TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — Unraveling a police state is never easy, and just how fraught the process can be has been playing out in a basement cell in Uzbekistan, a rare example of a country seeking to tame a vicious security apparatus at a time when many other nations are doing the opposite.
The detention center in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, is where Bobomurod Abdullaev, a freelance journalist, was taken and, according to his wife and lawyer, tortured after agents of Uzbekistan’s feared National Security Service grabbed him off the street in September.
But it was also where Mr. Abdullaev, who has been charged with “conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional regime,” was last month allowed to meet with a prominent human rights lawyer the security service had initially barred — and tell him of his mistreatment.
Two security officers in charge of the investigation have now been removed from the case and are themselves under investigation for misconduct amid a rolling purge of Uzbekistan’s once-untouchable security service.
The twists and turns in Mr. Abdullaev’s case point to what, 18 months after the death of Uzbekistan’s longtime dictator, Islam Karimov, is the central question hanging over efforts by new leadership to open up one of the world’s most repressive countries: Can a brutal and once all-powerful security apparatus with roots deep in the former Soviet republic be transformed into a law enforcement agency?
Mr. Abdullaev, along with many other government critics, is still under arrest. He told his lawyer, Sergei Mayorov, that after his arrest he was beaten repeatedly and then kept naked for six days in a freezing cell without sleep. He said he was given food only on the fifth day of his detention, and even then only after he had collapsed. Officials warned him that unless he confessed his wife and daughter would be raped, his lawyer said.
The internet is still censored, albeit less than before, and fear of the security service, known by its Russian-language acronym, S.N.B., remains widespread. It is still considered dangerous even to utter the name of the security service in public.
A report on Uzbekistan released last week by Human Rights Watch concluded that while repression had eased, the arrest of Mr. Abdullaev and other journalists, along with the role of the S.N.B. in monitoring, censoring and punishing publications that step out of line, still have “a chilling effect” on free speech and “are standing in the way of dismantling the country’s authoritarian system.”
But senior officials and even some of Uzbekistan’s harshest critics insist that the country’s new leader, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, is serious about bucking a drift toward authoritarian rule around the world — a trend evident in Cambodia, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey and even in once-proudly democratic nations such as Hungary and Poland.
Uzbekistan’s neighbors in Central Asia, all authoritarian with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, the smallest country in the region, show no sign of loosening up. Kazakhstan, ruled by the same leader since independence in 1991, still allows no real opposition, while Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have grown more repressive.
In Uzbekistan over the past year, at least 27 jailed high-profile dissidents, some of them held in prison for nearly two decades, have been released and about 18,000 people who were judged disloyal by the S.N.B. under Mr. Karimov have been removed from a blacklist that made it impossible for them to travel or get work.
The government has also started to address one of Uzbekistan’s most egregious and widespread human rights abuses — the dragooning of doctors, nurses, teachers, students and others to work as effective slave laborers during the annual cotton harvest.
“There has been a massive change for the better,” said Jonas Astrup, the chief technical adviser for the Tashkent office of the International Labor Organization, a United Nations body that for years complained about the systematic abuse of involuntary cotton pickers.
Sodiq Safoev, a close confidant of the new president, Mr. Mirziyoyev, and vice chairman of Uzbekistan’s Senate, said the thaw, while opposed by some interests, would continue because there is a consensus in favor of change.
“The ice is melting in this country,” he said.
Just getting to his office, however, requires screening by three sets of security guards and getting past groups of S.N.B. officers patrolling the sprawling, sealed-off grounds of the Senate with automatic weapons.
“Cleaning up” the country’s security system, Mr. Safoev said, “is one of the main directions of our reform process.”
This process, he acknowledged, has faced resistance in a country held in a straitjacket for so long by a plethora of arbitrary red lines beyond which nobody was allowed to stray.
“The biggest red line,” he added, “is one running through people’s minds.”
Getting people to shake off their fear and suspicion, however, depends on reining in the S.N.B., which under Mr. Karimov infested the country with informers, filled jails with political prisoners who were routinely tortured, and crushed the faintest flickering of dissent with often brutal force.
Katya Balkhibaeva, the jailed journalist’s wife who was not allowed to see her husband until more than a week after his arrest, said she could not understand how, after so many official speeches about the need for change, her husband, along with herself and their three young children, had been sucked into such a nightmare.
“How this could happen is a mystery to me,” she said.
Surat Ikramov, a veteran human rights activist, said the case was part of a “big struggle.” He praised Mr. Mirziyoyev, who took power immediately after Mr. Karimov’s death, for trying to defang Uzbekistan’s formidable apparatus of repression but said the system left by Mr. Karimov has strong roots.
He believes the case against Mr. Abdullaev, who the S.N.B. has accused of being the mystery author of a series of sometimes well-informed but incendiary political tracts written under a pen name, was aimed at showing the new president that “he has enemies everywhere” and cannot risk easing up on repression.
“They were a state within a state under Karimov, and obviously they don’t want this to change,” Mr. Ikramov said.
Mr. Safoev, the Senate vice chairman, acknowledged that there had been “abuses” after Mr. Abdullaev’s arrest in September but said these were now being corrected.
“There will be a free and fair court for him,” he said, adding that a new law on the security service and other measures would end the existence of a “state within a state without any sort of oversight.”
On the first day of Mr. Abdullaev’s trial in an open court on March 7, the judge asked the journalist to take off his shirt to see whether there were traces of torture — and then accepted a request by the defense team that the proceedings be suspended until doctors could carry out a full medical examination of the defendant.
The medical exam, which human rights activists said ignored crucial facts like the dates of Mr. Abdullaev’s detention, did not confirm that the journalist had been tortured. But when his trial resumed last week he and other defendants, including a jailed blogger, were allowed to testify at a court session open to representatives from Human Rights Watch and news media organizations that under Mr. Karimov were barred from entering Uzbekistan.
In a country where courts for years did no more than rubber-stamp judgments decided in advance by the S.N.B., the judge’s willingness to address the issue of torture and open the court to observers, human rights activists said, was a clear sign that Uzbekistan was trying to change its ways.
Mr. Karimov, who ruled from 1991 until his death in 2016, was unforgiving of dissent, particularly after unrest in the eastern town of Andijon in 2005, which ended with armed S.N.B. officers killing hundreds of unarmed protesters. So deep was this obsession that, according to the former British ambassador in Tashkent, his regime boiled some of its opponents to death. Mr. Karimov even had members of his own family arrested.
Shukhrat Ganiev, the director of the Humanitarian Legal Center in the city of Bukhara, recalled that he thought Mr. Karimov’s successor Mr. Mirziyoyev, a former Soviet apparatchik, would be just another Karimov.
“I advised people that we should not expect anything from him,” he said. Today, free from surveillance and pleasantly surprised by the new leadership’s tone, he conceded: “I admit I was wrong.”
On a visit to Mr. Ganiev’s city, Bukhara, in February, President Mirziyoyev described wayward members of the security service as “mad dogs” who needed to be put down.
“No other country has given so much power to unscrupulous people in uniform,” the president said, promising to punish officers responsible for torture.
Mr. Ganiev said he was still not sure whether the thaw will change the system at its core or merely “reshuffle posts among the elite” so as to create a “new clan system” built around the new president instead of Mr. Karimov.
All power still flows from the presidency despite a decision by Mr. Mirziyoyev not to move into the vast colonnaded palace in central Tashkent built for Mr. Karimov, whose memory is celebrated in a recently opened museum on the grounds of the now-empty presidential palace.
The hope of activists like Mr. Ganiev, however, is that this concentration of power will allow the new president to bend even the security services to his will.
In recent weeks, more than a dozen S.N.B. officers have been arrested and the security agency has been ordered to vacate its headquarters, a feared citadel in the center of Tashkent, and move to less imposing quarters on the outskirts of the capital.
This followed the January dismissal of Rustam Inoyatov, who had led the security service for more than 20 years. His deputy, Shukhrat Gulyamov, has also been fired. Mr. Gulyamov was put on trial and sentenced to life in prison for arms trafficking, links to organized crime and other offenses.
“There seems no doubt that Mirziyoyev is cleaning the ranks” said Steve Swerdlow, a researcher at Human Rights Watch and strong critic of Uzbekistan in the past. “This could be just intended to neutralize potential opposition, but there is clearly a purge going on of the S.N.B. and key figures in the prosecutor’s office and the Interior Ministry.”
“Some of those arrested have been high-profile torturers,” he added.
In a small but symbolically significant step, the president signed a decree on March 14 changing the S.N.B.’s name to the State Security Service and reshaping its mandate to include “protecting the human rights and freedoms of Uzbek citizens.”
Yelena Ulaeava, a veteran human rights activist who under Mr. Karimov was repeatedly jailed, committed to psychiatric clinics and force fed drugs, said the S.N.B. had now stopped harassing her and her family and even let her stage small protests outside the president’s office.
She disputes that the use of forced labor in cotton fields has actually stopped, but is so happy with Uzbekistan’s new direction that she started a petition to get Mr. Mirziyoyev nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Our country has shifted 180 degrees,” she said.
All the same, she added, the S.N.B. is still full of veterans “who think that beating people is normal” and because of this there is still fear.
“It is not over yet,” she said.