The police force in Uzbekistan is set for a reorganization that looks in part designed to balance power away from the security services. Authorities claim the reform will enhance rights protections, but activists are skeptical.
On April 10, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed off on a decree that officials say will represent the largest shake-up of the police in the nation’s history.
The reform is intended on paper to tackle a dense web of problems including the burdensome and inefficient structure of the Interior Ministry, the lack of channels for communication with the public and the non-existence of a complaints mechanism.
Several departments are to be created or revamped; one will be tasked with liaising with the underage children and youths, another will be a dedicated criminal investigations department. And then there is a plan to create a department for the protection of human rights.
Maybe the most politically curious aspect of the reform will see the police increase its involvement in anti-terrorism activities. That domain is traditionally the preserve of the National Security Service, or SNB in its Russian initials, the successor agency to the KGB and the seat of much, if not most, of the country’s power.
Mirziyoyev is ostensibly drawing on public support for his shake-up of the Interior Ministry. Ever since a virtual comments and complaints box was set up on the presidential website, a deluge of people have been in touch — many of them to grumble bitterly about the excesses of the police. From September to December alone, around 218,000 messages were lodged with the website.
“People are legitimately asking for the eradication of bureaucratic hurdles in various areas of life, they want to be rid of departmental regulations that contradict the law, unlawful inspections of businesses and they complain about the activities of law enforcement agencies,” Mirziyoyev said on the December 8 holiday to mark Constitution Day.
This is only the latest effort to reinvent Uzbekistan’s police force.
In September 2016, a law was adopted to regulate the operations of the police for the first time in Uzbekistan’s post-independence history.
Before that, police operated under non-statutory guidelines drawn up in 1991. That meant police went about their business without, for example, explicit rules of engagement when deploying live ammunition and treated criminal suspects in a manner at their discretion. Rights activists have exhaustively recorded how the discretion of Uzbek police readily extended to severe and sometimes lethal physical abuse.
In one recently reported but unconfirmed case, dating back to January this year, Murodillo Omonov, a 32-year old businessman in the Surkhandarya region, around 700 kilometers from the capital, Tashkent, was allegedly tortured and later died as a result of beatings sustained while in police custody.
The entrepreneur’s mother, Karomat Kadyrova, received a body showing signs of physical abuse, despite being told her son had died of heart failure. When Kadyrova visited the president’s office, she was turned away and the case has not to date been properly investigated.
Foreign-based Uzbek reporter and rights activist Ulugbek Haidarov, who has had his own grisly experience of police abuse, said he has no confidence in the reforms.
“The police, like all other organs, are not transparent. Simple people cannot get through to them. People are not protected in Uzbekistan. In order for the human rights system to be fully functional, it is necessary that local and international human rights organizations be allowed to operate openly in the country,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
Another human rights activist, Yodgor Obid, told EurasiaNet.org he believes that the Uzbek law enforcement system is tainted to its roots.
“I hope that with this decree they might calm down a little, but they might also become more aggressive. I would add to that that I do not believe in the sincerity of Shavkat Mirziyoyev,” he said.
Seasoned observers of behind-the-scenes intrigues in Uzbekistan see the boosting of the role of the police as little more than a continuation of the intra-elite struggle between Mirziyoyev and SNB chief Rustam Inoyatov.
Recent moves by the police against the black market currency exchange business, for example, is seen as a shot across the bow of the SNB, which is said to control much of the informal economy.
The battle is also said to account for the rehabilitation of Zokir Almatov, the Interior Minister at the time of the bloody crushing of the Andijan uprising in 2005. After spending many years in the wilderness, Almatov has been returned to the fold and is now running an anticorruption body. His main utility to Mirziyoyev, however, is that he may, better than many, know the inner workings of the police and security services.