A journalist was among nearly two dozen people sentenced on Tuesday in Uzbekistan on charges related to fatal anti-regime protests in the former Soviet republic last year.
Authorities have said 21 people died during the unrest, which was sparked by planned reforms that would have undermined the right to self-determination in the country’s autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan.
The violence in Nukus, the main city in Karakalpakstan, forced the Central Asian nation’s autocratic president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, to make a rare about-face and scrap the proposal.
Twenty-two people went on trial over the demonstrations on various charges, including “undermining constitutional order” and looting.
All defendants either pleaded guilty or admitted to being guilty of some violations.
Sixteen people were sentenced to jail terms, including the main defendant, journalist and lawyer Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, who authorities say instigated the protests. He was sentenced to 16 years behind bars. Two more defendants received suspended sentences and four others have had their freedom of movement restricted.
Karakalpakstan is home to fewer than two million people out of a nation of 35 million, but it covers more than a third of Uzbek territory.
The impoverished region is closely associated with the drying Aral Sea, one of the world’s great man-made environmental catastrophes.
Karakalpakstan has its own parliament, council of ministers, flag and anthem.
– ‘Excessive use of force’ –
Protests erupted in Nukus on July 1 and 2 over a move to remove Karakalpakstan’s right — protected under the constitution — to hold a referendum on self-determination.
Hundreds of people were arrested.
President Mirziyoyev accused “foreign forces” of propelling the unrest, without further explanation, before scrapping the proposed changes.
Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016 after the death of his autocratic predecessor, Islam Karimov.
He has pushed through economic and social reforms but his regime is accused by rights groups of trampling basic freedoms.
Human Rights Watch said in November that the authorities “unjustifiably used lethal force… to disperse mainly peaceful demonstrators” after verifying dozens of videos and photos of the protests.
A probe has been launched into the excessive use of force, Uzbek prosecutors said in December.
While journalists were authorised to cover the trial of Tazhimuratov and his co-defendants, it was held in distant Bukhara, around 600 kilometres (370 miles) from both Nukus and Tashkent, the capital.
In addition, journalists and rights groups have only limited access to information on the events that took place in Karakalpakstan.
The prosecutor’s office confirmed to AFP that 21 people died in the riots, but a list of victims and the circumstances of their death have not been made public.
Uzbekistan is the most populous ex-Soviet republic in Central Asia and has historic ties with Russia.
But since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Tashkent and some its Central Asian neighbours, have looked elsewhere, including China and Europe.
Despite being home to a wealth of natural resources, including gas, Uzbekistan has faced economic difficulties, including energy shortages amid historically cold temperatures this winter.
In Karakalpakstan, climate change and drought have also affected its key industry, agriculture.