(Sept. 17, 2020) On March 26, 2020, the president of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, signed a law amending the country’s criminal code, criminal procedure code, and code of administrative responsibility. The law entered into force upon publication. (Law No. 3RU-613 of the Republic of Uzbekistan on Amendments and Additions to the Criminal and Criminal Procedure Codes of the Republic of Uzbekistan and to the Administrative Offenses Code of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Mar. 26, 2020, art. 5.)
The amendments address issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, introducing regulations on quarantine, isolation, and social distancing, and providing penalties for violating the regulations, including fines and prison sentences. Additionally, the amendments aim to counter the dissemination of false information about the pandemic, its spread, and its causes.
Provisions of the Amendments
The amendments reword article 244(5) of the criminal code to criminalize the dissemination of false information about the spread of infections and dangerous infectious diseases that prompt quarantine measures. The amendments also increase criminal liability for violating medical and quarantine procedures, including liability for distributing false information related to quarantine or infectious diseases in the press, in the media, and on the internet. These acts are now punishable by a fine equivalent to approximately US$4,300–$8,600; 300 to 360 hours of compulsory community service; correctional labor of 2 to 3 years; and restriction of freedom for up to 3 years, or imprisonment for up to 3 years. (Art.1, § 1.)
The law also amends the text of article 257(1) of the criminal code to punish with heavier fines, correctional labor, or imprisonment for up to 3 years
- violations of sanitary legislation and rules, including failure to comply without good reason with requirements for obligatory medical examinations during the spread of dangerous diseases;
- prematurely leaving quarantine facilities; and
- disclosing the identities of individuals who might have been exposed to the disease.
The fines for such violations range from the equivalent of approximately US$1,000–$2,000; correctional labor for up to 2 years, or restriction of freedom for 1 to 3 years; or imprisonment for up to 5 years. If the violation of the rules results in an individual’s death, the prescribed punishment is the restriction of freedom for 2 to 3 years, correctional labor for 3 to 5 years, or imprisonment for 5 to 7 years. If the violation results in mass fatalities, the prescribed punishment is imprisonment for 7 to 10 years. (Art. 1, § 2.)
The amendments supplement the code of administrative responsibility with a norm allowing the forced treatment of patients and obligatory quarantine of those who refuse to follow the established rules of fighting epidemics when a pandemic emergency has been declared. (Art. 3, §§ 1 & 2.)
The amendments also introduce an administrative fine equivalent to US$100 for failure to use medical masks in public places during a quarantine regime. Those who violate quarantine rules face larger fines equivalent to approximately US$430–$790 for individuals and US$790–$1,000 for officials. (Art. 3, § 3.)
Application and Reaction to the New Law
Shortly before the adoption of the new law, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and other relevant government agencies created a working group to identify cases of disseminating false information about the coronavirus. By the middle of March 2020, the working group had identified 33 accounts on social networks “[t]hat incorrectly interpret the situation in the country, disseminate false information, sow panic among the population, disrupt the peaceful life of citizens, and destabilize the situation. Of these, 25 accounts belong to users abroad, 8 to citizens of Uzbekistan.’’
The new regulations have alarmed a number of civil society groups, whose main concerns are limitations on freedom of expression. In August 2020 the UK-based Foreign Policy Centre reported that restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the media, interrogations, investigations for reporting on pandemic-related issues, and intimidation of journalists and bloggers are becoming the norm for Uzbekistani authorities. According to the Foreign Policy Centre’s report, “The government’s attempts at controlling thought and sanitizing opinions through blocking, filtering and restricting social media platforms is costing the nation 1,559,500 USD a day, and 2,339,250 USD for throttling Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, [while] the country is struggling to tackle the pandemic.”