Last Sunday, a group of Uzbek human rights activists laid a floral wreath at a statue in the center of Tashkent, the country's capital. It commemorated the 13th anniversary of the massacre of 400 civilians in the central Asian nation, all of them shot to death by the military during an anti-government protest, allegedly on orders of the late dictator Islam Karimov.
To Human Rights Watch investigator Steve Swerdlow, that simple act of humanity — the laying of the wreath — shows that change for the better is afoot in Uzbekistan.
"For the first time, they weren't arrested," he said this week in Washington. "This was a significant event from our perspective."
The changing face of Uzbekistan, a land-locked, predominantly Muslim nation of 32 million people, comes to the fore on Wednesday as the country's reformist leader, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, visits U.S. President Donald Trump and other top American officials in Washington.
The 60-year-old Mirziyoyev, in power for 20 months following Karimov's death, appears to represent something of an anomaly — a political leader from the former Soviet bloc who is moving toward more freedom for his people, not less.
Swerdlow noted that Mirziyoyev has released 28 political prisoners, and that all but two individuals on a list of 34 detainees compiled by Human Rights Watch in 2014 are now free. Just days ago, Mirziyoyev freed Fahriddin Tillaev, an opposition and human rights activist who had been imprisoned for more than four years in what activists said was a politically motivated detention.
While more needs to be done, Swerdlow said, "That is one of the biggest developments, the release of long-held activists, journalists and democratic activists."
Ahead of Mirziyoyev's visit, Javlon Vakhabov, Uzbekistan's ambassador to Washington, told a forum on the state of Uzbek affairs, "There is tremendous landmark change occurring in Uzbekistan, on human rights, good governance and the rule of law."
"Our ultimate goal is a full-fledged democracy, with a robust market economy," he declared. "There is a spirit of change everywhere in Uzbekistan. The country is opening up to the world."
Vakhabov said the country is "now at the beginning of a long journey" toward more freedom, the easing of restrictions on freedom of religion and ending forced child labor.
"We're strongly committed to end torture and other crude and degrading means of punishment," Vakhabov said.
For its part, the White House said in advance of Mirziyoyev's visit that he "has made great strides" in overturning decades of authoritarian rule, but said it would press him to continue economic and human rights reforms.
"The visit is an opportunity to encourage and validate those reforms" Mirziyoyev has already adopted, said Lisa Curtis, who oversees Central and South Asian affairs at the White House National Security Council.
Rights issues remain
An Uzbek senator, Sadiq Safoyev, said at the Washington forum that Uzbekistan needs "genuine and irreversible" reforms, including greater evidence of justice and the rule of law. But he said he is hopeful, especially since 70 percent of the country is 30 years old or younger.
Young people, he said, "want more freedom. They want more opportunities."
Still, Safoyev said, "Freedom is not easy. Freedom continues to bring more challenges."
Human Rights Watch's Swerdlow said he believes Mirziyoyev's "political commitment is very real," but that more human rights advances are needed.
He said the United Nations' International Labor Organization found that 300,000 children were forced to work in Uzbekistan's 2017 farm harvests. He said Human Rights Watch believes "thousands" of religious adherents are still imprisoned in Uzbekistan, some of them for two decades.
Mirziyoyev first met Trump at the U.N. General Assembly last year. In addition to his White House meeting with the U.S. leader, Mirziyoyev is talking to U.S. lawmakers, State Department and Defense Department leaders, and officials at the World Bank.
After the U.N. visit last year, Mirziyoyev went home with $2.6 billion in new American investments. His spokesman says Mirziyoyev is hopeful of securing another $8.5 billion in investments during his current three-day stay in the United States.