An Uzbek service member guards a road during a government-organised press visit in Nukus, capital of the northwestern Karakalpakstan region, Uzbekistan July 6, 2022.
An Uzbek service member guards a road during a government-organised press visit in Nukus, capital of the northwestern Karakalpakstan region, Uzbekistan July 6, 2022. Reuters / MUKHAMMADSHARIF MAMATKULOV

A week after Uzbekistan's deadliest outbreak of violence in nearly 20 years, opposition politicians and human rights groups are challenging the government's narrative that protesters were high on drugs and incited by "foreign forces".

Authorities in the Central Asian state say 14 civilians and four law enforcement officers died during clashes that broke out in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan in the northwest of the country.

Rights activists and exiled opposition politicians say they believe the real toll is much higher. A European rights group, the Open Dialogue Foundation, has compiled the names of at least 58 missing individuals.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has blamed the violence on what he called malicious foreign forces, saying they had been gearing up for years to "attack the territorial integrity of Uzbekistan and create an inter-ethnic conflict". He did not provide evidence of foreign involvement or name any country.

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry described the disorder as "mass pogroms and atrocities", and said most of those responsible for the violence were intoxicated with drugs and alcohol.

Uzbek opposition politicians outside the country poured scorn on those accounts. They said the demonstrations were sparked by government plans to strip Karakalpakstan of its autonomous status, which included - at least on paper - a right to secede from Uzbekistan on the basis of a referendum. The government dropped the proposals after the protests broke out.

"The mistaken decision of the government was the reason for the protests," said Pulat Ahunov, Sweden-based chairman of the opposition Birlik party, dismissing the president's reference to outside forces.

"Where are these foreigners?" said Aman Sagidullayev, leader of a Karakalpak political party in exile. "There are no terrorists and drug addicts, these (protesters) are ordinary people," he said by telephone from Norway.

Alisher Ilkhamov, a Central Asia due diligence consultant based in Britain, said there was no evidence of foreign instigation.

He described that as a "standard narrative" also used by neighbouring Kazakhstan when it put down mass protests in January, to which the authorities responded by issuing shoot-to-kill orders and calling in troops from an alliance of Russia and other former Soviet republics to help restore order.

The unrest in Karakalpakstan raised the possibility that Mirziyoyev might seek to join that alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, to give himself the option of calling on Russian support in any future crisis, he said.


The United States, European Union and U.N. human rights chief have called for a full and transparent investigation into the deaths. The bloodshed is the worst since 2005 in Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic with a record of clamping down harshly on dissent.

The opposition says the demonstrators were peaceful and unarmed, but journalists on a government-organised trip to Karakalpakstan's main city Nukus this week were shown videos by the authorities where crowds attacked police and threw stones.

The deputy commander of the National Guard said some people where wounded when they tried to throw back smoke and stun grenades launched by the police, which exploded in their hands.

Activists say an important trigger for the unrest was the arrest of two prominent Karakalpak figures, lawyer Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov and journalist Lolagul Kallykhanova, who disappeared last week after speaking out on behalf of the republic's independence.

An open letter by a group of civil society activists from four Central Asian countries said Kallykhanova was believed to have been detained on June 29, and Tazhimuratov and his wife and children were "kidnapped" on July 1 and their whereabouts were unknown.

The Uzbek foreign ministry did not respond to an emailed series of questions on Friday about the fates of the pair and other people reported missing, as well as the evidence for the authorities' claim of foreign involvement.

"Leave Uzbekistan - that is my request to you and my testament. Don't remain part of Uzbekistan," Kallykhanova said in a video posted on social media before she disappeared.

"I don't know what will become of me and whether I will return to you."