Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister Zoyir Mirzayev has been dismissed over a scandal involving the public humiliation of a group of farmers.
An image appeared on social media over the weekend of six men standing knee-deep in the cold water of an irrigation ditch, the Kun.uz news site reports.
The image came with a caption that the men were farmers being punished for poor harvest results, prompting online anger at their humiliation and bewilderment as to why they did not try to defend themselves.
Kun.uz sent a correspondent to the scene of the incident, a farm in Oqqo'rg'on District not far from the capital Tashkent, at which point the story took on an extra dimension.
Local official Sherzod Murodov told him that Deputy Prime Minister Mirzayev had been present during the punishment of the six men, who included Mr Murodov himself.
'I'll water you!'
An eyewitness told the Radio Liberty Uzbek service that Mr Mirzayev had "berated the men, saying 'if you can't water the wheat, then I'll water you!' - then forced them into the ditch, where they remained for half an hour for failing to water the wheat fields on time".
The labour ministry reacted quickly, and set up a phone hotline for anyone with information on the incident.
At the same time, a social media campaign began where Facebook users posted photographs of themselves standing contritely in irrigation ditches in order to raise awareness of the abuse.
Matters did not look good for the deputy prime minister, especially after another image appeared on social media of six other farmers having to carry large rocks around as punishment for the poor state of the fields on their farm in nearby Bekobod District, the same day as the ditch punishment.
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Mr Mirzayev had overall responsibility for agriculture and water resources in the Uzbek government, where sources told Kun.uz that he was "expected to be dismissed" over the incident.
In addition, the Prosecutor-General's Office told the UPL24 news site that "we are investigating this incident. No one should have any doubt that the guilty parties will be punished, whatever their rank".
Sure enough, the official announcement came within hours that President Shavkat Mirziyoyev had dismissed Mr Mirzyayev for "grave shortcomings in the grain harvest and irrigation", emphasising zero tolerance for "forced labour... and violations of the law during agricultural work".
The swift departure of the deputy prime minister is in line with the greater openness and accountability being cautiously encouraged by President Mirziyoyev, who took over as head of the country's authoritarian political system on the death of President Islam Karimov two years ago.
President Mirziyoyev told his cabinet last November that they must "find new ways of working, address the concerns and problems of ordinary people, and show selflessness and responsibility in the performance of their duties".
Reporting by Azim Rakhimov and Martin Morgan
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