Uzbekistan jails protesters over anti-government unrest

Court sentences 22 people to various prison terms over last year’s unrest which left 21 people dead.

A court in Uzbekistan has sentenced 22 people, including a journalist, to various prison terms over deadly unrest in the autonomous Karakalpakstan republic last July.

Twenty-one people were killed in the protests, which were triggered by plans to curtail the province’s autonomy. Those plans were ultimately scrapped by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev amid the demonstrations.

The aftermath of the violence presented a dilemma for Mirziyoyev on whether to reinforce the authority of his government or to soften its stance in line with the more liberal image he has long sought to present to the West.

The defendants were found guilty on Tuesday of charges that ranged from hooliganism to encroachment on the constitutional order in the country of 36 million people.

The main defendant, Dauletmurat Tajimuratov, a lawyer who was accused of leading the riots, has been sentenced to 16 years in prison. Tajimuratov, 44, was the only one who had not fully pleaded guilty and denied charges such as paying people to attend rallies.

Another key defendant, journalist Lolagul Kallikhanova, 34, was handed a suspended three-year sentence and set free in the courtroom.

Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer and expert on Uzbek affairs, wrote on Twitter that while the defendants were handed lengthy sentences, there was “no indication whether authorities plan to even charge any law enforcement officers” for the 21 deaths.

Karakalpakstan is home to fewer than two million people out of a nation of 35 million, but it covers more than a third of Uzbek territory.

The impoverished region is closely associated with the drying Aral Sea, one of the world’s great man-made environmental catastrophes.

Karakalpakstan has its own parliament, council of ministers, flag and anthem.

The trial, conducted in the city of Bukhara, started on November 28 and most of the sessions were broadcast live to the press room at the court building and online.

At the beginning of the trial, nearly all the defendants, except for Tajimuratov, repented and expressed their apologies to the state, the parliament and Mirziyoyev.

The president has blamed unspecified “foreign forces” for instigating the protests, which erupted on July 1 and 2 last year, and saw hundreds of people arrested.

Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016 after the death of his predecessor, Islam Karimov.

He has pushed through significant economic and social reforms, but his government is accused by rights groups of trampling on people’s basic rights.

In early November, Human Rights Watch said the authorities “unjustifiably used lethal force … to disperse mainly peaceful demonstrators” after verifying dozens of videos and photos of the protests and victims.

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