A court in Uzbekistan on March 17 sentenced a second large group of people to lengthy prison terms over unrest in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan last summer that is said to have left 21 dead.
The trial, which saw 39 people charged with a variety of offenses ranging from vandalism and robbery to rioting and disseminating material posing a threat to the public order, lasted just one month.
Nobody has to date been charged specifically with responsibility for causing the deaths. According to the official account of events in the Karakalpak capital, Nukus, on July 1-2, four of the people killed were law enforcement officers. The remainder were civilians. No official list of named fatalities has yet been published.
The press service for the Supreme Court said that the judge presiding over the Bukhara regional court ordered 28 of the accused to serve prison terms of between five and 11 years, while another 11 defendants were sentenced to periods of “limited freedom.”
An earlier trial over the same events that wrapped up on January 31 concluded with 22 people being found guilty of an array of grave public disorder charges. Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, a lawyer and activist based in Nukus who authorities have identified as the ringleader, got 16 years in prison.
The turbulence that swept over Nukus in July was triggered by discontent over plans to amend the constitution to deprive Karakalpakstan of the notional privilege to ever hold a referendum on declaring independence. Even alluding to the subject of independence has customarily been strongly discouraged and it is unclear what prompted the government to pursue these constitutional reforms.
While the first trial was the object of some public and media scrutiny, the one that wrapped this week was largely ignored.
A purportedly independent inquiry into the events that led up to the bloodshed in Karakalpakstan, the scale of which rights monitors have attributed to unjustifiably violent policing, has yet to produce any findings. No date has been volunteered for when a report might appear.
In February, prosecutors claimed that three law enforcement officers had been arrested in connection with an investigation into misconduct by government forces during the suppression of the mass protests. No further details about those arrests have been provided since they were announced.
The way the trials have been held has been framed as proof of the justice system’s commitment to transparency. Both have been made open to the public and journalists. This has to be qualified, however.
A live video stream of the first trial was suspended at the request of the prosecution days after Tazhimuratov mounted a spirited defense deriding the state’s case. Both trials have taken place in Bukhara, hundreds of kilometers from where almost all the relatives and supporters of the defendants live. By the time the date of the verdict for the second trial was announced, train and plane tickets from Tashkent and Nukus to Bukhara were sold out, making it complicated for members of the public, activists or journalists to reach the hearing.
The most severe sentence in this trial was handed down to Oralbai Dosnazarov, a 46-year-old lawyer from Nukus. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison for premeditatively fomenting violent riots and disseminating materials perceived as containing a threat to the public order.
Prosecutors built their case against Dosnazarov on the assertion that he had summoned a group of fellow lawyers to discuss their opposition to the proposed amendments to the constitution. He is later said to have summoned a crowd of demonstrators to protest the arrest of Tazhimuratov, who was detained soon after addressing a crowd about his own objection to the amendments. The authorities have claimed Tazhimuratov was whipping up separatist sentiments in Karakalpakstan and that he engineered the turbulence with a view to seizing power.
Another stiff sentence – 10 years and six months – was handed down to Omirbek Kurbanov, 37, a businessman charged with similar offenses to those leveled against Dosnazarov.
In a scene reminiscent of the first Nukus trial, the 11 defendants sentenced to limited freedom only left the courtroom after submitting to being photographed and filmed as they stood with heads bowed in a gesture of penitence. This group included Abdimalik Khozhanazarov, 49, the chief editor of local newspaper El Khyzmetinde (At the service of the people), and Yesimkan Kanatov, 42, a reporter for a local outlet called Ishonch (Trust).