Uzbekistan: Constitutional amendments allow the president to stay in power until 2040

On April 30, 2023 voters in Uzbekistan were asked to vote for or against a package of constitutional amendments.

According to official data, 90,2 percent of the voters voted in favor of the amendments while the total voter turnout was 84,5 percent. During the run-up to referendum day, authorities hailed the amendments as “the will of the people” and as a step in an ongoing reform process. According to the government, the 155 amendments to the Constitutional will recast Uzbekistan as a social state and secure the rights of the individual. While the amendment package enshrines certain rights and bans discrimination, the most notable changes are those that allow president Mirziyoyev to extend his rule until 2040, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said in a statement following the referendum.

The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) conducted a limited observation of the referendum – while the Office did not systematically monitor voting stations, it found that violations took place during both voting and counting, and that the entire process took place in an environment without genuine political pluralism. Following the referendum, the OSCE/ODIHR also pointed out that the referendum and the process leading up to it saw several shortcomings including a lack of open public debates on the amendments as well as a lack of impartial media coverage, while journalists and bloggers reported pressure to remove critical content.

Shrinking media space in Uzbekistan

In the time leading up to the referendum, while authorities continued exerting pressure on the press, a group of 41 bloggers and journalists made a public appeal to president Mirziyoyev, calling on him to secure freedom of expression in Uzbekistan. In the appeal, published on Telegram in early March 2023, the petitioners request the president to “help stop the pressure of certain state structures on journalists, the press and bloggers”. The authors of the text report that editorial staff, writers, bloggers, and anyone else who expresses an opinion in public, face significant barriers, pressure and intimidation, and that the state applies pressure on news organizations and bloggers in order to alter the tone, format and content of their reporting, and, in some instances, to prevent them from publishing at all.

In addition, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee is aware of at least a dozen journalists and bloggers who have been persecuted in Uzbekistan in just the last few years – several have been imprisoned on dubious charges, some are currently kept in pre-trial detention, while others have been assaulted, threatened and harassed. At the same time, Reporters without Borders, state in its 2022 report on press freedom that “circumstances have only barely improved for the media”, in the years following the death of former president Islam Karimov in 2016.

Constitutional amendments strengthen human rights – on paper

Among the constitutional changes most interesting from a human rights perspective, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee has identified the following: The new Constitutional prohibits the discrimination and restriction of rights of any persons with special needs; prohibits the discrimination of women; prohibits forced labour; prohibits any interference in the professional activities of lawyers; prohibits the extradition of Uzbek citizens to foreign states; and enshrines the right to free education and free healthcare; enshrines property rights, prohibiting forced evictions without a court order; and enshrines the right to legislative initiative to groups counting at least one hundred thousand voting-eligible citizens. The new Constitution also introduces Habeas Corpus, prohibiting the detention of any individual for more than 48 hours without a court order, and without explaining the reason for detention to the detainee; and introduces Miranda rights. The new Constitution also enshrines the principle of secularism in Uzbek statehood.

– We welcome any update to Uzbekistan’s Constitution that can strengthen the respect for human rights in the country. However, we see time and again that the issue often is not the legislation, but the practical implementation of laws. While Uzbekistan guarantees rights on paper, we observe that journalists and civil society activists face persecution in real life. I call on Tashkent to follow up the referendum with concrete and tangible measures to improve the human rights situation on the ground, says Berit Lindeman, Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

Extension of Mirziyoyev’s presidency

Following the 2016 death of Uzbekistan’s long-time autocrat Islam Karimov, then-prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev was sworn in as interim president in September of that year. He served as interim president until he was formally elected as president in December 2016. Having served out his first of two legally permitted presidential terms, he was reelected in October 2021. The old Constitution would require Mirziyoyev to step down from the presidency in 2026, at the end of his second term. However, the new Constitution revamps the presidential term provisions – instead of a maximum of two five-year terms, the president of Uzbekistan may now serve up to two seven-year terms. Mirziyoyev’s two first five-year terms in office do not count towards the new presidential term provisions, allowing him theoretically to extend his rule until 2040.

Karakalpakstan unrest of 2022

Initially, Uzbek authorities announced a constitutional referendum already last year. The originally proposed package of amendments was smaller – it included 128 amendments as opposed to the final version’s 155 – and included some provisions that proved problematic. The 2022 amendment package proposed provisions that would strip Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan Region of its legal status as an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan and remove Karakalpakstan’s right to secede from Uzbekistan by popular vote. Last summer, in July grievances over the proposed amendments turned to massive and widespread protest across Karakalpakstan, leaving at least 21 killed – according to government sources – and scores injured. Having suppressed the protests, authorities scrapped the provisions pertaining to Karakalpakstan and postponed the constitutional referendum indefinitely. Following the unrest, Uzbek authorities have prosecuted at least 171 individuals for their alleged role in the events. Among the prosecuted is peaceful activist, lawyer, and journalist Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, who was handed a 16-year sentence on January 31 this year. He was found guilty of a range of charges including “conspiracy to seize power of overthrow the constitutional order of the Republic of Uzbekistan” and riots. Tazhimuratov insists on his innocence and has appealed the sentence. His appeal case is set to begin in Tashkent on May 5, 2023.

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Berit Lindeman

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