Under threat: The life of Karakalpak activists in Kazakhstan

Illustration by Daniyar Mussirov. Used with permission.

This article was written by Almas Kaisar and Nazerke Kurmangazinova for Vlast.kz. An edited version is published on Global Voices under a media partnership agreement.

Ethnic Karakalpaks living in Kazakhstan have become the target of detentions and pressure after the July 2022 protests in Nukus, the capital of the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan’s northeast. Uzbekistan’s government demanded that activists detained in Kazakhstan be extradited, after accusing them of “calling for mass riots” and “attacks against the constitutional order.”

The detained activists had posted videos and published appeals on social media calling for an independent investigation of the violence of the summer of 2022. Five of them spent a year under pre-extradition detention in Kazakhstan, although they were ultimately not extradited to Uzbekistan. Yet, Kazakhstan’s government rejected their applications to be considered political refugees. Once freed from detention, some activists tried to obtain asylum abroad, while others remained in Kazakhstan.

Vlast spoke with activists of the Karakalpak diaspora and human rights defenders about their past legal quests and what future awaits them.

Protests and transnational repression

According to Uzbekistan’s Constitution, the region of Karakalpakstan is a sovereign republic, with its own institutions, symbols, and language. Proposed amendments to the constitution in 2022 threatened Karakalpakstan’s legal status, leading to popular protests in Nukus that were violently repressed In July 2022.

Activist and journalist Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov was one of the first to speak out against the constitutional amendments and was singled out as the instigator of the unrest. He was detained in July 2022 and sentenced in January 2023 to 16 years in prison, along with others.

Here is a YouTube video about the July 2022 protests in Nukus.

After quashing the protests in Karakalpakstan, Uzbek authorities moved to silence the voices of activists living in other countries, including Kazakhstan. The activists faced new criminal charges in Uzbekistan, whose authorities demanded extradition.

The latest activist arrested in Kazakhstan at the request of Uzbekistan is human rights activist and informal leader of the Karakalpak diaspora Akylbek Muratov. He was detained on February 15 and is currently in a pre-trial detention center in Almaty, awaiting the decision of the commission on his request for political asylum in Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan accuses him of “calling for mass riots” and “distributing material that threatens public safety.”

After the unrest in Karakalpakstan, Muratov was summoned by the Almaty police and questioned by representatives of Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee and law enforcement officers of Uzbekistan, who demanded that he stopped sharing video messages. In September 2022, five Karakalpak activists, Koshkarbay Toremuratov, Zhangeldy Zhaksymbetov, Ziuar Mirmanbetova, Tleubike Yuldasheva, and Raisa were arrested in Kazakhstan.

Akylbek Muratov at a meeting at the Uzbek Consulate in July 2022. Photo from his personal archive. Used with permission.

To attract attention to the arrests and detention, Muratov reached out to international and local human rights organizations. “After Koshkarbay’s arrest, I could not sit quietly. I began to speak out. Arrest me, if you want, but I will not sit in silence,” Muratov said in 2022. He himself was detained after the five Karakalpak activists were released after having spent a year in pre-trial detention centers. On February 23, Muratov was granted a temporary certificate of asylum seeker in Kazakhstan.

Torture in Uzbekistan

Born in Karakalpakstan, Koshkarbay Toremuratov moved to Kazakhstan in 2006. In 2014, he traveled back to Karakalpakstan. At the border, he was detained by local Karakalpak police officers together with the special services of Uzbekistan, accusing him of “illegally crossing borders.”

He served six months in a pre-trial detention center in Nukus, where he was tortured for two weeks. Beaten and with permanent injuries, Toremuratov was then transferred to a prison. After his release and return to Kazakhstan, he set up a YouTube channel in 2019 to voice current issues in Karakalpakstan and publish videos from there. In 2020, when he published a video of a small demonstration called by political activists, the diplomatic mission of Uzbekistan told the activist to “tone it down” and praise President Mirziyoyev’s reforms instead.

“When they detained me in 2022, they referred to this video,” Toremuratov said. He was accused of “encroaching on the constitutional order of Uzbekistan” and “distributing material that threatens public safety”.

While in detention, he wrote a petition for political asylum in Kazakhstan. In 2023, the commission rejected the petition. After his release in September 2023, Toremuratov went to Poland to participate in the OSCE Human Dimension Conference. After the conference, he traveled to Austria, where he applied for political asylum. But, on February 29, he was deported back to Poland, because the European Union’s “Dublin Protocol” requires people to apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter. Now, Toremuratov intends to ask for political asylum in Poland.

Koshkarbay Toremuratov (left) and Akylbek Muratov (right). Photo from Muratov's personal archive. Used with permission.

Ziuar Mirmambetova, 47, is one of the activists of the Karakalpak diaspora detained at the request of Uzbekistan. She arrived in Kazakhstan in 2000, but managed to obtain a residence permit only in 2012. When she went to Karakalpakstan in 2019 to celebrate Karakalpak Language Day, Mirmambetova was detained along with another activist, Yerman Eskendirov.

“They questioned me, but they tortured Eskendirov. He barely survived and I managed to get him to Almaty,” Mirmambetova said. She was detained in October 2021 when she returned to Uzbekistan. “They kept me until 5 January 2022. There was no court decision, no charges. I was detained just because I was an activist. They only released me after the signs of torture were gone on my body,” she recalled. Mirmambetova went quiet on social media for several months, but the proposed constitutional amendments brought her back into activism.

“We held a conference in May in Almaty. Two months later, in July, the people in Nukus protested. We are now blamed for the uprising,” Mirmambetova said. In October 2022, she was arrested at the restaurant where she worked, after being accused of “encroaching on the constitutional order of Uzbekistan.” After a 12-month detention, she was released. Her appeal to receive political asylum was rejected, alongside all others. Now, Mirmambetova intends to file an appeal.

An uncertain and precarious future

Yevgeniy Zhovtis, head of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights, said there’s a political and diplomatic struggle over the topic of political asylum. “Kazakhstan does not want to give asylum, for obvious political reasons: It does not want to spoil relations with neighboring countries. Yet, due to criticism from abroad, Kazakhstan also does not want to extradite them. Therefore, they are kept under detention while an extradition request is considered for a year,” Zhovtis said.

Leila Nazgul Seiitbek, a lawyer at Freedom for Eurasia, a non-profit that also works with Central Asian asylum seekers, said that Kazakhstan should do more.

“We understand the political motives for such behavior, but there are international obligations that the country is obliged to fulfill. And this also impacts Kazakhstan’s international image,” she told Vlast. Besides Toremuratov’s case, Freedom for Eurasia is now also advocating for Nauryzbay Menlibayev, another activist, to receive his refugee status.

Menlibayev traveled to Poland in 2022 to attend a human rights conference and remained there for security reasons. After following Toremuratov’s example and applying for asylum in Austria, he was deported back to Poland on January 8. Menlibayev’s case is awaiting a decision from the European Court of Human Rights.

People from Central Asia have a hard time obtaining refugee status in Europe, according to Zhovtis. The most recent influx of refugees from Ukraine, Russia, and other countries plays a role, as well as the growth of nationalist and conservative movements.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.