In previous years in Uzbekistan, a trial like the one that concluded on January 31 in the city of Bukhara would have played out behind closed doors.
These days, the government seems to prefer a spectacle.
Unprecedented protests exploded in Uzbekistan’s autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan last summer following the publication of draft constitutional amendments that would have done away with the 2 million-strong region’s unusual sovereign status. At least 21 people lost their lives.
The government walked back the changes but blamed the demonstrations that turned violent on unnamed “external forces.”
Officials have not announced any charges against security forces that fired into the crowds during the unrest or officials associated with that order. The chief of Karakalpakstan’s police at the time of the unrest has since become the chairman of parliament, Karakalpakstan’s top post.
Prosecutors identified Dauletmurat Tajimuratov, an outspoken ethnic Karakalpak lawyer and journalist, as the head of what they called an attempt to overthrow the region’s government and install himself as leader.
He was sentenced to 16 years imprisonment in the trial in Bukhara — a full day’s drive from Karakalpakstan’s capital, Nukus, the scene of the largest demonstrations — that saw 16 other defendants receive jail terms of up to eight and one-half years.
But Tajimuratov, who was alone in pleading his innocence, did not go quietly. Instead, he delivered a withering critique of justice in what Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev calls “New Uzbekistan.”
He decried the charges against him one by one — money laundering and embezzlement were added to the mix — accusing the police of torturing him, and railing against the officials that he said had allowed the crisis to boil over.
“He asked questions, important systemic questions, maybe as many questions as the prosecution asked,” said Vitaly Ponomarev, a Russian human rights defender whose watchdog Memorial sent monitors to the trial and who plans to publish a report on the July unrest.
“He was already well known [in Karakalpakstan]. He understood that he was going to be sentenced for a long time. For many Karakalpaks his performances in court were nothing short of heroic,” the rights defender added.
“The prosecution’s attempt to argue that the protests were a conspiracy fell flat. He pointed out contradictions in the evidence,” Ponomarev said.
Five defendants, including another journalist, Lolagul Qallykhanova, were handed parole-like sentences and immediately released from custody around half a year after their arrests, some of them weeping uncontrollably.
Most defendants implicated Tajimuratov in their testimonies.
But he insisted in his presentencing speech, translated from Karakalpak into Russian by the private news website Gazeta.uz, that he was not a separatist.
“I’ve done nothing to try to achieve independence. The reason is that, so far, we have lived well [within Uzbekistan]. Dreaming of independence is not a crime. I will continue to dream, I will dream to the grave. But that isn’t a crime and it’s not a step. Let me be free now and I will take no steps toward independence, though my dream will not die.”
In The Thick Of Things
For the Uzbek government, Karakalpakstan’s unusual status has long been a headache.
During the communist period it was an autonomous republic included in Russia’s Soviet Socialist Republic before being incorporated into the Uzbek Socialist Soviet Republic in the 1930s.
It maintained its status, however, and when Uzbekistan became independent it secured a constitutional right to hold a referendum on secession — a quirk that along with a flag and other sovereignty trappings distinguishes it from autonomous “regions” in other ex-Soviet states.