The government in Uzbekistan wanted to show it was going to be different this time.
Less than two weeks after the capital of the semi-autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan descended into bloody chaos in early July, the authorities announced an independent commission would be set up to investigate the events. That was a dramatic departure from what happened in 2005, when a deadly crackdown on demonstrations in the eastern city of Andijan was succeeded by years of obfuscation and denials.
The commission had two jobs. One was to investigate what precipitated the unrest that broke out in Nukus and nearby towns on July 1. The other was to ensure that the legal rights of all the people detained by the police were upheld.
In the five months since the 14-person team was put together, the verdict on its achievements is mixed.
An anticipated interim report has yet to see the light. Until very recently, the commission had failed to press prosecutors into informing the public just how many people were arrested in connection with the turbulence. Credible allegations that law enforcement used excessive force in quelling protests have gone mostly unaddressed. Prominent detainees have been held behind bars incommunicado. Even the names of the 21 people killed, who included four security officers, have yet to be made public.
For the severest critics of Uzbekistan’s government, the reason that so little has been achieved by the commission is plain.
“This is just an attempt to create the impression that this would be a transparent investigation,” Aqylbek Muratbai, a Karakalpak activist based in Kazakhstan, told Eurasianet.
This is a characterization that members of the commission vigorously contest.
“One must understand that the commission’s work is not an imitation of vigorous activity or showing up,” Bobur Bekmurodov, a lawmaker, told Eurasianet in written remarks in English. “Our main goal is an objective study of events.”
The creation of the commission was approved in a resolution adopted by the two chambers of the legislature on July 15. It was headed by the human rights ombudswoman Feruza Eshmatova, who reached out to figures in the advocacy community as well as members of parliament and other people within and close to the establishment.
Gulnoz Mamarasulova, a representative of a Sweden-based advocacy group founded by a former political prisoner, said she was invited into the fold after her team sent the authorities a list of its concerns over what had happened in Nukus.
“We never expected this kind of initiative,” Mamarasulova said approvingly.
Within a few days, a telephone hotline was set up for eyewitnesses to the unrest to call in with their accounts. The public was invited in person to the office of Eshmatova’s envoy to Karakalpakstan, Zhenisbai Shlymbetov, with their petitions.
Members of the commission insist these outreach efforts had the requisite effect. Speaking to Eurasianet in his office in Nukus in September, Shlymbetov said there had been a major response.
“Since the events, people come every single day,” he said.
Relatives of detainees and self-described activists in Nukus, all of whom spoke to Eurasianet on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals, told a different story.
“The problem is that the local activist community, such as it is, operates underground because as soon as somebody raises their voice, they get cut down,” one business owner in his 20s told Eurasianet in an interview in Nukus. “We have acquaintances who were summoned to the [security services] and to the prosecutor’s office [after the Nukus events].”
Allegations about the heavy-handed, repressive manner of security officials in Karakalpakstan are amply supported by historical precedent.
This background could account for why the Nukus commission has had almost no known communication with nongovernmental groups on the ground. In late August, some members of the commission met with three people for a conversation that they characterized as representing “the opinion of the rights activists in Karakalpakstan.”
One of those three, Azimbai Ataniyazov, who says he was not witness to any of the events being investigated, said that the weak feedback mechanism is the product of fear.
“People are afraid,” said Ataniyazov, who lives in a neighborhood in Nukus just across the river from where some of the worst violence unfolded. “I tried to compile a few case files. I instructed colleagues to call around, to ask how many people had died, how many were missing. But simple people are afraid to give any information.”
Where the public in Karakalpakstan is scared, the authorities are nervous, as one incident involving Ataniyazov neatly illustrates.
One day in late August, the activist headed out of his home to carry out an errand, not realizing that President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was visiting the city that day. Ataniyazov said police officers were waiting for him outside and took him to a local precinct as a preventative measure – just in case he thought of trying to confront the president in person. Other people scooped up in the same way included relatives of people detained in early July, he said.
Members of the commission say they have achieved important results behind the scenes.
Bekmurodov, the lawmaker, cited the work of the commission in “[alleviating] the situation of the accused and their families during the investigation period” as an example.
“This includes assistance to families and a petition to change the preventive measure,” he said.
It is true that many arrested people facing prosecution have been released from jail, although the circumstances have raised their own concerns.
On August 30, the Nukus commission announced that 34 people were permitted to return to their families on humanitarian grounds. At the same time, the commission released footage of some of the men weeping to camera and confessing their guilt to involvement in the unrest.
“What were they repenting for? Why should they repent without a court ruling?” said Muratbai, the activist based in Kazakhstan.
Activists argue that such demonstrative confessions, all abetted by the investigative commission, are problematic since they serve to compromise future legal defenses. Some suspect the releases were only granted in return for admissions of guilt.
Shlymbetov, the ombudswoman’s envoy to Karakalpakstan, denies this is the case.
“The reason they were released was not that they admitted guilt. It was because of their family situations,” he said. “Nobody forced them [to confess to camera].”
A big question mark has hung over whether any of the Nukus suspects have been mistreated while in jail.
Commission members have paid visits to detention facilities and say they have received reassurances that inmates are being treated humanely. No journalists or other independent observers have received such access. If anybody had been tortured or otherwise been abused, they would have had a chance to talk about it during the opening stages of the first Nukus trial against 22 suspects that began on November 28, commission members say.
As it happens, the main defendant, Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, did just that on December 1. The lawyer-turned-political activist said he was subjected to sustained beatings and shocked with a stun gun. A few days after Tazhimuratov volunteered that testimony, the judge in the trial, which is being held in Bukhara, hundreds of kilometers from where all the defendants hail, agreed to a motion from prosecutors to suspend an internet video feed of the hearings.
In a summary of hearings on December 1 delivered via Twitter, commission member Bekmurodov stated, writing in English, that “none of the defendants so far spoke about torture in detention during the investigation period.” A week later, Bekmurodov fine-tuned this account, writing that “only Tazhimuratov spoke about the harsh detention.”
The two statements “don’t contradict each other,” Bekmurodov told Eurasianet.
The commission did manage one long-delayed breakthrough earlier this month. In response to a request the commission made only recently, the Prosecutor General’s Office on December 12 released figures on how many people are facing prosecution. They said 171 were being charged with involvement over July’s events. Fully 107 have been granted conditional release from custody or placed under house arrest. Another 39, not including the 22 who are on trial in Bukhara, are still in jail pending more investigations and trials.
Prosecutors made another revelation in direct response to the commission’s queries. A criminal investigation will be pursued into whether law enforcement agencies used excess force leading to deaths while seeking to quell the unrest.
Visual evidence that police and the National Guard used inappropriately powerful ammunition against unarmed demonstrators has circulated in copious volumes on social media. Verified images of people killed in the unrest show bodies with signs of catastrophic damage. Researchers at Human Rights Watch pored through dozens of videos in assembling the case that Uzbek security forces “unjustifiably used lethal force and other excessive responses.”
“Human Rights Watch verified two videos shot near the Tashkent Hotel in Nukus and uploaded to Twitter on August 1 that show protesters with severe injuries, such as skin lacerations and gaping flesh wounds, consistent with damage caused by explosives through the use of various types of grenades,” the rights group found. “These grenades, known variously as flash/bang, concussion, sound bombs, or stun grenades, are thrown by hand or projected by launchers. The grenades detonated in close proximity to crowds. In some cases, grenades also detonated when they hit protesters.”
News that prosecutors are mulling investigating such claims is a late response to calls that came from President Shavkat Mirziyoyev as early as July 6 to “conduct a detailed analysis” of the actions of law enforcement agencies.
“If they used force incorrectly, they too should be prosecuted in accordance with current legislation,” Mirziyoyev said.
The commission has been largely mute on this question in public statements.
The perceived success or failure of the Nukus commission may ultimately hinge on the contents of the report that it produces. The date of publication is not as yet known. Members of the commission had told Eurasianet and other reporters that some preliminary findings might be made public before any trials opened. That deadline has come and gone.
This uncertainty appears to be a product of wrangling among commission members, some of whom support an account of events closely aligned with that of the prosecution. Time will tell who wins the internal debate.
“The people who criticize the commission are of course right to some extent. We cannot publish all the information we have,” Mamarasulova told Eurasianet. “We [the two rights defenders on the commission] are trying to press other members of the commission to release the findings.”
Peter Leonard is Eurasianet’s Central Asia editor.