Presidents, prime ministers, and premiers will travel to New York this week for the opening of the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly. The second week of the session is dedicated to a general debate, an opportunity for world leaders to address the body, normally about a common thematic topic. A handful of leaders will be speaking to UN Member States for the first time, most notably U.S. President Donald Trump. While President Trump will certainly be the focus of headlines, the international community should pay close attention to the new president of Uzbekistan who will also be making his first appearance.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev is not a well-known name and with good reason. He stood in the shadow of his predecessor for most of his political career. After serving as prime minister between 2003 and 2016, President Mirziyoyev ascended to the presidency upon the death of long-time ruler Islam Karimov, who held an authoritarian grip on Uzbekistan 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 was officially elected in December 2016, many observers approached the event with cautious optimism. 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, the answer remains uncertain.
President Mirziyoyev has made some incremental changes, including the release of two long-time political prisoners and allowing Human Rights Watch back into the country. However, the human rights situation in Uzbekistan largely remains unchanged. 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. Reporters Without Borders ranked Uzbekistan 169th out of 180 in press freedom, worse than Iran, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps most troubling is the sheer scale of arbitrary detention that remains unaddressed. 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 Aramais Avakyan, a fisherman serving a seven year sentence on terrorism related charges.
Mr. Avakyan was arrested on September 1, 2015 after the town’s mayor threatened to have him imprisoned for his refusal to relinquish his business. Three days later, after Mr. Avakyan and four of his business partners did not return home, their relatives reported them missing. The next day, relatives of two of the missing individuals received text messages from unknown mobile numbers, stating that the men had left to carry out a “jihad.” Uzbek investigators accused Mr. Avakyan of setting up and leading a group that spread radical Islamic ideology in an attempt to overthrow Uzbekistan’s constitutional order, and further accused the five individuals of planning to join ISIS. These charges were made despite the fact that Mr. Avakyan is a practicing Christian. On February 19, 2016, Mr. Avakyan was sentenced to seven years in prison.
President Mirziyoyev’s address before the General Assembly will give him an opportunity to address these human rights concerns and clearly set forward a path for reform that leaves the Karimov era forever in the past. We urge President Mirziyoyev to strongly commit to upholding Uzbekistan’s international human rights commitments, beginning by releasing Aramais Avakyan and all political prisoners in the country.