Uzbeks protest at house demolitions

Temporary shelter for Urgench people whose houses have been demolished, Uzbekistan Image copyright Kun.uz/YouTube
Image caption People have had to knock up their own shelters

Street protests in northern Uzbekistan against the demolition of houses to make way for an industrial estate have prompted the government to review its policy.

Hundreds of people in the city of Urgench are demanding compensation after the authorities swept away a neighbourhood where about 400 families used to live, the Gazeta.uz news site reports.

The city council promised them plots of land and funds to build new houses, but the residents say they've so far received nothing and had to make their own shelters out of construction materials and whatever they have to hand.

"They turfed us out onto the street like dogs and demolished our house without providing us with any shelter. There are ten of us, including one who is infirm, and newborn children," one woman posted on Facebook, including video of the incident.

"What is the president going to do about the arbitrary behaviour of the Urgench authorities?" she asked, echoing the sentiment of many people around the country.

'Got to his car and fled'

When regional governor Farhod Ermanov turned up at a tent city and went to speak to allegedly hand-picked residents, "tempers flared, people tore down the tents on the officials' heads, and the governor only just made it to his car and fled", a witness told Radio Liberty's Ozodlik Uzbek-language service.

The protestors then blocked the main road from Urgench south to Khanqa for about two hours.

Civil disobedience is very rare in Uzbekistan, where the authorities have a track record of repressing public dissent, but recent moves by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to relax censorship have emboldened some critics.

This has coincided with the Obod Mahalla (Prosperous Neighbourhood) government construction programme, which is aimed at boosting industrial output and employment.

It allows the compulsory purchase of property, as long as the owners receive full compensation at market price for their holdings.

Image copyright Kun.uz/YouTube
Image caption City planners have marked out the houses for demolition

But failures to consult local people or pay up on time have sparked social discontent across the country, the Ferghana news site reports.

Last week, a businessman in the town of Yakkabog in the south of the country doused a district official with petrol and set him alight to stop the bulldozing of his premises.

The official was treated for burns, the Kun.uz news site reports, and the incident sufficiently alarmed the government that President Mirziyoyev decided to intervene.

Regional governor Zafarjon Roziyev duly sacked the officials involved, and confessed that "we senior figures have grown apart from the people, and become arrogant.

"The times have changed, and our esteemed president has launched major reforms. We should hear the pain of each family and work to alleviate it," Mr Roziyev told the state UzA news agency.

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When the demonstration broke out in Urgench, Prime Minister Abdulla Oripov rushed to the scene to calm the protestors, ordered regional governors to stop all demolition work where the property-owners haven't been compensated, and told them to seek cabinet approval before any further demolitions.

In a sign of how seriously the government is taking the matter, Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov told police to make compliance with these orders their "top priority task", the Podrobno news site reported.

"Leaving people on the street after destroying their homes without compensation is barbaric, and it violates both our laws and the international conventions that Uzbekistan has signed up to," he told senior ministry officials.

The authorities have now promised to honour outstanding compensation claims by the second week of August, but the temporarily homeless of Urgench are not convinced that all will end well - some of them are already complaining to Ozodlik that the price of bricks and building materials has shot up since the demolitions began.

Image copyright Kun.uz/YouTube
Image caption The houses are making way for a new industrial estate

Reporting by Martin Morgan

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