Crossroads Asia

The Unexonerated Speak: A New Documentary Sheds Light on Uzbekistan’s Dark Past

Recent Features

Crossroads Asia | Society | Central Asia

The Unexonerated Speak: A New Documentary Sheds Light on Uzbekistan’s Dark Past

Thousands were imprisoned under the regime of Islam Karimov, unjustly convicted on religious extremism and other charges. Many have been freed, but they remain unexonerated. 

The Unexonerated Speak: A New Documentary Sheds Light on Uzbekistan’s Dark Past

Habibullo as pictured in the documentary “Oqlanmagan – The Unexonerated.”

Credit: Oxus Society

In the late 1990s, as the shock of independence wore off and Uzbek President Islam Karimov grew increasingly paranoid about threats to his hold on power, tens of thousands of people were imprisoned in Uzbekistan on religious extremism, terrorism, and treason charges. These ranged from imams and to merely curious citizens exploring Islam in ways largely unavailable under Soviet rule. A decade ago, in 2014, human rights activists estimated that there were 10,000-12,000 such prisoners; many served long sentences and were subjected to torture. Thousands more remained on so-called blacklists.

Following Karimov’s death in 2016, Uzbekistan’s new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, acknowledged the existence of a blacklist against former prisoners, their social contacts and extended family. In 2017, Mirziyoyev said on state television, “There were well over 17,000 people who were on the list for being involved in [extremist] religious trends and after talking to them again we have removed 16,000 from the religious [extremist] list.” In the ensuing years, thousands of prisoners were amnestied and released from prison.

A new documentary sponsored by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and produced by Noah Tucker, titled “Oqlanmagan – The Unexonerated,” attempts to share the stories of those previously branded as “extremists” by the Karimov government. “Oqlanmagan” means “unwhitened” in Uzbek; the term is one used also for those swept up in Stalin’s purges.

Tucker told The Diplomat that with the film he wanted to give “a platform to people we do not normally hear from – especially people who have experienced tremendous suffering and trauma – to tell their stories in whatever way they see fit.”

The 27-minute film, beautifully shot by famed Uzbek cinematographer Umida Akhmedova, begins with a man named Ahmadjon, a human rights activist whose three sons served a combined 60 years in prison. One of those sons, Habibullo, served 21 years in prison on charges of being a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a non-violent Islamic political organization that is banned in Uzbekistan. 

Habibullo recounts how he was in a bazaar in Margilan when he admonished some police who were beating a man, telling them they shouldn’t beat someone during Ramadan. The police detained him and accused him of handing out Hizb ut-Tahrir pamphlets. For six days, he was tortured and eventually admitted to being a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Later in the film, after two other former prisoners explain that their troubles were rooted in their ignorance of Islam, Habibullo says, “For myself, from the moment I was put in prison they used torture to try to break me completely, to get me to say ‘I was mistaken,’ ‘I was ignorant,’ that I ‘committed a crime out of ignorance.’” 

It’s a moving juxtaposition, and the film, importantly, doesn’t push a particular interpretation, instead leaning into the complexities. Each individual is given the space to tell their story.

Azamjon Farmonov, a prominent human rights activist who served 11 and a half years in prison and has been outspoken since his release in 2017, tries to explain that there are many truly radicalized individuals in prison, but as many people serving time who have never had any kind of radical view.

Farmonov, Tucker explained to The Diplomat, “refused to sign any kind of [non-disclosure agreement] when he left prison and he talks openly about being tortured for his political beliefs.” He travels internationally and speaks openly with both the public and the government. “According to him,” Tucker said, “he has not experienced any persecution as a result despite some pressure or threats from local officials.”

“The main thing that kept me going was my believe in justice,” Farmanov says in the film. “And the knowledge that I wasn’t guilty of anything.

“I held out the belief that someday they would say ‘we’re sorry, we were wrong,’ that someday I would be exonerated. I still believe in that.”

Although thousands have been amnestied and released, and their names taken off blacklists, their convictions remain. Just as trauma lingers, so does the stain of having been convicted of such serious crimes. Hanifa, whose husband has been imprisoned for nine years, recounts through tears how difficult life became. “My family wouldn’t do anything to help me,” she says, explaining how her husband’s sentence ballooned from three to six to nine years. A relative in the security services told her he could do nothing to help, “that it wasn’t his business.”

Speaking during a viewing of the film at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., Tucker said that at some point, a reckoning is needed. “We don’t know when that will happen,” he said.

“I hope that this film brings out voices we do not normally hear, and confronts the broader public, the government of Uzbekistan and the international community with questions about whose suffering counts, whose pain is real and legible, and what we should do when we are confronted with the reality of this suffering,” Tucker told The Diplomat.

Tucker said it’s important to mark the progress that has been made and celebrate it. “I didn’t expect the release of so many people so quickly either, and it’s important that we celebrate that and not diminish how significant that reform was.” But just as repatriation is “only the first step in a long process” to reintegrating citizens returning from Syria – something Uzbekistan has invested efforts into – so too is release from prison just the first step for those wrongly convicted.

But they remain unexonerated. 

Unlike state-led efforts to reintegrate citizens from conflict zones like Syria, there has been little on offer to those released from prison.

“[I]n the end no state has the resources to manage all its social problems,” Tucker told The Diplomat. “[A]nd reasonable people disagree about why public funds (taxes, let’s say) should be spent to support some causes.” But this is an area, Tucker said, where civil society could play a positive role.

Citing spontaneously organized civil activism during the pandemic, in response to the 2020 Sardoba dam disaster, and the NeMolchi movements in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan that have worked to bring public attention to domestic violence and to reduce stigma for women who seek help and support, Tucker said, “There are many wonderful people in Uzbekistan who are very willing to do the same for people who have been released from prison, but don’t know much about their situation or where those people are in some cases because they are so reluctant to be visible.”

“Someday, maybe tomorrow, maybe in a year, maybe in five, ten years, they will admit that I was innocent, that I was thrown in prison unjustly,” Farmanov says at the conclusion of the documentary. “I live with that hope.”