carried on for 10 months up until February 2022.
Citing court testimonies against the people found responsible for this abuse, the NGO, NeMolchi.uz (Speak Up), reported that one of the girls was forced through severe intimidation to have sex with an acquaintance of the head of the orphanage in the Khorezm region. When the girl, who was under 16 when this all occurred, initially refused, the orphanage director beat her younger brother with a rolling pin in front of her until she relented, NeMolchi.uz reported.
One of the convicted sexual assailants was a senior official in the justice system in Khorezm called Aibek Masharipov. He demanded that the orphanage make a young girl available to him in return for the donation of an old and barely functioning printer from his office. This second victim, a 17-year-old that NeMolchi.uz provided with the pseudonym Rano, was deprived of food and kept in isolation until she too agreed to engage in sexual relations. Another girl, a 16-year-old pseudonymously identified as Dilya, was forced to have sex at a Justice Ministry-owned apartment over the space of 10 months.
Independent news website Gazeta has reported that Masharipov was, among other things, a member of the Khorezm Regional Interdepartmental Commission on Combating Human Trafficking.
Another convicted assailant was a senior local emergency situations ministry official named Anvar Kuryazov.
In September, some months after all this came to light, a court found the director of the orphanage guilty on human trafficking charges and sentenced her to five-and-a-half years in prison. The two men were found guilty and sentenced to just one-and-a-half years of restricted freedom on charges of having sexual relations with a minor.
That punishment in essence only denied the men the opportunity to leave their homes at night.
Anger over this scandal is bound up in long-standing discontent over what activists describe as the lackluster punishments envisioned for people guilty of perpetrating acts of sexual violence.
“Was the punishment in this particular case severe enough? Unfortunately, even among government officials, there are many who believe in the idea of depraved young girls who sponge off men and want sex,” NeMolchi.uz said in an editorial passage of its report. “Nobody wants to think about the reasons [of what is happening]. Nobody wants to pay heed to the fact that the age of consent in our country is 16. And that that means that any sexual act with a person under the age of 16 should be deemed rape.”
The group has complained the investigation into the case has not gone far enough and that at least three other men were likewise raping the young girls, but that they were not charged.
The defense mounted by the orphanage director, Yulduz Khudaibergenova, and her two fellow defendants was reportedly that the "the girls acted of their own free will and that nobody forced them.”
According to Uzbekistan’s Supreme Court, almost 470 people were convicted for sexually assaulting minors in 2022. More than half of them engaged in a sexual act with a child under 16. Under the current penal code, sexual intercourse with a person under the age of 16 is punishable with either compulsory community service or the restriction of liberty and imprisonment from periods of one to three years.
Among the things to have generated most outrage over the orphanage saga was that it initially garnered so little attention from officials. NeMolchi.uz founder Irina Matvienko has said she spoke at a Senate committee hearing about the details of the trial in February. She says that Justice Ministry and Supreme Court officials were present, along with the Senators.
“They listened, they were shocked, and they did nothing,” she wrote on her Telegram channel.
It was only after NeMolchi.uz published the details on their website that the topic caught the wider public’s attention.
Few interventions are likely to have been as decisive as that of Saida Mirziyoyeva, the increasingly high-profile daughter of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Writing on her Telegram account on April 2, Mirziyoyeva, who was appointed in November to the job of head of the presidential administration’s communications and information policy department, said that laws needed to be changed to make punishments more severe for what was done.
“The only thing that gives me hope in this whole situation is … the voice of civil society, without which we would probably be blind to what is happening around us,” she wrote. “There has always been violence, but right now, thanks to openness, we are talking about it loudly, and we have real resources to fight against it.”
One day after NeMolchi.uz’s article appeared, the office of the Prosecutor General issued a statement to say that they would appeal the verdict, which was upheld in a second court in December. The statement admitted that the two men in particular had received a “light sentence.”
The Supreme Court has now said it will review the sentences on April 6. The speed of the judicial turnaround is formidable and highly rare by Uzbek standards.
UNICEF's representative in Uzbekistan, Munir Mammadzade, has also weighed in on the situation.
“We need to strengthen laws and policies to protect girls and boys from all forms of violence and hold perpetrators accountable,” Mammadzade said in a statement. “We … call relevant stakeholders … to enhance the legal protection of girls and boys from sexual exploitation and abuse.”