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Uzbekistan's Karakalpakstan Crackdown Gets A Helping Hand From Kazakhstan

Aqylbek Muratbai told RFE/RL on February 1 that students in Karakalpakstan were being punished for "sharing or merely liking a comment" on social media that authorities deem a threat to the state. (file photo)
Aqylbek Muratbai told RFE/RL on February 1 that students in Karakalpakstan were being punished for "sharing or merely liking a comment" on social media that authorities deem a threat to the state. (file photo)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Uzbek national Aqylbek Muratbai said he received some unsettling advice from an Uzbek diplomat last year after being invited to his home country’s consulate in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty.

The diplomat, an adviser to the Uzbek consul-general, warned Muratbai (aka Muratov) that he should “soften the tone” of his statements relating to Karakalpakstan, a nominally autonomous and sovereign republic of Uzbekistan that was roiled by unrest and a lethal state crackdown in 2022.

The diplomat raised concerns that some of activist’s remarks online and in press interviews might be “blown up” by the mass media, Muratbai said.

Muratbai, a 35-year-old ethnic Karakalpak and a resident of Kazakhstan for more than a decade, considered the diplomat’s intervention an act of intimidation.

He recalled that Uzbek diplomats had objected to the “tone” of a friend and fellow activist in August 2022, the month after protests erupted in Karakalpakstan over constitutional changes that would have brought its legal status closer to that of other regions in Uzbekistan.

Less than two weeks later, that activist was detained by Kazakh police and went on to spend exactly a year in jail -- the maximum allowed under Kazakh law for anyone awaiting a decision on extradition to another country -- before being released.

“The adviser to the consul-general responded to this by smiling and assuring me that I had nothing to worry about,” Muratbai said at the time in comments reported by Kazakh media. (Uzbekistan’s mission in Kazakhstan did not respond to a request to confirm the conversation that Muratbai said took place at Uzbekistan’s consulate in Almaty in October 2023.)

Muratbai’s nighttime arrest at his home last week and subsequent incarceration in an Almaty detention facility over the weekend suggests that the activist was perfectly right to be concerned.

According to his lawyer, Inara Masanova, his February 15 detention was triggered by charges of calls for mass unrest and offenses against public order issued by Uzbek authorities.

Masanova was prohibited from attending the February 17 hearing that saw Muratbai transferred to a temporary detention facility in Almaty for an initial period of 40 days.

Writing on X, formerly Twitter, human rights lawyer Steve Swerdlow called IT professional Muratbai’s detention on the extremism-related charges “absurd.”

“There has been no Karakalpak voice more clear-eyed, professional, or helpful than Aqylbek for the almost two years since the beginning of the Karakalpakstan crisis,” said Swerdlow, a lecturer at the University of Southern California.

“Unfortunately, Kazakhstan has so far not extended asylum to any Karakalpak activists previously detained and threatened with extradition. While it hasn't forcibly returned them, it has also refused to apply international refugee [protections]. Aqylbek will be the biggest test to date,” Swerdlow added.

'Foreign Evil Forces'

According to official Uzbek statements, at least 21 people died during unprecedented unrest in Karakalpakstan that peaked July 1 and 2, 2022, overwhelmingly civilians.

A group of rights defenders that published a report on the crisis under the umbrella of the Vienna-based Freedom For Eurasia rights group put the figure more than three times higher.

Over 500 people were arrested and dozens sentenced to prison terms in trials held in Uzbekistan -- but outside of Karakalpakstan -- last year.

There have been no known convictions of military personnel who were reportedly involved in the violence that led to the deaths and injuries.

Soon after the bloodshed, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev argued that the violence had been “prepared for years by foreign evil forces” looking to ”encroach on the territorial integrity of Uzbekistan and create interethnic conflict.”

Karakalpakstan protests on July 1, 2022
Karakalpakstan protests on July 1, 2022

That theory was hard to square with the fact that the protests had emerged immediately after the publication of changes affecting Karakalpakstan’s legal status -- including one that would have left the territory without the option, again, purely nominal, given Uzbekistan's general political environment -- of holding a referendum on secession from Uzbekistan.

Mirziyoev ordered the amendments scrapped after the crisis peaked. But the damage was already done.

While Mirziyoev never named a country in his reference to foreign evil forces, Uzbek officials were soon turning their attention toward Kazakhstan, a Central Asian neighbor with whom Tashkent enjoys very good official relations.

Kazakhs and Karakalpaks have close linguistic and cultural ties, and Kazakhstan shares a border with the region, which has some 2 million people and accounts for two-fifths of Uzbekistan’s territory, making it a natural home for a Karakalpak diaspora.

In the aftermath of the violence, Muratbai and other members of the diaspora were summoned to talks brokered by Kazakhstan’s State Committee for National Security and involving representatives of law enforcement from Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan, as well as meetings with Uzbek diplomats.

At that point, Muratbai was an active member of the diaspora and organized ethnocultural gatherings in Almaty, though he had refrained from making any strong political statements.

He only changed tack after the detention of fellow diaspora members in the fall of 2022, setting up an account on X and giving regular interviews to Kazakh and foreign press on Karakalpakstan, where freedom of speech has been strongly curtailed since the crisis.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (right) and his visiting Kazakh counterpart, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, attend an official welcoming ceremony in Tashkent on April 15, 2019.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (right) and his visiting Kazakh counterpart, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, attend an official welcoming ceremony in Tashkent on April 15, 2019.

His most recent interview was on February 1, just two weeks before he was detained, when he gave RFE/RL details of a harsh government campaign targeting youth in Karakalpakstan.

Muratbai told RFE/RL that students in Karakalpakstan were being punished for "sharing or merely liking a comment" on social media that authorities deem a threat to the state.

How Tashkent's Repression Reached Into Kazakhstan

According to Muratbai’s partner, Indira Beisembaeva, Muratbai was invited the following week for a meeting with Kazakh police at the Almaty City Police Department.

Muratbai said he was unable to attend the meeting, scheduled for February 9.

After he was eventually detained at his home a week later, he phoned Beisembaeva and told her that an officer from Uzbekistan had participated in the detention.

Muratbai is now the sixth member of the Karakalpak diaspora known to have been arrested in Kazakhstan.

Koshkorbai Toremuratov -- the activist whose statements Muratbai said had earlier irked Uzbek diplomats -- was first, along with Zhangeldy Zhaqsymbetov, on September 13, 2022.

The three other Karakalpaks to spend a year behind bars were female activists Tleubeke Yuldasheva, Ziyar Mirmanbetova, and Raisa Khudaiberganova.

All of them have had applications for asylum rejected by Kazakhstan, making them vulnerable to deportation.

Karakalpak activist Tleubeke Yuldasheva
Karakalpak activist Tleubeke Yuldasheva

Uzbek citizenship, meanwhile, is notoriously difficult to break free of.

In December, rights activists raised the alarm after another Karakalpak had his Kazakh passport canceled by Kazakh authorities, who cited a claim by Uzbek officials that he had not gone through the proper process of ending his Uzbek nationality.

That man was Nietbai Urazbaev, regarded as a diaspora leader and sentenced to 12 years in prison in absentia by an Uzbek court in connection with the unrest.

Last month, the 54-year-old Urazbaev died of a heart attack at his daughter's home in Almaty. Muratbai broke the news to media outlets, attributing the death to stress.

Toremuratov’s year behind bars in Kazakhstan, meanwhile, come on top of the three years he spent in jail in Uzbekistan after being arrested during a trip to his homeland in December 2014.

“In jail, they would ask me, ‘Why does Kazakhstan allow Karakalpaks to form an official diaspora?’” Toremuratov told RFE/RL in an interview earlier this week. “It was a real problem for them!”

Although he was sentenced to more than six years in prison, he was released in 2017 -- the year after Mirziyoev came to power -- as the new president oversaw something of a thaw compared to the hyper-authoritarian rule of his long-serving predecessor, the late Islam Karimov.

That loosening of control now seems a very long time ago.

And so does the announcement -- just two weeks after the Karakalpakstan bloodshed -- of a 14-member parliamentary commission led by Uzbekistan's ombudswoman, Feruza Eshmatova.

The commission was tasked with compiling a report on the crisis, including on the state’s response to the unrest.

In its own November 2022 report on the crisis, which found that state troops “unjustifiably” used force against protesters, the international watchdog Human Rights Watch argued that it was "unrealistic to expect the commission to present genuinely independent findings, especially with respect to the actions of police and security forces."

But was it unrealistic to expect a report with findings of some sort, nearly two years after the commission was formed?

“When I recently asked the ombudswoman about this, she said that the report will be published soon,” Gulnoz Mamarasulova, a Swedish-based Uzbek rights activist and arguably the commission’s only critical voice, told RFE/RL.

“But I am not sure it will be published anytime soon.”

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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