Uzbekistan’s president said there had been civilian and law enforcement casualties after rare public protests in the country’s northwest Karakalpakstan Autonomous Province, which has seen major unrest in about a planned constitutional reform.
In a statement posted online on Sunday, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said rioters carried out “destructive actions” in the city of Nukus, throwing rocks, starting fires and attacking police.
“Unfortunately, there are deaths among civilians and law enforcement,” Mirziyoyev said during a speech in Karakalpakstan that was relayed by his news service on Telegram. He did not specify the number and nature of the victims.
Sultanbek Ziyayev, head of the Republic of Karakalpakstan’s health ministry, told the Daryo.uz news site that hospitals in Nukus were full of patients who were injured when protesters clashed with security forces.
“Thousands of injured have been hospitalized and are being treated,” he said, according to the website.
An exiled opposition politician, Pulat Ahunov, told Reuters news agency that, based on contacts with local sources and video evidence, at least five people had been killed. He said there were unconfirmed reports of dozens more deaths.
Ahunov said people were unable to travel and get more information due to the state of emergency imposed by authorities.
Karakalpakstan has experienced major internet outages since the draft amendments were published last week, stripping the region of its nominal “sovereign” status and its right to secede from Uzbekistan by popular referendum.
Mirziyoyev has since abandoned plans to roll back the province’s autonomy after the protests.
“According to the constitution, it is an autonomous region, it has its own parliament, it has a number of privileges which it is supposed to enjoy, including the possibility of holding elections and choosing to secede from Uzbekistan “, Bruce Pannier, a Prague-Central Asia journalist, told Al Jazeera.
The region takes its name from the Karakalpak people, who are well represented in towns like Nukus, where the protests took place, but are now a minority in the western region of two million people.
“In Uzbekistan in general, protests are very rare because the security forces have a very strong grip on the country,” Pannier said.
“In Karakalpakstan in particular, they’ve had much smaller protests over the years, just because it’s a depressed area. There’s not a lot of investment, there’s a number of health issues there, so it’s not unusual for there to be protests, but something of this size is unusual by Uzbekistan’s standards.
Uzbekistan on Saturday declared a month-long state of emergency in the impoverished region where a large protest erupted against the proposed changes.
On Sunday, Mirziyoyev made a second visit to the region in two days.
“A group of people, hiding behind false slogans, won the trust of citizens, misled them, disobeyed the legal requirements of the authorities, caused chaos and attempted to seize the buildings of government bodies locals,” he told local lawmakers.
“Several groups tried to seize the buildings of the Nukus city internal affairs department and the national guard department in order to obtain weapons,” he said.
“Taking advantage of their numerical superiority, these men attacked law enforcement officers, beating them severely and inflicting serious injuries,” he added.
Uzbekistan is a tightly controlled Central Asian state and a former Soviet republic where the government harshly suppresses any form of dissent.
Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter: “There are unconfirmed reports of excessive use of force by security personnel during protests in Nukus. July 1.” He called for an investigation.
3/ Unconfirmed reports of excessive use of force by security personnel during protests in Nukus on 1 July. The events should then be investigated by the authorities. Police should use minimal force to deal with protests @hrw
— Hugh Williamson (@HughAWilliamson) July 3, 2022
The foreign ministry of neighboring Kazakhstan, whose government cracked down on violent protests in early January, said it was concerned about events in Uzbekistan.
“We welcome and support the decisions of the top leadership of Uzbekistan to stabilize the situation in the Republic of Karakalpakstan,” the ministry said in a statement.
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