In the first week of December, one Uzbek blogger was released early on parole and another blogger was convicted and sentenced to eight years. A shared thread between the two men whose cases are covered below is their activities as bloggers.
In Uzbekistan, the term “blogger” is a catch-all used to refer to both individuals who share their opinions online to large audiences and also those who pursue independent journalism, sometimes called “citizen journalists.” Both varieties publish via a range of social media platforms including Telegram, Facebook, and YouTube, and in recent years have increasing pressure for pushing the boundaries of “new” Uzbekistan.
On December 6, head of Ezgulik, an Uzbek human rights organization, Abdurakhman Tashanov announced on Facebook that Fazilhoja Arifhojaev (also anglicized as Fozilxoja Orifxojaev) had been released from prison on parole.
Arifhojaev, a Muslim blogger known for his critique of the Uzbek government’s restrictive religious policies, had been sentenced in January 2022 to seven years and six months after a conviction on charges under Article 244 of the Uzbek Criminal Code, for allegedly “distributing or displaying materials containing a threat to public security and public order using mass media or telecommunication, or the Internet.”
That charge had come in the wake of a 15-day administrative sentence for petty hooliganism triggered by a public confrontation between Arifhojaev and another religious blogger, Abrorzhon Abduazimov, often described as pro-government. Arifhojaev reportedly called Abduazimov a “hypocrite” on June 26 at the Tuhtaboi Mosque in Tashkent, where Abduazimov was preaching; Arifhojaev was arrested two days later. As his 15-day sentence was coming to an end, authority said they’d opened a criminal investigation over a March 6, 2021 Facebook post in which he commented on whether it is appropriate for a Muslim to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious holidays.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service noted that there was no official information about Arifhojaev’s early release. Those monitoring his case, such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and Human Rights Watch, had earlier noted not just allegations of torture and ill-treatment, but deteriorating health and denial of adequate medical care.
A few days before Arifhojaev’s apparent release, on December 1, a different Uzbek blogger, Olimjon Khaidarov (Olimjon Haidarov) was sentenced to eight years on extortion, defamation, and libel charges that Human Rights Watch called “dubious.”
Khaidarov had been detained in late July in Kokand’s central bazaar. Ferghana regional police claimed he was caught red-handed extorting the final tranche of a $10,000 bribe from the market’s head in exchange for not posting negative articles about the market. An October 10 indictment added the charges of slander and insult, with the mayor of Kokand claiming that the blogger had slandered him in a post and a deputy head of the district police saying Khaidarov had called him a “bastard.”
Khaidarov denied the charges, claiming he was set up by the authorities in retaliation for his reporting. Khaidarov, whose YouTube channel has almost 30,000 followers, is known for reports criticizing local authorities and raising concerns about alleged corruption and limitations to free speech. Khaidarov joins the ranks of other bloggers and journalists who have been jailed on similar allegations of extortion, libel, and/or slander, such as Otabek Sattoriy and Abduqodir Mominov.
These cases illustrate, on the one hand, the wide variety of commentary and opinion sharing in the Uzbek social media space and how that space as grown enormously. As Niginakhon Saida wrote in an article about Uzbekistan’s online Islamic revival last year:
The internet era opened many doors for religious figures to reach their audiences both directly and indirectly as internet penetration in Uzbekistan soared over the past two decades. The number of individual internet users increased from just 7,500 in 2000 to 27.2 million in 2022 (Uzbekistan’s total population is estimated to be around 35.6 million). Although most users, especially in rural areas, rely on mobile internet (over 22 million users), reportedly 54 percent of the households are connected to high-speed internet.
The death of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s first president, in 2016 paved the way for his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, to launched a reform program. That reform effort opened the door every so slightly to greater activity among not just the religious community, and commentators in that space, but for journalists and others. Uzbeks (whether traditional journalists, bloggers, influencers, or merely individuals commenting online) have pushed at the boundaries of the “new” Uzbekistan. And they have found “new” Uzbekistan pushing back.
Every case is unique, and the two outlined above occur at vastly different ends of the blogger spectrum. View together, however, and in light of other such cases, they tell part of the free speech story in Uzbekistan — illustrating the limits and the punishments for bridging invisible lines.