It was a quiet Saturday evening. The sun was setting over a summer-fatigued Tashkent and Anvar Nazirov, an Uzbek historian and human rights activist, was finishing preparations for an event he had been planning to hold the following day. On September 1, Uzbekistan’s Independence Day, Nazirov and his Facebook followers were going to gather at the Kökcha cemetery in Tashkent to lay flowers on the graves of two Uzbek national heroes: Elihan Tore and Mirtermir Mirabdullaev.
While Uzbek history books mention the names of both men, they have been largely brushed from the collective memory of people. Tore, elected first president of the Second East Turkestan Republic in 1944, was a liberal Muslim activist who fought against the Chinese occupation. Both men were also positioned against the Soviet regime.
This is not the first time Nazirov would organize such an event. His group, the only in Uzbekistan, meets regularly on various occasions to commemorate the victims of Soviet oppression. This time, the choice of Tore was not coincidental: With the repressions against the Uyghur population of China intensifying, the group decided to pay special attention to a man who fought against Chinese occupation in Central Asia in the first half of the 20th century.
Nazirov’s event, however, never took place.
At around 8:00 p.m., Nazirov’s telephone rang – it was the police. They asked him to come to the station.
“They said it would not be an interrogation. They only said that there are some technical problems and they just want to see the passports of my family members,” Anvar said, sitting in a café in central Tashkent.
But Nazirov was not the only one called that day by the police. Six other activists, the main organizers of the Independence Day event, were asked to show up at the same police station, each at a slightly different time, and each given a different reason. When they were all gathered at the station, the police began a truly Kafkaesque cross-questioning.
“They started asking about everything: Why we criticize Russia, why we support the Uyghurs, why we need this, why we are interested in politics, why we criticize the government. They also said that we shouldn’t write critical posts on Facebook,” Nazirov said. “They asked why we are meddling in the internal affairs of China. I said that only a country can meddle in the internal affairs of other countries, but not individuals. I am an individual, a private person so you cannot accuse me of that.”
Then, Nazirov says, the officers began to check his Facebook account and said his activity “smells like Ukraine or Syria,” which in the language of law enforcement in Central Asia means nothing short of stirring up revolution to bring about total anarchy and state collapse. For the officers questioning the activists even the issue of the Uzbek language reform, thoroughly debated among Uzbeks on Facebook, became a suspicious matters.
“This was the first such situation in many years. Even ten years ago this was not the case. They called people they never called before, these are not religious people, and they were questioned for criticizing Russia and China,” Nazirov says. “They said absurd things about everything, about politics, China, Russia, history. It’s never been like that. They wanted to show that if we are criticizing the reality we are wrong.”
Eventually the police turned to the topic of the Independence Day event. As Nazirov recalls, they said they cannot ban it, since it’s not a political rally, but asked him to cancel it.
“I asked what’s the reason? You invited me because you’re not happy with the event, you should then cancel this yourselves. They said they cannot do it. So I asked why we are sitting here then. They replied that it’s better that we cancel it ourselves and that we should come up with a reason.”
In the next room, Nadira Musaeva, a 33-year-old activist, was answering similar questions. The police visited her around 1:00 p.m. and asked her to come to the station to help recognize faces of people sought by the authorities. They said it is a standard procedure before Independence Day. Musaeva agreed and she soon found herself in one of the many police rooms, along with the other activists.
In Musaeva’s case, the police started with her recent trip to Turkey to visit her sister. “They asked me if I know what kind of contacts she has and what is currently going on in Turkey and Syria. I said I do and I know my sister well. They said I don’t know anything about my sister. I asked them what it was all about but they didn’t answer,” Musaeva says. “They then gave me a huge book with people’s pictures. They asked me to look carefully at the faces and said they would return to the topic of my sister later.”
In the book, Musaeva recognized one man who is active on Facebook and pointed at him. The officer immediately went to the website, but instead of checking the man’s profile, he started reading Musaeva’s posts. He asked her about her views on politics and if she knows what is going on in Hong Kong, Venezuela and Syria.
“He then said that Anvar Nazirov works for the U.S., he has connections in the U.S. embassy and is getting money from there for our activities,” Musaeva says. “He looked at my contact list and said that my Facebook friends are terrorists and that I might be a shahid too. He often repeated that I am following the wrong path. He said bad days are awaiting me.”
Another activist, 32-year-old Chingiz Raimkulov, was told that if he left the house the following day, they would talk to him differently. He was warned that he would break four laws: The requirement to abide law enforcement’s orders, the law on public meetings, and he would be accused of sabotage and hooliganism. All activists were asked to sign papers saying they are not against Uzbekistan’s politics and they would not take part in unsanctioned political rallies.
The questioning came only days after Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s speech in Samarkand during a meeting with bloggers in which he uttered assurances that Uzbekistan is to assume greater transparency and openness.
“In recent years, Uzbekistan has been opening up to the world and wants to bring the whole truth to the international community. Most importantly, you can discuss, criticize,” the president said. “I see among you our bloggers. I am proud of it. Know that the president will always support you.”
But the reality is far more complex. In the very same Uzbekistan, Nazirov and other activists were forced to cancel their peaceful event for no other reason than the continued paranoia of law enforcement agencies. While the activists suspect that the questioning might have come following a request from the Chinese Embassy, so far it is unclear who wrote the complaint against the group.
What is clear, however, is that today’s Uzbekistan is standing at a crossroads. The growing gap between official rhetoric of change and continued repressions by the police and security services creates a growing confusion over the tolerated forms of peaceful activism. While social media, Facebook and Telegram in particular, have been the most important platforms for civil dissent — providing free space for people to express their opinions — this freedom is far from a given, its boundaries unclear.
Nazirov and the other activists have no doubt that the recent questioning was aimed not only at cancelling the event, but also urging them to limit their political activities, online and offline, and preventing them from discussing issues some authorities view as controversial. Amid the deteriorating living conditions and declining som, the country’s national currency, people may soon find more reasons to complain.
“There is a game of good and bad policeman. The good one is the president and the bad one is the unofficial police who are trying to stop people’s activities following the president’s words,” Nazirov says. “The system which existed for a long time, back in the Soviet times, and then for 28 years of the Karimov rule, still exists. And to protect itself, it resorts to such actions. With our example, it wants to send a message to other groups that they should know the limits. Don’t cross the line, don’t make mistakes, we are controlling you.”
As the activists point out, ever since the Andijan massacre in 2005, those criticizing the government have been viewed as terrorists and the mentality of law enforcement agencies has not changed. Moreover, since Uzbek state media rarely provide information on foreign affairs and lack serious political TV programs, there is no official take on issues of international importance. As a result, most people, including those working in law enforcement, receive much of their information from Russian state TV. In this way, Russian media manipulates public opinion in the country.
The next day following the arrest, some of the activists received phone calls from the police officers that questioned them with different forms of threats. After the activists said they would make a complaint to international organizations and the prosecutor’s office, the phone calls stopped.
“When I said I had informed international human rights groups about their threats they disappeared. They are afraid of them. They asked us not to report it anywhere. But I think that if we now push it further and inform everyone about what happened, it will prevent the police from doing the same thing to others,” Nazirov said. “One of the policemen said at the end: you know, we have a problem, we don’t know who to listen to. We get orders from different people. It’s difficult.”
Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a journalist focusing on the post-Soviet space.