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Central Asia In Focus: Karakalpak Trials

Karakalpak trials, Uzbekistan halts railway traffic to Afghanistan, independent media deterioration in Kyrgyzstan, and more.

A crowded courtroom in Bukhara. Around a dozen people sit in a glass cage at the back of the courtroom, guarded by policemen.
UZBEKISTAN — On November 28, the trial of the Nukus case began in Bukhara. Photo of the Supreme Court.

What’s Happening in the Region

Karakalpak Trials and the “New” Uzbekistan

The first trials over the unrest in western Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan Sovereign Republic last summer that left at least 21 people dead concluded on January 31.

As expected, all 22 of the defendants were found guilty.

One died in custody days later.

Everything about the protests in Karakalpakstan in early July 2022 has been surrounded by controversy that seems to increase as time goes on.

The protests started when proposed changes to the Uzbek constitution that stripped Karakalpakstan of its nominal status as a sovereign republic with a right to secede from Uzbekistan were published toward the end of June.

Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov received the harshest punishment from the court, 16 years in prison for allegedly organizing protests in the Karakalpak capital Nukus on July 1.

Tazhimuratov, a journalist and local activist, did go the city administration on July 1 seeking official permission to conduct a rally on July 5 against the proposed constitutional changes affecting Karakalpakstan.

He was detained instead. When word spread around Nukus that Tazhimuratov was in custody, thousands of people came out to protest.

Violence erupted when police and security forces tried to disperse a crowd outside the administration building.

Nearly 250 people were injured and more than 500 people were eventually detained.

The proposed amendments were sent back to a committee working on the draft constitution.

A new draft still has not been released but the amendments concerning Karakalpakstan were dropped.

Uzbek authorities formed a special commission to investigate the violence, but so far, the investigation has focused on the protesters rather than police and security forces.

Human Rights Watch questioned the actions of law enforcement during the violence, but so far there is no information about law enforcement personnel being investigated.

All the defendants except Tazhimuratov confessed to the charges against them.

Tazhimuratov said in his testimony he was tortured while in custody. Officials promised to investigate but there has been no word yet about that investigation.

One of the defendants, Polat Shamshetov, died on February 4.

Officials said Shamshetov, 46, died of a heart attack and promised to investigate.

Shamshetov is the son of Dauletbay Shamshetov, the first and only president of Karakalpakstan, who was in power from November 1991 until June 1992 when the Uzbek government forced him to leave politics.

Why It’s Important: Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has been promising a “new” Uzbekistan, where the rights of the country’s citizens are respected.

But the Karakalpak trials look like the “old” Uzbekistan of his predecessor, first President Islam Karimov.

A lack of transparency in the investigative process and in the court proceedings, defendants confessing and apologizing in court and still being convicted, and testimony of torture being discounted, are all familiar to those who followed trials in the Karimov era.

Major Land Corridor to Afghanistan Cut

Uzbekistan halted railway traffic into Afghanistan on February 1.

Uzbek state railway company Uzbekiston Temir Yollari said the Afghan side had failed to do “agreed technical work.”

Problems started in December when acting head of the Afghanistan Railway Authority, Bakht Rahman Sharafat, announced Afghanistan was giving the contract for maintenance of the 66-mile line from the border to Mazar-e Sharif to Kazakh company Mansour Fatih.

Since 2011 when the line started operation, Uzbekiston Temir Yollari subsidiary Sogdiana Trans has taken care of the railway line from the border to Mazar-e Sharif.

Sharafat said Sogdiana Trans only provided work along the first 13.5 miles of railway line.

Uzbekistan later said that information was incorrect and a new contract with Sogdiana Trans was being discussed.

But problems remain.

The Uzbek state railway company said operations of the line with Afghanistan would continue as soon as the necessary agreements were signed.

But on February 4, the company said on its Facebook page that Afghan authorities “are trying to blame the Uzbek side in the media, using a different interpretation of the agreed conditions to justify themselves.”

Why It’s Important: The railway from Uzbekistan is the major railway connection for Afghanistan.

The line connects Afghanistan through Uzbekistan to Central Asia, China, Russia, and Europe and is important for humanitarian aid shipments.

The Uzbek government has maintained good relations with the Taliban since the latter returned to power in Afghanistan, but there have been problems recently.

For technical reasons, Uzbekistan had to cut electricity exports to Afghanistan in January, prompting the Taliban to urge Uzbek authorities to resolve the problem quickly.

And there are several dozen warplanes and military helicopters flown to Uzbekistan when the previous Afghan government fell in August 2021. The Taliban have said several times they want those returned to Afghanistan.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at the recent sharp deterioration in tolerance for opposition to the government, and respect for the independent media in Kyrgyzstan.

Political opposition, civil society, and independent media have all been facing pressure lately in a country that once was the most democratic state in Central Asia.

This week’s guests are Gulnoza Said, head of the Europe and Central Asia program at the Committee to Protect Journalists; Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan at Human Rights Watch; and Bakyt Beshimov, a former member of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament and a former ambassador to the OSCE who currently teaches at Northeastern University.

What I’m Following

Rallying for International Women’s Day in Kazakhstan

More than 150 people gathered on Gandhi Square in Almaty on February 5 to call on city authorities to approve a march and public meeting on March 8, International Women’s Day.

Almaty authorities denied permission for the march and meeting, saying all four designated areas for such events are already reserved for that day.

Another Kyrgyz Media Outlet Faces Problems

Kyrgyzstan’s Culture Ministry told independent media outlet to take down a report and is refusing to comply.

The report is about the Community Development and Investment Agency (CDIA) inflating construction costs. says the information is accurate.

In October 2022, the Culture Ministry ordered RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, to remove a video report about the 2022 Kyrgyz-Tajik border clash.

When Azattyk refused, Kyrgyz authorities ordered their website blocked.

On February 6, Kloop said the CDIA had withdrawn the complaint against the media outlet.

Fact of the Week

Kazakhstan has been seeking alternative export routes for its oil, 80 percent of which has been passing through Russian territory.

In 2022, Kazakhstan shipped 1.8 metric tons of oil via non-Russian routes, a roughly 50 percent increase over figures for 2021.

Thanks for Reading

Thanks for reading our Central Asia in Focus newsletter! I appreciate you sharing it with other readers who you think may be interested.

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See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.

Until next time,