Over the weekend, massive demonstrations took place in Nukus, the capital city of the autonomous Karakalpakstan region of Uzbekistan. Thousands took to the streets in response to proposed amendments to Uzbekistan’s constitution that would strip Karakalpakstan of its right to secede from Uzbekistan. According to information published by the Prosecutor General’s office, 18 individuals were killed during the unrest while more than 200 were injured. Officials also announced that more than 516 people had been detained as a result of the events. Following the uprising, president Mirziyoyev declared on July 2 that the constitutional amendments pertaining to Karakalpakstan will be dropped.
“We condemn all use of violence during these protests, and call on authorities to bring to justice all those responsible for the deaths and injuries that occurred over the weekend in Nukus”, said Berit Lindeman, Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “We are also very concerned by the large number of detainees, and call on authorities to respect the right to peaceful assembly.”
Protests turn deadly, information blackout
On July 1, thousands of protesters assembled in downtown Nukus to protest the proposed constitutional amendments. As the situation developed, authorities limited telecommunications and internet access in the area, ostensibly in a bid to thwart efforts to organize violent uprisings. While the information blockade served to obscure events, footage seeped out that showed a massive presence of riot police, and that indicated a heavy-handed response by law enforcement: Video materials made available to the Norwegian Helsinki Committee show what appears to be flash bangs and other riot-dispersing equipment being discharged towards the crowds, while other materials show dead bodies, evidently the victims of severe trauma, amidst the crowds. Sources informed the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that holding facilities in Nukus were overfilled during the weekend, with law enforcement transporting detainees to other parts of the region.
Persecution of journalists
On July 1, as events were developing, authorities reportedly detained Karakalpakstan journalist Lalagul Kallyhanova of Makan.uz. Prior to her detention, Kallyhanova had reported critically on the proposed amendments to the constitution. As of July 4, authorities have yet to disclose her location or what crimes she may be charged with or suspected of. Her relatives have not heard from her since her detention. Also on July 1, authorities detained blogger Davletmurat Tazhimuratov – an influential public figure who had called for peaceful protests against the constitutional changes. On July 2 he was briefly released to address the protesting crowds, seemingly in a bid to ease the tensions in Nukus. Then on July 4, authorities announced that Tazhimuratov is charged with crimes under article 159 of the Criminal Code (calls to overthrow the government), which carry punishment of up to 20 years’ imprisonment if he is found guilty. In a separate development, on July 4, authorities detained Eurasianet journalist Joanna Lillis for about an hour and deleted footage saved on her phone, as she was trying to interview relatives of detained protesters in Nukus.
“Free and independent reporting plays a crucial role in establishing the facts and holding authorities accountable, there can be no meaningful justice unless independent media can verify the transparency and impartiality of any investigation into the events. Instead of retaliating against them, we demand that authorities release Kallyhanova and Tazhimuratov and allow all journalists to freely report on the uprising, its background and its aftermath”, said Lindeman.