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Reports on state-sanctioned violence and suppression of dissent; persecutions and harassment of journalists and media organisations.

Karakalpakstan’s somber 2 year anniversary. Uzbekistan’s Crackdown on Karakalpakstan continues

On July 1-2, 2022, a violent unrest occurred in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan. The turmoil was sparked by proposed constitutional amendments that aimed to reduce Karakalpakstan’s autonomy, including removing its right to secede from Uzbekistan. This proposal triggered widespread protests as residents of Karakalpakstan felt their regional identity and autonomy were under threat.

The proposed constitutional amendments were introduced in late June 2022. On June 26, 2022, Uzbekistan’s government made public the draft amendments, which included changes affecting Karakalpakstan’s autonomy. These amendments were part of broader constitutional reforms initiated by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, intended to modernize and reform the Uzbek constitution.

Dauletmurat Tajimuratov – a Karakalpak human rights defender and a lawyer, is a notable figure in Karakalpakstan, known for his involvement in political and social activities within the region. He has been active in advocating for the rights and interests of the Karakalpak people, particularly in the context of regional autonomy and cultural preservation. Tajimuratov’s prominence increased significantly during the protests in Nukus in July 2022, where he was one of the key figures opposing the proposed amendments to the Uzbek Constitution that sought to reduce Karakalpakstan’s autonomy. Dauletmurat Tajimuratov proposed to organize a peaceful assembly on 5th of July against proposed amendments to the constitution. Based on his statements he was arrested which further fueled the unrest and dissatisfaction among Karakalpaks, as many saw his detention as an attempt to silence legitimate dissent and activism.

The proposed constitutional amendments were problematic for several reasons, particularly from the perspective of the people of Karakalpakstan:

1. Loss of Autonomy: Karakalpakstan is an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan, with its own constitution that includes a provision allowing it to secede based on a referendum. The proposed amendments aimed to remove this provision, effectively reducing the region’s autonomy and its ability to decide its future status.

2. Cultural and Ethnic Identity: Karakalpakstan has a distinct cultural and ethnic identity, with a significant proportion of its population being Karakalpaks, a Turkic nomadic ethnic group. The amendments were seen as an attempt to undermine this identity by centralizing control in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.

3. Historical and Political Sensitivities: The region’s status has historical significance, and any changes to its autonomy can be perceived as a threat to its historical and political standing. The residents viewed the amendments as an encroachment on their historical rights and privileges.

4. Economic Concerns: There were also underlying economic issues, including poverty and lack of development, which contributed to the discontent. The fear that reduced autonomy might lead to even less local control over economic policies and resources exacerbated the situation.

5. Trust in Government: The proposed amendments likely heightened existing distrust in the central government. Many residents of Karakalpakstan have felt that the central authorities were not acting in their best interests, and the amendments were seen as further evidence heightening this distrust even more.

The protests in Nukus escalated, leading to clashes between demonstrators and security forces. Reports indicated the use of excessive force by authorities, including tear gas, grenades and rubber bullets, to disperse the crowds. The violence resulted in casualties and life threatening injuries, with many people reportedly killed and many others injured. The situation prompted the government to declare a state of emergency in Karakalpakstan.

In response to the unrest, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev visited Nukus and announced the withdrawal of the proposed amendments affecting Karakalpakstan’s status. Despite this, tensions remained high as the local population continued to demand greater civil, political and economic rights.

The events in Nukus highlighted underlying issues of regional autonomy and ethnic identity within Uzbekistan, drawing attention to the delicate balance of power between the central government and its autonomous region.

To understand what advocacy for the independence of Karakalpakstan is, context must be given about the country and the nation itself. The Soviet Union’s collapse led to the formation of Central Asian republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, all initially Socialist Soviet Republics (SSRs). Despite population diversity, ethnic minorities were present, falling into two categories: those with nominal states elsewhere (e.g., Russians, Ukrainians) and those without a majority-represented state (e.g., Uyghurs, Dungans). The Karakalpaks, a Turkic nomadic ethnic group, was a unique case, holding political representation and sovereignty within Uzbekistan. Originating before the Russian conquest, they settled south of the Aral Sea in the 18th century, linguistically closer to Kazakhs than Uzbeks.

Unlike many ethnic minorities, the Karakalpaks have played a significant political role, with the establishment of Karakalpakstan during the early Soviet era. Initially designated as a nationality, the Karakalpak Autonomous Oblast was formed in 1925 within the Kazakh Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic (ASSR). By 1932, Karakalpakstan gained ASSR status and later became part of the Uzbek Socialist Soviet Republic (SSR) in 1936. While other ASSRs progressed to full SSR status, Karakalpakstan remained the sole autonomous republic in Soviet Central Asia. Following the USSR’s dissolution, Karakalpakstan declared de jure independence in 1990, but this was short-lived, and in 1993 it was officially reintegrated into Uzbekistan. An independence referendum, allowed by Uzbek authorities, has yet to occur despite the constitutional provision recognizing the right for secession. The Republic of Karakalpakstan operates with national symbols akin to a sovereign state, a constitution,  its own  flag, a state emblem, and an anthem. Nukus has been its capital since the 1930s, and the legal framework outlined in the 1993 Constitution theoretically governs the nation. However, in authoritarian contexts, laws may be flexible and not consistently enforced, often serving a decorative role.

After 1-2 July

On July 1-2, 2022, the deployment of excessive and unjustifiable force by Uzbek authorities to quell the unrest in Karakalpakstan sparked intense debate over the actual number of casualties. Freedom for Eurasia published two reports, on February 25, 2023 and on July 07, 2023 about the dead and wounded with lists of names and analysis of official statistics. Discussions in social and traditional media were soon silenced due to challenges in obtaining further information. Human rights activists later obtained official records of the deceased and wounded, which were appended to the criminal case file of the first group of 22 protesters convicted in January 2023. Freedom for Eurasia reports scrutinize the casualty count based on this and other recently acquired information.

Initial Reports of Casualties

The first casualty figures were announced by representatives of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the National Guard of Uzbekistan in July 2022. On July 4, officials reported 18 deaths and 243 injuries during the rallies, including 38 law enforcement officers. Of these, 149 individuals received first aid and were released, while 94 remained hospitalized, with some in serious condition. Major General Rustam Jurayev, commandant of the state of emergency zone in Karakalpakstan, mentioned the deaths of four law enforcement officers.

Subsequent Updates and Discrepancies

On July 18, the Prosecutor General’s Office reported that three more individuals in critical condition had passed away, bringing the total to 21 deaths. However, video footage from the trial of demonstrators in Bukhara indicated a lower figure of 19 deceased individuals. This discrepancy, along with unofficial estimates ranging from dozens to as high as 2,000 deaths, led to widespread skepticism regarding the official statistics.

Eyewitness Accounts and Unofficial Reports

Eyewitness accounts provided varying casualty figures. For instance, Azamat Atadzhanov, editor-in-chief of Gazeta.uz, reported 77 deaths and 114 injuries on July 2. Other sources, such as Radio Azattyk, mentioned 12 bodies in a local morgue and several people in a coma. Unofficial lists of the deceased began circulating about a month after the protests, initially listing 34 names, which were later refined to 49 by human rights organizations.

Challenges in Verifying Casualties

Many reports of deaths remain unverifiable due to the arrests and coercion of individuals who submitted information. Fear among relatives of the deceased and the detention of civil society activists in Karakalpakstan further hindered the verification process. The names of the deceased were never publicly announced by official sources, although some were revealed during the trial in Bukhara.

Disappeared Persons

The official stance on those who disappeared during the protests remains unclear. The Prosecutor General’s Office criticized reports of 58 disappeared protesters, claiming some were at home, abroad, or nonexistent. However, the practice of holding detainees incommunicado likely contributed to many complaints of disappearances.

Lack of Transparency

Authorities have so far avoided transparency on the issue. An “Independent Committee” set up by the Uzbek authorities requested that information of public concern be made public, including details on the deaths. The Prosecutor General’s Office responded that the causes of death would be discussed during open court sessions, which has not yet occurred. Under international pressure, a criminal case was initiated against three law enforcement officials related to the incidents in Nukus, but details remain sparse.

On 25 February 2023 Freedom for Eurasia forwarded a request for information on the investigation of 1-2 July protests and Uzbekistan’s violent actions against protesters to the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Oliy Majlis of the Republic of Uzbekistan, and the Head of the Commission for the Study of Events in Karakalpakstan in July 2022 Ms. Eshmatova Feruza Farkhodovna, and follow-up letter in December 2023 but never received any reply.

The failure to release an official list of the deceased and the pressure exerted on relatives of the accused continue to fuel speculation and mistrust among the public.

During its mission to Nukus, Karakalpakstan from October 23-26, 2023, Freedom for Eurasia staff encountered significant obstacles. Freedom for Eurasia experts faced surveillance, and during meetings, locals revealed they had been warned by police not to meet with the organization. Some initial meetings were canceled due to fear among family members. Despite this the experts have collected new information regarding the events of July 1-2, 2022 and published a report on the mission’s findings. Families of the deceased protesters and participants shared that they were denied proper burial procedures and were not allowed to see the bodies of their loved ones. It later emerged that in all cases studied by Freedom for Eurasia victims had died from bullet wounds and grenade explosions.

Locals expressed disbelief in the official death toll, suspecting that many more families had lost loved ones during the protests than reported by authorities. Despite these challenges, families emphasized that their primary goal was to seek justice for the deaths of their loved ones.

In 2023 Kazakh human rights defender Galym Ageleuov who investigated the protests in Karakalpakstan on 1-2 July with Freedom for Eurasia, was prohibited from entering Uzbekistan. Ageleuov, as an expert of Freedom for Eurasia, visited Karakalpakstan in 2022 to meet with the families of those who were killed during or after the protests. On a second visit, on May 22, 2023, when attempting to board a flight from Bishkek to Tashkent, Ageleuov was denied boarding due to an entry ban imposed by the Border Service of Uzbekistan. Tashkent Airlines staff provided no further explanation. The purpose of Galym Ageleuov’s trip to Uzbekistan was to attend the appeal hearing of human rights defender Dauletmurat Tajimuratov.

Despite numerous requests from Ageleuov’s attorney Sergei Mayorov and Freedom for Eurasia to the Border Service of Uzbekistan and other state authorities regarding the entry ban, no response has been forthcoming since May 2023. However, in March 2023 Sergei Mayorov, was summoned to the State National Service (SGB) and warned to stop discrediting state authorities in his attorney requests and cease spreading information about Ageleuov’s case on social media platforms and to the human rights organizations. On March 26, 2024 the Border Service issued an official response citing Article 29 of the Law “On the Legal Status of Foreign Citizens and Stateless Persons,” stating that the entry ban was enacted to safeguard national security. It further stated that the authority overseeing the case is not obliged to disclose the reasoning behind the prohibition.

Criminal persecution

The criminal investigations stemming from the July 1-2 protests in Karakalpakstan were split into two distinct cases: one involving 22 individuals and another involving 39. These cases were investigated and tried separately despite having one matter of issue.

1. The verdict marked an important moment in the aftermath of the July 2022 unrest in Karakalpakstan. Despite efforts towards transparency, including online broadcasts and access for observers, the trial was carried out with procedural irregularities and doubts about fairness. Charges of plotting against Uzbekistan’s constitutional order (under Article 159 Part 4 of the Criminal Code) and participation in mass riots (under Article 244 Part 3) were central to the prosecution’s case. However, the majority of the defendants did not commit such acts and did not call for them. The vast majority of the demonstrators acted peacefully, as evidenced by the numerous videos available online. At the same time, some of the 22 defendants were unlawfully convicted of organizing mass riots only on the fact of speaking at rallies in regional centers, during which they tried to calm people down. The evidence presented by the prosecution failed to conclusively prove these allegations, with some defendants asserting their innocence and describing the events as peaceful demonstrations rather than attempts to overthrow the government. The formal grounds for bringing charges under Article 244-1 part 3 of the Criminal Code were expert examinations, which stated that the video materials contained signs of propaganda of separatist ideas. Here, however, it is important to note that in the context of a criminal charge, “separatism” can only be an illegal act aimed at separating part of the territory from the state. However, in the case of Karakalpakstan, there is a special situation, since the constitutions of Karakalpakstan, and Uzbekistan provide for the possibility of this sovereign republic, which is currently part of Uzbekistan, to secede by referendum. Therefore, the call for the secession of Karakalpakstan within the framework of this constitutional norm, contrary to the opinion of the experts hired by the authorities, from the point of view of law, cannot in itself be considered a criminal offense.This discrepancy raised concerns over political motivations behind the charges and the extent of judicial independence in Uzbekistan.

2. The trial also highlighted allegations of torture and intimidation tactics used to obtain confessions from the defendants. Reports of torture, pressure on families, and promises of leniency post-verdict emerged during proceedings, casting doubt on the voluntariness of initial confessions. While authorities disputed widespread torture claims, testimonies from defendants and reports of human rights groups painted a different picture, alleging severe mistreatment in custody. This aspect of the trial underscored broader human rights concerns and prompted calls for independent investigations into the treatment of detainees and the validity of evidence obtained under pressure.

The central figure in the trial was Dauletmurat Tajimuratov, who was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to 16 years in a high-security prison. Tajimuratov’s associates and supporters also faced trial, accused of aiding him. For example, lawyer Oralbay Dosnazarov was charged with organizing a lawyers’ meeting on June 27, 2022, in a Nukus hotel to protest proposed constitutional changes, and for rallying people at pre-trial detention center No. 2 on July 01, 2022, demanding Tajimuratov’s release. Throughout the trial, other defendants were coerced into reaching plea agreements with the court in exchange for lighter sentences, contingent upon their testimony against Tajimuratov. During the trial and afterward, Dauletmurat Tajimuratov consistently asserted his innocence. He also presented evidence that his two friends, who were arrested alongside him, had been tortured, resulting in their deaths on July 4. Despite this, no thorough investigation was conducted into the circumstances surrounding their deaths.

Persecution of activists residing abroad

Uzbekistan not only initiated criminal investigations against Karakalpaks residing in Karakalpakstan but also prosecuted those living abroad. Seven Karakalpak activists based in Kazakhstan were convicted in absentia for offenses including attempting to seize power (under Article 159 Part 4 of the Criminal Code) and participating in mass riots (under Article 244 Part 3). Tragically, one of them, Nietbai Urazbaev, passed away due to a heart attack, fearing extradition to Uzbekistan where he faced a 12-year prison sentence. Another prominent Karakalpak opposition leader, Amanbai Sagidullaev was sentenced to 12 years in prison in absentia. Sagidullaev had fled Karakalpakstan in 2014 to escape persecution stemming from his political activism.

Freedom for Eurasia reported cases of persecution involving Akylbek Muratbai, Koshkarbai Toremuratov, Raisa Khudainazarova, Tleubkie Yuldasheva, Djaksymbetov Jangeldi, and Ziuar Mirmanbetova. All of them were detained in Kazakhstan due to extradition requests from Uzbekistan. Apart from Akylbek Muratbai, each of them had been sentenced in absentia in Uzbekistan to prison terms ranging from 3 to 8 years. They were not informed by Uzbek authorities about the investigations and trials against them, and the court proceedings were conducted in violation of the criminal procedural code. Charges were based on their YouTube channel publications without adequate examination.

Freedom for Eurasia continues to monitor numerous cases of persecution related to the July 1-2 protests involving Karakalpaks. Recently, we reported about 16 defendants who were charged under Article 159 Part 4 of the Criminal Code (conspiracy to seize power or overthrow the constitutional order) and Article 244 Part 3 (participation in mass riots) in Nukus. Uzbekistan appears to be continuing its persecution against ordinary citizens, but there is still no information about investigations into those responsible for killing protesters, except for the 4 law enforcement officers who were tried in relation to the events of July 1-2.

Freedom for Eurasia has diligently tracked human rights violations in Karakalpakstan. These include a noticeable decline in the prominence of the Karakalpak language, with authorities targeting individuals who voice dissent on this issue. Freedom of expression in Karakalpakstan has faced heightened constraints, particularly concerning matters related to the July events, which remain deeply sensitive in Uzbekistan. Individuals who raise their voices on these issues often face immediate arrest.

Freedom for Eurasia has urged the Uzbekistan government to disclose the number of fatalities during the July 1-2, 2022 protests, bring charges against those responsible for the deaths – including individuals who ordered the use of lethal force and perpetrators of torture – and reconsider the cases of those unlawfully sentenced in relation to the protests. We also urge international organizations to support these calls, emphasizing the need for Uzbekistan to uphold human rights standards, conduct thorough investigations into alleged abuses, ensure fair judicial proceedings, drop charges and release the unlawfully detained activists, including Dauletmurat Tajimuratov.

Human Rights

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