Last Friday was the first day in 25 years that the citizens of Uzbekistan woke up without Islam Karimov as their president. For a quarter of a century he ruled Central Asia’s most populous nation, winning four elections by over 90% of the vote in large part due to the near total elimination of political opposition and civil society. As Uzbekistan begins a period of mourning, it enters a new era, filled with uncertainly and the briefest flicker of hope.
It is unclear, and will likely remain so for the next few weeks, who will be Mr. Karimov’s successor. Several names have been suggested, including family members, the prime minister, and the head of the National Security Committee. However, Uzbekistan’s isolation from the outside world and opaque politics make it impossible to accurately predict who will be only the second president in the country’s history. Yet, there is one certainty: The next leader of Uzbekistan has an opportunity to break from the past.
Over the past two decades, Uzbekistan has rightly earned its repution as one of the world’s worst human rights violators. Freedom House has consistently described Uzbekistan as “Not Free” and this year gave it a rating of “Worst of the Worst”, a group that includes North Korea, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Somalia. Reporters Without Borders has ranked Uzbekistan 166th out of 180 in press freedom, worse than Bahrain, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Libya. Restrictions on freedom of speech and association are just two items on a laundry list of human rights violations that includes much worse: religious persecution, torture, forced sterilization, and of course, arbitrary detention.
The first act of Uzbekistan’s new president must be an explicit commit to respecting the fundamental human rights of the country’s citizens. This commitment can be demonstrated by the unconditional and immediate release of all political prisoners.
This week marks an anniversary for Gaybullo Jalilov by coincidence. Mr. Jalilov was a member of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, where he reported on government violations of religious freedom, including the arrests of over 200 arrests of independent Muslims. Seven years ago, on September 5, 2009, the government arrested him on charges of included terrorism, inciting hatred, disseminating materials that threaten public safety, and participating in a banned organization. He was later sentenced to eleven years in prison, after he confessed under torture. Even after his conviction, guards kept beating Mr. Jalilov with clubs and prevented him from meeting his family.
Unfortunately, Mr. Jalilov’s story is not unique. There are thousands of political prisoners who Uzbekistan who have been charged with similar fabricated offenses and subjected to torture and other inhumane treatment. The exact number of these prisoners is impossible to obtain since Uzbekistan is essentially a closed society. Following the Andijan massacre in 2005, the government forced many U.S.-based human rights observers out of the country, including Human Rights Watch, the American Bar Association, and Freedom House. Local human rights activists and independent journalists have either been imprisoned or threatened with violence. The Karimov regime was known to hide prisoners from the outside world by forcibly committing activists to psychiatric facilities and presenting imposters to humanitarian organizations.
The actions of Mr. Karimov’s successor will be patiently observed by the citizens of Uzbekistan and the international community for signs about whether these policies will continue.
It is perhaps fitting that Mr. Karimov passed away near Uzbekistan’s Independence Day. For the first time in a generation, the new few weeks could mean true independence for thousands of wrongly imprisoned individuals.