Uzbekistan’s president said there have been casualties among civilians and law enforcement personnel after rare public protests in the country’s autonomous northwestern Karakalpakstan province, which has seen significant unrest over a planned constitutional reform.
In a statement posted online on Sunday, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said rioters had carried out “destructive actions” in the city of Nukus, throwing stones, starting fires and attacking police.
“Unfortunately, there are fatalities among civilians and law enforcement officers,” Mirziyoyev said during a speech in Karakalpakstan that was relayed by his press service on Telegram. He did not specify the number and nature of the casualties.
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 dead.
Ahunov said people were unable to move around and obtain more information because of a state of emergency imposed by the authorities.
Karakalpakstan has seen significant 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 via popular referendum.
Mirziyoyev has since dropped plans to roll back the province’s autonomy after the demonstrations.
“According to the constitution, it is an autonomous region, it has its own parliament, it has a number of privileges that it’s supposed to enjoy including the opportunity to hold an election and choose to secede from Uzbekistan,” Bruce Pannier, a Prague-based journalist specialising in Central Asia, told Al Jazeera.
The area takes its name from the Karakalpak people, who are well represented in cities such as Nukus, where the protests took place, but now constitute a minority in the western region of two million people.
“In Uzbekistan in general, protests are very rare because security forces have a very strong grip over the country,” Pannier said.
“In Karakalpakstan specifically, they’ve had some much smaller protests over the years simply because it’s a depressed area. It doesn’t see much investment, there are a number of health problems there, so it’s not unusual for there to be protests, but something this size is unusual by the standards of Uzbekistan.”
Uzbekistan on Saturday decreed a month-long state of emergency in the impoverished region where the large protest erupted over 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 lawful demands of the authorities, caused chaos, and tried to seize the buildings of local government bodies,” he told local lawmakers.
“Several groups attempted to seize the buildings of the Nukus City Department of Internal Affairs and the Department of the National Guard in order to obtain weapons,” he claimed.
“Taking advantage of their numerical superiority, these men attacked law enforcement officers, severely beating them and inflicting severe injuries,” he added.
Uzbekistan is a tightly controlled Central Asian state and former Soviet republic where the government clamps down hard on any form of dissent.
Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter: “There are unconfirmed reports of excessive force used by security personnel during protests in Nukus on July 1.” He called for an investigation.
3/ There are unconfirmed reports of excessive force used by security personnel during protests in Nukus on July 1. Events then should be investigated by authorities. Police should use minimal force to manage protests @hrw
— Hugh Williamson (@HughAWilliamson) July 3, 2022
The foreign ministry of neighbouring Kazakhstan, whose government crushed violent protests in early January, said it was concerned by events in Uzbekistan.
“We welcome and support the decisions of the top leadership of Uzbekistan to stabilise the situation in the Republic of Karakalpakstan,” the ministry said in a statement.