In many countries, social media has become the infrastructure for discussion in the public sphere. But in Uzbekistan, social media posts are often used as evidence in court against bloggers who criticize the authorities.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has repeatedly said that he values freedom of expression and the role of bloggers in society. In practice, however, many bloggers have been prosecuted in recent months, raising new concerns about freedom of expression in Uzbekistan.
In two recent cases, Sergey Mayorov, a lawyer, appealed sentences imposed on his clients for criticizing the government. Fazilhoja Arifhojaev was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison and Miraziz Bazarov to three years of house arrest. Mayorov told Human Rights Watch he was pessimistic about whether the courts would consider the appeals from a human rights perspective.
On January 26, the Almazar District Criminal Court in Tashkent found Arifhojaev guilty under Article 244-1 of the Criminal Code of allegedly threatening public security by reposting and commenting on a Facebook post that wondered if it was appropriate for a Muslim to congratulate non-Muslims. Muslims during their religious holidays. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged authorities to amend article 244-1, which has been used to criminalize peaceful dissent and freedom of religion and belief.
On January 21, the Mirobod District Criminal Court in Tashkent sentenced Bazarov on two counts under Article 139-3 of the Criminal Code for making videos on TikTok and YouTube, allegedly with insulting comments to against teachers and pro-government bloggers. Bazarov was attacked in Tashkent last March and was hospitalized with a broken leg, severe concussion and multiple internal and external injuries. Instead of investigating the attack and seeking to identify his attackers, authorities opened a criminal investigation against him as soon as he was released from hospital.
On February 3, the Hazarasp District Criminal Court in the Khorezm region sentenced Sobirjon Babaniyazov to three years in prison under Article 158 of the Criminal Code for videos and audio messages on the social media platform Telegram which insulted the president. Babaniyazov apologized in court and claimed he was drunk when he made the videos. He said he was desperate about the lack of gas heating in his village and the unemployment. Babaniyazov had been in pretrial detention since April 18, 2021.
Insulting the president online was explicitly criminalized last March. The amendment to the penal code was widely criticized by international and local human rights defenders, who feared it could be used to silence online critics. Babaniyazov’s case seems to justify these concerns.
House arrest and imprisonment are not the only tools used to silence critics and discredit bloggers and civil activists. Valijon Kalonov, a 52-year-old blogger and critic of the Jizzakh city government, is being held in a psychiatric hospital in the Samarkand region.
Kalonov was arrested last August for insulting the president through mass media and distributing and posting materials threatening public safety and public order using social media after criticizing the president and calling on YouTube to boycott October elections.
In a December 23 verdict, seen by Human Rights Watch, a criminal court in Jizzakh referred to a psychiatric examination that concluded that Kalonov did not understand and was not fully aware of his actions due to a psychosocial disability and that he needed to be hospitalized. Those who know him do not know that he suffers from a mental disorder. The court ruled that Kalonov could not be held criminally responsible and sent him for compulsory psychiatric treatment.
Notwithstanding the absence of any credible evidence that Kalonov suffers from a psychosocial disability, the forced medical treatment of anyone for this reason is discriminatory and violates the prohibition of ill-treatment. This is not the first time that Uzbek authorities have used forced psychiatric treatment to silence and discredit critics.
On February 22, Ruslan Khairnurov was released from house arrest he had had since December 31 for reposting an unverified Facebook post about a regional health worker accepting a bribe. A criminal case against him for defamation under Article 139-3 of the criminal code is still pending, although Khairnurov said he deleted the post when he found the information to be false.
Arifhojaev, Babaniyazov, Kalonov, Bazarov and Khairnurov come from different backgrounds and have different backgrounds and beliefs, but they were deprived of their freedom because they used social media platforms to criticize life in Uzbekistan. The authorities should dismiss or overturn these cases.