Uzbekistan is, along with Turkmenistan, the post-Soviet state that has done the least to dismantle the expansive and oppressive security apparatus inherited from the USSR. With the new legislation passed on 23 September 2016, Uzbekistan may have taken another step towards eroding this edifice by establishing the first restrictions on the pervasive electronic surveillance which characterizes Uzbekistani society.
Although far from the ‘police state’ it is often depicted as by the Western media, Uzbekistan is undoubtedly dominated by security interests and the presence of armed police in public life is far higher than almost every Western country save America. Like its brother republics, Uzbekistan was not fully prepared for independence in 1991, and the early 1990s were characterized by massive public insecurity, as police deserted their posts, other systems of population control collapsed, and state authority was flaunted — particularly in the Farg’ona Valley. The decisive security policies pursued by the early Karimov administration had barely restored public order before another culpable threat to public security and state power reared its head, in the form of radical Islamism. Despite suppression domestically, from the mid-1990s O’zbekiston Islomiy Harakat (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or IMU) posed a security threat in many areas of Uzbekistan, reaching a head in multiple car bombings in Toshkent City in 1999, before they were mostly expelled from the country. In is in the context of this instability and fear throughout the first decade of Uzbekistan’s independence that the relationship between government and police in Uzbekistan was formed. The fear of this period was firmly engrained in the Uzbekistani psyche, especially among Mr. Karimov and his old guard, leading the country to prioritize security concerns over reform of security bodies. This meant that despite public and governmental support for reform in principle, policy on the police and the secret services remained broadly conservative, as senior officials in the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the MXX could invoke security concerns as a reason for the government to retard reforms.
Uzbekistan is much more secure in 2016 than it was in 1996, with the security agency’s arguments largely exhausted by the rise of Syria and Iraq as new centers of global jihadism. Although initiated in late August by the Karimov government, the interim administration seem to have taken this opportunity to chip away at the expansive powers of a security system essentially unchanged since the USSR of Yuri Andropov. The new law will introduce punishments for illegal surveillance, especially wiretapping. Currently, police and MXX agents are required to receive the approval of a judge to conduct espionage on individuals in Uzbekistan, but lack of oversight and cultures of police impunity held over from the Soviet Union mean that only a small number of surveillance operations actually receive judicial review. This law would introduce penalties for state employees who collect and disseminate personal information without judicial approval, as well as separate amendments to the Criminal Code which would criminalize similar activities by private persons.
The discrepancy between the penalties applied for illegal surveillance in the Code of Administrative Responsibility (crimes by state officials) and those in the Criminal Code (crimes by private persons) shows how much further Uzbekistan still has to go on the path towards reform of security bodies. A state official charged for the first time will be subject to a fine of between 10 and 40 times the monthly minimum wage, one of the lightest penalties applied in the Uzbekistani criminal justice system, whereas an private person committing the same crime — presumably on behalf of a larger criminal group — could be fined between 100 and 200 times the monthly minimum wage or imprisoned for between 1 and 3 years. This makes the least severe criminal penalty over twice as punitive as the most severe administrative penalty. This discrepancy informs us of the concern about organized crime in Uzbekistan society, but more importantly demonstrates that this law is meant to correct bad behaviors, not punish ‘bad’ individuals. Uzbekistani literature on the criminal justice system is clear that the enemy is not essentially evil or corrupt officials — on the contrary, Uzbekistani accounts praise the essential morality of the Uzbekistani people — but a legacy of corruption and impunity held over from the Soviet Union. This new law is constructed on that normative basis, that the penalty is meant to ‘correct’ bad behaviors, while still leaving essentially good officials unharmed.
What effect this reform will actually have on deterring illegal surveillance by Uzbekistani security bodies is unknown, especially considering the general unwillingness of judges to punish misbehavior by police — a tendency that goes double for the MXX. There is a possibility that prosecutors in Uzbekistan will still ignore misconduct by security services and not pursue charges, or that the light charge will have no substantial effect on the behavior of throughly corrupt security officers. The increased penalties imposed on repeat offenders, however, gives hope that the law will have its intended effect of educating most agents, and punishing the ‘actual’ offenders. Officials with repeat violations of the law on illegal surveillance will be fined 50 t0 100 times the monthly minimum wage, imprisoned for up to 6 months, or required to perform hard labour on weekends for up to 2 years. These penalties are still light compared to those faced by civilian wiretappers, but significantly more serious than those for first time offenders and hopeful strict enough that formerly cavalier officers will seriously rethink pursuing the mass surveillance which currently characterizes Uzbekistani security.
United Nations Convention against Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhumane, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. “Initial reports of States parties due in 1996, Addendum: Uzbekistan”. (CAT/C/32/Add.3), 24 August 1999.