For Immediate Release
Uzbekistan: Release Independent Journalist
Trial of Government Critic Begins
MOSCOW - Uzbek authorities should drop all charges against an independent
journalist facing politically motivated prosecution and release him,
Human Rights Watch said today. Salijon Abdurakhmanov, a journalist
known for his critical reporting of the authorities, goes on trial on
September 12, 2008, in Nukus, the capital city of Karakalpakstan, an
autonomous republic in Uzbekistan, 1,100 kilometers west of Tashkent.
Traffic police arrested Abdurakhmanov, 58, on June 7 when they stopped
his car, allegedly to check his identity, and found 114.18 g of
marijuana and 5.89 g of opium on the underside of his car.
Abdurakhmanov denies knowing about or having anything to do with the
drugs and his brother, Bakhrom, a lawyer who is representing him at
this trial, believes that the police planted the drugs. A few days
before his arrest Abdurakhmanov left his car in a local repair shop. He
told his brother that the police monitored him closely after he picked
his car up until his arrest. The investigators failed to carry out
basic investigative steps such as checking the drugs for fingerprints
despite repeated requests by Abdurakhmanov and his lawyer.
"Abdurakhmanov often criticized local authorities,
including law enforcement," said Igor Vorontsov, Uzbekistan researcher
for Human Rights Watch. "His arrest is yet another example of the Uzbek
government's policy of silencing critics."
Shortly before the arrest, Abdurakhmanov wrote a very
critical article about traffic police in Karakalpakstan, his brother,
Abdurakhmanov is an outspoken journalist who has written
on sensitive issues such as social and economic justice, human rights,
corruption, and the legal status of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan. He
worked closely with UzNews, an independent online news agency, and also
freelanced for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America and
the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
Authorities initially charged Abdurakhmanov with drug
possession, but after the investigators determined that Abdurakhmanov
does not use drugs, they charged him with selling drugs instead, a more
serious charge punishable by up to 20 years of imprisonment.
Abdurakhmanov's case is the latest in a long line of
politically motivated prosecutions waged by the Uzbek authorities
against independent journalists and human rights activists. At least 18
human rights defenders, dissidents and journalists remain in prison.
Numerous others, fearing for their safety, have fled Uzbekistan to seek
asylum abroad. One independent journalist, Jamshid Karimov, has been in
held in closed psychiatric detention since mid-September 2006 and has
been subjected to forcible psychiatric treatment. In response to
international criticism, the government has released several imprisoned
human rights defenders, but harassment and arrests of others continue.
"Make no mistake - the release of human rights defenders,
while welcome, does not represent fundamental reform," said Vorontsov.
"As Abdurakhmanov's case shows, anyone who dares to speak out remains
vulnerable to be locked up at any time."
Abdurakhmanov's trial comes just one month before the
European Union is slated to review Uzbekistan's human rights record to
determine whether to continue the sanctions regime adopted in the
aftermath of the 2005 Andijan massacre, when government forces shot
hundreds of unarmed protesters
(http://hrw.org/reports/2008/uzbekistan0508/). Among the assessment
criteria established by the European Union for reviewing the sanctions
are for the Uzbek government to stop the harassment of civil society
and to release imprisoned rights defenders and dissidents.
"The Uzbek government is eager to talk about its
commitment to human rights and that's welcome, but it continues
business as usual - throwing journalists and dissidents behind bars,"
Vorontsov said. "Abdurakhmanov's prosecution flies in the face of the
EU sanctions criteria and the EU must not let this pass without
Human Rights Watch urged the United States and EU
governments to closely monitor Abdurakhmanov's trial in Nukus, and to
call for Abdurakhmanov's immediate release.
In July, the Uzbek government banned Human Rights Watch's researcher from entering Uzbekistan.