Uzbekistan: smear campaign & criminalisation of Karomat Ashirova &  Zukhra Abdurakhmanova (joint communication)

The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of Uzbekistan on 7 April 2022. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public. The Government did not respond within this time frame. Any reply received will be published on the UN Special Procedures communications database.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication

BACKGROUND

Topic: reported smear campaign against, and arbitrary detention and criminalisation of Ms. Karomat Ashirova and Ms. Zukhra Abdurakhmanova, which are reportedly related to their human rights activities, as well as searches in their homes and seizure of documents reportedly proving human rights violations.

Ms. Karomat Ashirova is a woman human rights defender from the city of Angren in the Tashkent region, also known by the local residents as “Sister Writer.” She drew up complaints to various state authorities on behalf of people whose rights were violated, accompanied the applicants to meetings with the authorities, and helped them to achieve justice.

Ms. Zukhra Abdurakhmanova is a woman human rights defender from Angren. Together with Ms. Karomat Ashirova, she advised victims of domestic violence on available remedies, helped them to find temporary shelter and employment, advocated for the right to housing and health, as well as openly denounced corruption, embezzlement, and tax evasion.

ALLEGATIONS

In the course of her human rights work, Ms. Ashirova has written many letters to the President of Uzbekistan concerning the alleged arbitrariness of the Angren authorities, including the current and former city majors, the city prosecutor, the head of the tax inspectorate, and a number of other officials.

On 7 April 2021, after collecting documents reportedly proving the corruption of local officials, including the city major and the former director of the food market, Ms. Ashirova, supported by Ms. Abdurakhmanova, appealed to the Prosecutor of the Tashkent Region for an investigation. The Prosecutor supported Ms. Ashirova and Ms. Abdurakhmanova and, on 3 May 2021, issued a decision to open a criminal case against “unidentified persons” under article 229 of the Criminal Code (“Arbitrariness”).

Moreover, in June 2021, Ms. Ashirova was reportedly collecting evidence to send a statement to the President of Uzbekistan about a crack in the dam of the Angren reservoir, which could lead to a flood. She reportedly took the city major and several other people to the site, informing them of the situation.

On 21 June 2021, Ms. Ashirova and Ms. Abdurakhmanova were detained and forcibly removed from their homes in Angren, allegedly by a group of approximately 40 armed law enforcement officers in black uniforms led by a police investigator. The law enforcement officers reportedly had a search warrant but no arrest warrant. They allegedly searched the homes of the women human rights defenders and seized all documents supporting Ms. Ashirova’s allegations of corruption and the dam crack, along with some personal documents belonging to her and her family.

Since 21 June 2021, Ms. Ashirova and Ms. Abdurakhmanova have reportedly been held in Tashkent prison “Zangiata”, reportedly on the Angren City Court orders dated 22 June 2021 and 15 September 2021. During this time, the women human rights defenders have reportedly not been allowed any family visits.

According to the indictment issued by the Angren City Prosecutor’s Office investigator on 24 November 2021, the women human rights defenders were reportedly charged under the following provisions of the Criminal Code: article 165 para. 2 (a) and (c) and para. 3 (a) (“Extortion”), article 168, para. 3 (b) (“Fraud”), article 228, para. 2 (b) (“Production, forgery of documents, stamps, seals, blanks, their sale or use”), article 229 (“Arbitrariness”), and article 2441, para. 3 (a) (“Production, storage, distribution or demonstration of materials containing a threat to public safety and public order”). Ms. Ashirova had reportedly been “making unlawful demands to the state and local authorities on issues of citizens unrelated to her, and engaged in illegal rallies to satisfy these demands, discrediting the Angren city administration and other state organisations.”

In addition, announcements have reportedly been disseminated on the streets of Angren, in which, on behalf of the City Prosecutor’s Office, citizens were warned about the “dangerous criminal swindler” Ms. Ashirova and her equally dangerous “accomplice” Ms. Abdurakhmanova, including photos of the women human rights defenders. The announcements appealed for the public to immediately contact the Prosecutor’s Office and the police department if, they were victims of fraudulent actions as a result of the “group conspiracy” of Ms. Ashirova and Ms. Abdurakhmanova and assured that “the confidentiality of whistle-blowers will be preserved.” The announcements also reportedly indicated that Ms. Ashirova and Ms. Abdurakhmanova were accused under article 165, para. 3 (a) (“Extortion”) and several other articles of the Criminal Code, and as a “legal” preventive measure, they were taken into custody.

The trial hearings against Ms. Ashirova and Ms. Abdurakhmanova reportedly started on 20 December 2021 at the Almalyk City Criminal Court. The reason for not holding the trial in Angren and moving it to Almalyk (51 km away) was allegedly to prevent attendance by their supporters. In addition, video and audio recordings were reportedly prohibited during the trial.

Ms. Ashirova and Ms. Abdurakhmanova were reportedly brought to the hearings in a truck from Zangiata prison, and between the hearings were kept in the local detention centre, which allegedly lacked humane conditions – the cells were cold, there was a stench in the toilet, and there was no running water. They were reportedly taken to the courtroom in handcuffs. During the hearings, Ms. Ashirova, who had reportedly suffered a heart attack shortly before the detention and is 70 years old, appeared pale and emaciated. At least two hearings were reportedly postponed without explanation.

Among the victims were reportedly local officials. They accused Ms. Ashirova and Ms. Abdurakhmanova of “slandering the authorities” and “humiliating the dignity and authority” of officials, as well as of numerous “raids” on someone else’s property “through threats and blackmail.” Additionally, officials accused Ms. Ashirova of “group extortion” (as part of a “criminal gang” with Ms. Abdurakhmanova), blackmail, and violent acts aimed at forcing victims to sign over their own or state property to the name of a “racketeer”.

The hearings have allegedly revealed many contradictions between the testimonies recorded in the investigation materials and the testimonies of the same witnesses and victims, which they gave directly in the courtroom.

On 18 February 2022, both Ms. Ashirova and Ms. Abdurakhmanova were convicted to four years of restriction of liberty minus the days they had spent in custody. The sentence, among other restrictions, reportedly requires them not to use phones and the internet and to stay at home from 8 pm to 8 am.

CONCERNS

In the communication we exprssed concern about the alleged smear campaign, arbitrary detention and criminalisation of Ms. Ashirova and Ms. Abdurakhmanova. They appear to have been targeted for their legitimate human rights work and exercising their right to freedom of expression. We are also concerned about searches in their homes and seizure of documents reportedly proving human rights violations. Finally, we are gravely concerned about Ms. Ashirova’s health, considering her age and that she was allegedly subjected to inhuman detention conditions following a heart attack.

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