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Uzbekistan: Karakalpak activist detained in Almaty

Aqylbek Muratbai has been active on social media drawing attention to the aftermath of the bloodshed in Nukus in July 2022.


Police in Kazakhstan late on February 15 detained an activist who has for the last two years been working to raise international awareness about the bloody crushing of a mass protest in his native Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region of western Uzbekistan. 


Aqylbek Muratbai’s partner, Indira Beissembayeva, told Eurasianet that two plainclothes officers came to his home in Almaty at 10 p.m. and led him away to a police precinct.


Beissembayeva said she understands that the detention was effected at the request of the Uzbek authorities. She told Eurasianet that Muratbai informed her by phone from the police precinct that he was told that he is wanted in Uzbekistan on suspicion of issuing calls for public unrest.


The detention appears to fit into an established pattern of Uzbekistan issuing arrest warrants for foreign-based Karakalpak activists. In late 2022, the Kazakh authorities detained at least four Karakalpak activists at the behest of Tashkent. Ziuar Mirmanbetova, Raisa Khudaibergenova, Zhangeldy Zhaksymbetov and Koshkarbai Toremuratov all stood accused by Uzbek investigators of seeking to undermine the constitutional order in Uzbekistan.


All the arrests happened in the wake of the unrest that rocked the capital of Karakalpakstan, Nukus, and nearby towns and villages in the first few days of July 2022. The government responded to a spontaneous protest against planned changes to the constitution that would have seen the dilution of the province’s autonomy by deploying National Guard troops bearing deadly firearms.


According to official figures, at least 21 people, including four law enforcement officers, were killed in the turmoil.


While it was demonstrators that suffered the bulk of the fatalities, it was protest leaders and their followers that incurred the heaviest penalties.


The most prominent figure among them, Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, a Karakalpak lawyer and activist, was sentenced to 16 years in prison on charges of sowing unrest and purportedly pursuing independence for Karakalpakstan.


Muratbai has assiduously followed and documented the trial and subsequent appeals of Tazhimuratov and many other Karakalpaks. He is notable for being one of few Karakalpak activists to communicate his bulletins and appeals in English, a fact that has extended the reach of his messages.


In an interview with Eurasianet in March 2023, Muratbai expressed the hope that his relative prominence might provide him with some degree of protection from the prospect of arrest and deportation to Uzbekistan. 


The Uzbek government sought in the immediate aftermath of the Karakalpakstan bloodshed to convey the impression that it would be open to some degree of scrutiny. This was intended to be in contrast to the aggressive evasion and secrecy displayed by the late President Islam Karimov’s regime after he dispatched troops to violently put down mass protests in the city of Andijan in 2005 — a course of action that culminated in what rights groups believe to have been hundreds of deaths.


While refraining from inviting probes from outside parties — and no international partners were pressing for this especially hard — the government in late July 2022 announced an independent commission would be set up to investigate the events. 


The commission was given two mandates: One was to investigate what precipitated the unrest. The other was to ensure that the legal rights of all the people detained by the police were upheld.

The 14-person commission, which includes members of parliament, rights advocates, and public figures from Karakalpakstan among its membership, has yet to produce any report, however.


No explanation has been offered for the delay. Members of the commission quizzed on this point by Eurasianet have failed to answer.


The government has been more energetic, meanwhile, in going after individuals perceived as mobilizing Karakalpaks inside the country and beyond. The quartet detained in Kazakhstan in 2022 were eventually released, but they have not been granted asylum. 


Andrei Grishin, a spokesperson for the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights, told openDemocracy in November that he feared this could still leave them open to the risk of deportation. 

The activists “could face torture and forged trials if sent to Uzbekistan,” Grishin told openDemocracy.


“We know this from previous practice of how the Uzbek authorities have treated their opponents, and those arrested earlier for protests in Karakalpakstan.”


The situation is most bleak for those still inside Karakalpakstan. 


RFE/RL reported earlier this month on how law enforcement forces in the republic have, even in the last few months, been intimidating and punishing young people suspected of sympathizing with the plight of Tazhimuratov, the imprisoned activist, or harboring potentially separatist views. 


The broadcaster cited activists as saying that dozens have been arrested, fined, or expelled from universities since July 2022.


Muratbai was one of RFE/RL’s informants.


 

EurAsiaNet, 2024

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