Uzbek court sentences 22 over deadly Karakalpakstan unrest

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev applauds during a signing ceremony and news conference while on a visit to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev applauds during a signing ceremony and news conference while on a visit to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, January 27, 2023. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov/File Photo
  • Activists accused of fomenting deadly unrest last year
  • Protests triggered by plan to curtail region's autonomy
  • Harsh sentences for 'moderates' could radicalise others

TASHKENT/ALMATY, Jan 31 (Reuters) - A court in Uzbekistan sentenced 22 people to various prison terms on Tuesday over deadly unrest in the autonomous province of Karakalpakstan last July, the Central Asian country’s Supreme Court said.

Twenty-one people were killed in the disturbances triggered by plans to curtail the province's autonomy. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev scrapped the plan amidst the protests.

The aftermath posed a dilemma to Mirziyoyev about whether to reinforce the authority of his government or to soften its stance in keeping with a more liberal image he has long sought to present to the West in order to promote trade and investment.

The defendants were found guilty on Tuesday of charges that ranged from hooliganism to encroachment on the constitutional order in Uzbekistan, a country of 36 million people.

The main defendant, Dauletmurat Tajimuratov, 44, a lawyer accused of being the leader of the riots, was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Tajimuratov was the only one who had not fully pleaded guilty, denying charges such as paying people to attend the protests.

Another key defendant, journalist Lolagul Kallikhanova, 34, was handed a suspended three-year sentence and set free in the courtroom, along with three other defendants whose sentences did not include prison time.

Others, including a former senior police officer, a farmer, a university teacher and a blogger, were sentenced to prison terms of three to eight years.

The trial, conducted in the city of Bukhara, started on Nov. 28 and most of the sessions were broadcast live to the press room at the court building and online.

At the beginning of the trial, almost all defendants except for Tajimuratov repented and expressed their apologies to the state, the parliament and to Mirziyoyev.

The president accused unspecified "foreign forces" of instigating the unrest. Kazakhstan, a fellow Central Asian nation, last year detained several Karakalpak activists at Tashkent's request.

Karakalpakstan accounts for more than a third of Uzbek territory, but ethnic Karakalpaks make up only slightly over 2% of the country's population, according to official data.

Kazakhstan-based Karakalpak activist Akybek Muratov criticised the trial as unconvincing and said the harsh sentences could backfire.

"The people who were sentenced to prison today and those five activists arrested in Kazakhstan represent, in fact, the moderate wing of Karakalpak intellectuals," he said.

"There are people calling for more radical moves, for separatism ... This is going to be a ticking time bomb."

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov, editing by Ed Osmond and Mark Heinrich

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