Boycott in place since 2006 over rights abuses has deepened unemployment and economic weakness, government claims.
Tashkent, Uzbekistan – Khidirnazar Allakulov was preparing for the first congress of his unregistered Truth and Progress Party when he received an unexpected visit.
At 9am on February 26 (14:00 GMT), dozens of National Guard paramilitary soldiers appeared at the doorstep of his home in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, and took him for questioning to Andijan, a distant city in the Fergana Valley.
The economist and former rector of Termez State University, a position he lost in 2004 as he tried to fight alleged corruption at the school, has been accused of violation of privacy by publishing an individual’s data without permission.
But he is sure that the case is an attempt by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to quash opposition.
“The government is continuously putting pressure on us,” Allakulov told Al Jazeera, before he attended a second hearing in Andijan.
“I have never broken the law. They just don’t want to let new parties enter politics. We have been trying to put together an organisational committee but the authorities have done everything to prevent us from hosting the congress.”
Other party members could not attend the congress as on the day of the event, the wedding hall they had rented had – some said mysteriously – closed down for renovation works. This was not the first time the party could not gather for an organisational meeting.
“We tried to gather our supporters twice before. We rented a venue, made the payment, but on the day of our meeting it turned out they are holding an event for children from a local orphanage,” a party member who requested anonymity told Al Jazeera, days before Allakulov’s arrest.
“The second time, the owner of another venue we had rented informed us right before our event that someone else had booked the place before us.”
Since Mirziyoyev came to power in December 2016, Uzbekistan has been on the path to reform.
After years of isolation under the late President Islam Karimov, who ruled the ex-Soviet nation for 27 years until his death in 2016, freedom of speech for Uzbekistan’s citizens has improved and a number of political prisoners have been freed.
However, changes have yet to alter the country’s political landscape.
Despite promises of a political opening, NGOs still have difficulties setting up and launching a political party, which requires 20,000 signatures of support – a challenging threshold in a country where many are hesitant to join causes in the wake of Karimov’s authoritarian leadership.
Members of Allakulov’s Truth and Progress party insist that they have gathered the signatures required to enter Uzbekistan’s political landscape, although Al Jazeera was unable to verify the claim.
According to experts, the problems the movement has faced over the past few days show that on Uzbekistan’s path to democracy, the country has made little progress.
“This incident once again proved the true authoritarian nature of the regime, which is attempting to persuade the world of its ‘democratic reforms’ while at the same time aggressively suppressing opposition voices like Allakulov’s,” said Dilmira Matyakubova, an expert with UzInvestigations, a local investigative platform.
“We continue to see elements of the police state use coercion and repressive methods through the security services. And this has not changed ever since [Mirziyovev came to power].”
An interior ministry representative in Andijan refused Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
On Wednesday, Allakulov returned to his Tashkent home.
It is unclear whether he will face charges.
“I am now home, but I will soon leave for a party meeting. The government and the security services will not stop me. We will launch the party and we will fight for democratic Uzbekistan,” he told Al Jazeera. “Nothing can stop us. We respect the laws of Uzbekistan and setting up a political party is our right.”