Ithat is a The performances are straight out of Uzbekistan’s dark Soviet past. In a courtroom in Bukhara in December, a group of alleged agitators against President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s government stood up, heads bowed, hands on hearts, begging for mercy in tandem ask. “We ask forgiveness,” they said in unison.
They are the first of at least two groups of dissidents to stand trial over violence in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan’s northwestern autonomous province, last July. Word spread that Mr Mirziyoyev planned to abolish the province’s right to self-determination as part of a package of constitutional reforms. This sparked peaceful protests, which turned into clashes between security forces and demonstrators for controversial reasons, killing 21 people, including 17 civilians, mostly by gunfire and grenades. Mr Mirziyoyev, previously hailed as a liberal reformer, immediately dropped attempts to limit the province’s autonomy. Still, the violence in Karakalpakstan, for which the government bears no responsibility, has stained his presidency.
Bukhara’s trial at first looked like an effort to undo it. Until recently, Uzbekistan’s criminal justice system was synonymous with corruption, torture and other abuses; in 2002, two prisoners were allegedly boiled to death. However, despite being politically sensitive, the trial was open to journalists. A live video of the proceedings in the defendant’s Karakalpak language was initially shared on the Internet. A government-appointed committee, including human rights activists, oversees the treatment of the accused.
However, the trial is increasingly looking like a show. The lead defendant, a 44-year-old lawyer and blogger named Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, was the only one to plead not guilty; everyone else testified against him. Mr. Tazhimuratov cross-examined one of his accusers, forcing her to admit that she was in fact lying. On January 31, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison for charges including attempting to overthrow the state power in Karakalpakstan. The other 21 accused received lesser punishments; 15 of them were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 3 to 8 years. Some then marched in front of reporters in tears to express their gratitude to Mr Mirziyoyev. Another 39 alleged ringleaders of the violence went on trial this week.
The events in Karakalpakstan have shown the limits of Mr Mirziyoyev’s reform agenda. Since becoming president in 2016 (after the death of his longtime predecessor, Islam Karimov), he has improved Uzbekistan in many ways. It no longer routinely jails and tortures dissidents. It no longer operates in the country’s grassland cotton fields, which may be the largest system of forced labor outside North Korea. Uzbekistan is fairer, more open, and more prosperous. Mr Mirziyoyev deregulated the currency, initiated the privatization process and dismantled regional trade barriers. The country’s economy grew by about 6% last year. However, in the fashion of an enlightened monarch, he had no interest in political reform. Except, it seems, is increasingly extending his reign.
Mr Mirziyoyev’s second presidential term ends in 2026, as long as the constitution allows him to. That seems to be why he’s trying to change it. If the 65-year-old president also follows through on his plan to extend the presidency from five to seven years, he could be re-elected until 2040. Karakalpakstan’s violence appears to be an unintended byproduct of his efforts to make it so. The ensuing crackdown should help enforce it. Mr Mirziyoyev is expected to put all proposed constitutional reforms except Karakalpakstan to a referendum this year. They will almost certainly pass; criticizing the president is a red line that few Uzbeks dare cross. The long sentence for dissident Karakalpaks may well be a warning to a few. ■