When TIME Magazine names its Person of the Year later this week, it is all but certain that Shavkat Mirziyoyev will not grace the cover. However, the past year has been a historic one for the president of Uzbekistan. He was officially elected to the post a year ago on December 4, 2016, only the second person to hold the position.
President Mirziyoyev succeeded Islam Karimov, an authoritarian ruler who held an iron grip on the Central Asian nation for over two decades. Under Mr. Karimov’s rule, Uzbekistan earned a reputation as one of the world’s worst human rights violators. Freedom of speech and association were heavily restricted, there was widespread religious persecution, forced sterilization, torture, and arbitrary detention. It was estimated that the number of political prisoners ran into the thousands, but an exact accounting was impossible as Uzbekistan is essentially a closed society. Following the deaths of hundreds of protesters in Andijan 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.
When President Mirziyoyev ascended to the presidency, many observers approached the event with concern. After all, he had served as prime minister for over a decade, a position squarely within Mr. Karimov’s inner circle. Longtime Uzbekistan watchers wondered if President Mirziyoyev would continue the strong armed tactics of his predecessor or make a clean break from the past. A year after Mr. Karimov’s death, this concern has been replaced by cautious optimism.
President Mirziyoyev has made some promising steps, including the release of 16 long-time political prisoners, allowing Human Rights Watch and the BBC back into the country, and excusing thousands of teachers, students, and healthcare workers from participating in the grueling cotton harvest. Local media has begun to print uncensored articles on human rights issues. And, for the first time ever, the government has reached out to human rights organizations and expressed its receptivity to open dialogue.
Despite these positive developments, the human rights situation in Uzbekistan requires more radical improvement. Freedom House has consistently described Uzbekistan as “Not Free” and this year gave it a rating of 3 out of 100, citing the lack of opposition figures, tight control over the media, and little accountability for corruption and torture.
One of the most urgent issues that requires attention is the use of arbitrary detention. Thousands of individuals remain in prison on fabricated charges intended to end their human rights work or punish them for their religious views. One such individual is Dilmurod Saidov, a journalist and human rights activist who has spent nearly a decade in prison.
As a journalist, Mr. Saidov wrote many articles critical of the government, accusing authorities of corruption and asserting that their corrupt dealings were impoverishing the region’s farmers. On February 22, 2009, he was arrested on extortion charges after being accused by a local government official. The investigation into these alleged charges and Mr. Saidov’s trial were plagued with violations of fair trial standards.
Before and during trial, several witnesses rescinded their testimony against Mr. Saidov and reported that they had been pressured to make false allegations against him. Despite these serious due process violations, on July 30, 2009, Mr. Saidov was convicted and sentenced to 12.5 years in prison. He has suffered many hardships during his time behind bars, including contracting tuberculosis and the death of his wife and five year old daughter who were killed in a car accident on their way to visit Mr. Saidov in 2010.
December 8 is the 25th anniversary of Uzbekistan adopting its constitution, a document which guarantees the country’s citizens the freedoms of speech, thought, expression, opinion, association, and assembly. President Mirziyoyev should use the opportunity of Constitution Day to continue guiding his country towards a brighter future. By pardoning Dilmurod Saidov and all political prisoners in the country, he would demonstrate a commitment to human rights that his predecessor lacked.
A new dawn awaits Uzbekistan, will President Mirziyoyev be the one to show his country the light?