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'We'll Kill You': Karakalpak Students Face Threats, Arrest In Uzbekistan For Voicing Support For Anti-Government Protests

Protesters rally in Karakalpakstan in July 2022 as the Uzbek government was considering removing the region's right to self-determination from the constitution.
Protesters rally in Karakalpakstan in July 2022 as the Uzbek government was considering removing the region's right to self-determination from the constitution.

"I was taken to a dark room with no windows, where four men -- two of them in police uniforms -- threatened me, saying: 'We'll kill you here and no one will know.'"

This is how a university student from Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region in Uzbekistan's northwest that was the scene of unprecedented protests in 2022, described the threats he said he received during detention.

The young man -- whose name is being withheld due to security concerns -- told RFE/RL that he was temporarily detained after calling jailed protester Dauletmurat Tajimuratov a "hero" on social media.

The student is among dozens who have been arrested, fined, or expelled from universities since the mass anti-government protests erupted in Karakalpakstan's capital, Nukus, in July 2022, according to activists.

Three students told RFE/RL that they had received written warnings from the police. They said the authorities also threatened retaliation against their families if they did not cooperate.

Karakalpak government officials did not respond to RFE/RL's request for comment.

The protests were sparked by the Uzbek authorities' decision to draft constitutional amendments that would have removed the 2 million-strong region's legal right to hold a referendum on secession from Uzbekistan.

Tajimuratov was among the thousands of protesters who openly opposed the move and took part in the rallies. In 2023, Tajimuratov was sentenced to 16 years in prison after he was convicted of undermining the constitutional order of the country. He has denied the charge.

Tashkent abandoned the draft constitutional changes after the protests erupted. The authorities said at least 21 people were killed in the unrest.

Even after the end of the dayslong demonstrations, the government has continued to crack down on supporters of the protests, according to local activists and residents.

'We're Watching You'

A Karakalpak activist shared audio with RFE/RL that he said was recorded during a meeting between university professors and students at Karakalpak State University in Nukus.

Meeting organizers can be heard warning students not to support anti-government protests and warning students that their activities on Telegram and other social media were being watched closely.

A woman who was presented as law professor Raikhan Sayekeyeva told the audience that several students had been punished over their political views. "A female student has been expelled from the philology faculty and was sentenced to 10-day administrative detention for her post on Telegram that read: 'Shall we continue in the same spirit, when will we start?' Another student from the physics faculty shared similar comments," she said.

"[We have established that] a first-year student from the law faculty subscribed to [opposition] Telegram channels. There are also students from the faculties of chemistry and technology," the professor said, before concluding, "The number of students who have joined these Telegram channels has now increased."

The meeting organizers also ordered students not to support Tajimuratov, whom they called a "political provocateur and fraudster." The audience was shown a short video condemning Tajimuratov.

At least 10 students have been expelled from the economics faculty since September over their social-media posts, according to a Telegram channel created by that faculty's students.

RFE/RL could not independently verify the authenticity of the recording.

The university did not respond to RFE/RL's request for comment.

Increased Pressure

Prominent Karakalpak activist Aqylbek Muratbai told RFE/RL on February 1 that dozens of students had been summoned for questioning, sentenced to administrative arrest, fined, or expelled from universities when "the government pressure on young people in Karakalpakstan intensified after the protests."

Aqylbek Muratbai
Aqylbek Muratbai

According to Muratbai, who lives in neighboring Kazakhstan, students in Karakalpakstan are being targeted for "sharing or merely liking a comment" on social media that the authorities deem a threat to the state. "A female student was given a suspended five-year prison sentence for writing comments on a pro-opposition [Telegram] channel," he said.

He said some students had received fines of up to $160, a significant sum in Uzbekistan, where the average monthly salary of state employees is about $360.

RFE/RL obtained a copy of an official letter that was sent by the police to a Nukus student, who was accused of "posting comments on separatist topics" that promoted "discontent" and "protest ideas." The letter warned the student of potential criminal liability for his actions.

"I've received many such witness accounts from Karakalpakstan," Muratbai said. "They share copies of police letters or court rulings, but the students are too afraid to speak to the media openly, given the threats they face."

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Kazakh Service

    RFE/RL's Kazakh Service offers informed and accurate reporting in the Kazakh and Russian languages about issues that matter in Kazakhstan, while providing a dynamic platform for audience engagement and the free exchange of news and ideas.

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