A homophobic gang assaults a gay technical-school student in Fargona, Uzbekistan, a country where sexual activity between men is a crime — stripping the victim naked, beating him with a stick, and forcing him to insert a beer bottle into his anus, then posting video of the attack on the Internet.
Several men force an Uzbek woman to confess that she has worked as a prostitute while they film her for a "shame video" distributed on social-media networks.
Angry shopkeepers at a clothing market in Urganch accuse a teenage girl of theft and take the law into their own hands — stripping her naked from the waist up, beating and kicking her, and forcing her onto the street while a man who encourages the attack shoots a video that goes viral in Russia and other former Soviet republics. All are examples of so-called vigilante videos posted recently to the Internet from Uzbekistan — incidents in which self-appointed posses of citizens armed with smartphones, and sometimes weapons, attacked and humiliated suspects rather than report them to law enforcement for the authorities to judge.
It's impossible to independently confirm whether mob attacks against suspected wrongdoers are on the rise in Uzbekistan, or even whether authorities are doing anything to address the problem. The government in Tashkent does not keep statistics on vigilante attacks and won't comment on the issue. But with several recent Uzbek "vigilante" videos going viral in other countries, authorities say they are concerned about the impact the footage is having on Uzbekistan's reputation. As a result, they've launched a campaign to discourage such people from posting videos of their attacks on the Internet — instructing neighborhood crime-watch activists "not to take the garbage out of the house for the outside world to see.
The initiative is being conducted by regional officials, who rarely carry out public-awareness campaigns in Uzbekistan without instructions from senior government officials in the capital. Public meetings have been called at schools to bring together teachers, local residents, and members of neighborhood committees known as mahalla residential-community associations.
One such meeting was held on November 4 at School Number 36 in Urganch, a regional capital in western Uzbekistan, after vigilante video from the city's clothing market was broadcast by Russia's REN-TV channel and went viral. Sayora Abdukarimova, chairwoman of the regional Committee for Women's Issues, told teachers and mahalla activists at the meeting they must do everything they can to prevent videos of "internal issues" from circulating on the Internet.
Abdukarimova also instructed those at the meeting to spread the word about the importance of preventing Uzbek vigilante videos from been seen outside of Uzbekistan. The images come at a particularly sensitive time for Uzbekistan, which has spent most of the past three decades of independence lumbering under accusations of egregious rights violations and authoritarian excess.
Tashkent has been on an outreach offensive since President Shavkat Mirziyoev succeeded Islam Karimov after the entrenched strongman died last year, pursuing a thaw with its neighbors, pledging to eliminate cumbersome "exit visas" for its citizens, and touting plans to resurrect inward-bound tourism. The video from the Urganch clothing market shows more than a half dozen shopkeepers stripping the blouse and bra off of a year-old girl and beating her after she allegedly tried to steal clothing.
The police officer familiar with the attack, asking not to be identified, says thefts take place on a regular basis at the market and that "all sides involved" usually "take care of this themselves without referring cases to law enforcement officials. There was no vigilante attack at the clothing market nor at the agricultural market in Urganch. In general, these kinds of incidents never happen in the Xorazm region.
Laws are respected in the region and all laws are implemented here. This is a provocation by our enemies. Ichan-kala in Khiva. Gavharjon Solaeva, a travel agent who relies on income from tourists who visit the Xorazm region's UNESCO World Heritage Site in Khiva, says authorities are concerned foreign travelers may avoid the region "after seeing this video" because they also would fear "vigilante attacks.
Experts say a group psychology for vigilante attacks in Uzbekistan stems from the long-time reliance of police on mahalla activists in local crime-prevention programs. Uzbekistan's mahalla committees are state-sanctioned neighborhood organizations that were reshaped from Soviet-era informant networks — networks where residents would report suspicious behavior by neighbors to police and intelligence officials. Murdo Ismailov, an Uzbek mahalla expert at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, notes that the most regularly conducted activity of mahalla activists — nearly two-thirds of all volunteer work — is within neighborhood "crime-prevention" and "night-watch" programs.
Uzbek lawyer Ruhiddin Komilov. Tashkent-based criminal attorney Ruhiddin Komilov says the apparent prevalence of vigilante attacks in Uzbekistan "proves that there is no trust in the legal system. Still, authorities in Tashkent have shown that they are prepared to detain and prosecute vigilantes who are reported in the most notorious cases — like the horrific abuse of the gay student in Fargona that was recorded and posted online by his attackers on September Those suspects now await trial on charges of making violent death threats, attempting to drive a person to commit suicide, premeditated infliction of bodily harm, robbery, and hooliganism.
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