Protests that began in late June in the town of Nukus in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan in western Uzbekistan have been met with violence, with the Uzbek government confirming that at least 18 people have died. 243 others were injured. More than 500 people were arrested in connection with the protests, but most have since been released. It is the most extreme incident of violence in Uzbekistan since clashes between security forces and protesters in the town of Andizhan in 2005 left 173 people dead.
The protests followed Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s decision to reform the constitution, a move that would have threatened the region’s constitutional right to secede. The UN and other aid organizations fear the number of casualties and injuries is significantly higher than reported and are calling on the Uzbek government to open a transparent and independent investigation into the incident.
Karakalpakstan is home to some 2 million people, the largest, but one of the least populated regions of Uzbekistan. The Karakalpak ethnic group constitutes a significant portion of the region’s population, with a language, culture and heritage distinct from that of the majority Uzbek population. Both economic and political developments have exacerbated tensions between these groups. The former can be attributed in part to environmental degradation in the region, namely the drying up and destruction of the Aral Sea, which is now only 10% of its original size. Pollution and poor policy management, which have profoundly affected the health and livelihoods of people in the region, are at the root of the disaster. This was compounded by the neglect of the previous government under former President Islam Karimov, which left drinking water largely untreated and soil too contaminated to support crop growth. Mirziyoyev’s decision to infringe on the region’s constitutional rights has only heightened tensions, contributing to recent protests and conflicts.
In response, Mirziyoyev declared a month-long state of emergency in the region and enforced a curfew. Human rights groups in Karakalpakstan report that the internet has been cut in the region, which has complicated the process of verifying accounts and official figures.
Mirziyoyev has pledged to ignore constitutional amendments in the face of such a backlash, but appears to be clamping down on the region in hopes of restoring control. “Calls for separatism and mass riots will be firmly crushed under current legislation,” the president said. “Those responsible for this will suffer inevitable punishment.”
The official state report on the incident claims that “provocateurs” tried to “divide society and destabilize the socio-political situation in Uzbekistan”, but due to the internet blackout and entry restrictions in the region, it is difficult to verify what exactly is going on. took place, although there is evidence that authorities used tear gas and smoke bombs to subdue protesters.
President Kassym-Jomart of neighboring Kazakhstan, whose own security forces reacted harshly to protests earlier this year, praised Mirziyoyev’s response to the incident. In contrast, Uzbek opposition leader Pulat Ahunov condemned the government’s use of lethal force. “The authorities, from the outset, should have opted for dialogue and negotiations,” Ahunov said.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has urged President Mirziyoyev to lift the state of emergency, which restricts movement, because “such a measure has a blind reach and has wide repercussions on the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and access to information”.
Bachelet again reminded the government of its responsibility to respect international law, but the international community must call on the Uzbek government to carry out an immediate and independent investigation into the incident, as well as to prosecute anyone who used indiscriminate violence to target protesters. All protesters currently detained should be provided with adequate legal representation, and restriction on access to the region and internet blackouts should be lifted. President Mirziyoyev must seize this opportunity to rectify the atrocities committed and show Uzbekistan’s commitment to peace and the protection of human rights.