Letters   |   Uzbekistan

In sanction talks, EU must consider Uzbek press record

May 9, 2007

Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Federal Foreign Minister of Germany
Auswärtiges Amt
Werderscher Markt 1, 10117 Berlin

Via Facsimile: +49 30 5000 3402

Dear Minister Steinmeier,

The Committee to Protect Journalists urges the European Union, to consider the Uzbek government's appalling press freedom record during your May 14 discussions on the possible lifting of targeted EU sanctions imposed against Uzbekistan in the aftermath of the 2005 Andijan crisis. As Germany holds the EU presidency, we ask you to take a leadership role in bringing this issue to the forefront.

CPJ research shows that press freedom plunged in Uzbekistan after government troops opened fire on hundreds of protesters in the eastern city of Andijan on May 13, 2005, killing between 500 and 1,000 demonstrators, according to witness accounts. President Islam Karimov and his government cracked down on independent journalists who had reported on the massacre--branding journalists as terrorists and traitors in the state media; driving many into exile; putting several in jail; and purging the country of alternative news outlets. In February 2006, the Uzbek government passed a law prohibiting its citizens from working for foreign state-funded media without accreditation from the Foreign Ministry. Uzbekistan is the region's top jailer of journalists, with five currently behind bars; it is also the world's sixth leading jailer of journalists, according to CPJ research.

Tashkent-based independent journalist Umida Niyazova, who was released Tuesday after an appeal, was the latest journalist to be jailed on criminal charges related to her reporting on human rights and politics. On May 1, Judge Nizom Rustamov convicted Niyazova of illegally crossing the border with Kyrgyzstan, smuggling subversive literature, and distributing with the use of foreign aid material that threatens national security. A Tashkent court sentenced her to seven years in prison. An appeals board at the Tashkent City Court reduced Niyazova's sentence to a three-year suspended term on Tuesday, but a baseless conviction remains on her record. Niyazova--who may not leave Tashkent and must report to authorities regularly--was forced to read a scripted "confession" during her appellate hearing.

Niyazova also spent three and a half months in pretrial detention where, according to CPJ sources, she was forced to undergo daily interrogations that lasted up to 15 hours and was allowed only few hours of sleep per night. Niyazova reported on politics and human rights in Uzbekistan for the independent Central Asia news Web site Oasis and the Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; she also contributed to international groups such as Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, and Internews Network.

In addition to Niyazova, CPJ research shows an alarming pattern of government intimidation, harassment, and imprisonment of journalists in Uzbekistan. The cases include:• Dzhamshid Karimov, a former correspondent of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), was arrested and sentenced to six months of psychiatric hospitalization on September 12. Karimov worked for IWPR until the Andijan crisis. Afterward, he contributed to many independent newspapers and online publications. Most recently, he wrote about social and economic problems as a freelancer and contributed to the Almaty-based independent online newspaper Liter. Prior to his arrest, local authorities closely monitored Karimov's activities. After his mother petitioned authorities to remove all listening devices from her house, law enforcement agents set up surveillance equipment in a neighboring building in August 2006, the Moscow-based Central Asia news Web site Ferghana reported. The same month, Karimov's passport was seized by authorities in Jizzakh after he applied for an exit visa to attend a journalism seminar in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. In early April, authorities in the city of Samarkand ordered Karimov's hospitalization be extended for another six months despite doctors' evaluations that the journalist was healthy, according to CPJ sources in the region. He remains hospitalized, and his family is denied visitation rights.

• Natalya Bushuyeva, a Tashkent-based correspondent for the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, has been charged with evading taxes, concealing her income and working as a reporter without accreditation, according to CPJ sources. Bushuyeva is the first journalist to be formally charged under the 2006 Foreign Ministry accreditation law. In addition, the prosecutor's office told the Moscow-based Regnum news agency that Bushuyeva did not declare her income to local tax authorities while working for Deutsche Welle over the past five years. Aleksandr Varkentin, a Deutsche Welle editor, called the tax charge unfounded. He said Bushuyeva pays taxes in accordance with a bilateral agreement between Germany and Uzbekistan, according to international press reports. Bushuyeva fled the country after the charges were announced, local sources told CPJ. The journalist's lawyer, Sukhrob Ismailov, said she faces up to three years in jail if convicted, The Associated Press reported.

• Yuri Chernogayev, another correspondent for Deutsche Welle, was charged on March 27 with "working without a license," under Article 190 of Uzbekistan's penal code, according to international press reports. Deutsche Welle reporter Mikhail Bushuyev told CPJ the broadcaster had submitted the necessary documents to the Uzbek Foreign Ministry and was not aware of an official refusal to accredit Deutsche Welle correspondents. Uzbek authorities previously harassed Chernogayev for his work with Deutsche Welle. In March 2006, the Foreign Ministry issued formal warnings that he not work with non-accredited journalists, according to CPJ research.

• Ulugbek Khaidarov, a former IWPR correspondent and reporter for Internews Network, was arrested on September 14, 2006, on trumped-up charges of extortion and bribery after writing several articles critical of local authorities. Shortly before his detention, Khaidarov published several articles about the unpaid salaries of workers at a local marble factory. After his arrest, 20 police officers searched the journalist's house, seizing books and handwritten notes, according to international news reports. On October 5, 2006, Khaidarov was sentenced to six years in prison following a two-day trial in which the prosecution's lead witness reportedly affirmed the journalist's innocence, according to CPJ. A month later, a Jizzakh City Court judge dismissed the case and ordered Khaidarov's release. While in prison, Khaidarov was transferred to four different detention centers where he was tortured and forced to exercise from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. The authorities continued to harass and threaten the journalist and his family until he fled the country in late 2006.

• Ortikali Namazov, former editor of the state newspaper Pop Tongi and correspondent for the state newspaper Kishlok Khayoti, was charged with embezzlement after he wrote a series of articles about alleged abuses in local tax inspections and collective-farm management in the northeastern Namangan region. Shortly after his trial began on August 4, 2004, Namazov complained that the judge was biased and did not allow him to defend himself. On August 11, 2004, before the verdict was reached, authorities took him into custody. Five days later, the Turakurgan District Criminal Court convicted Namazov and sentenced him to five and a half years in prison. Human rights activist Mutabar Tadjibaeva, who is now in prison herself because of her work, monitored the 2004 trial and told CPJ that the local authorities harassed the journalist's family during the court proceedings, cutting Namazov's home telephone line and firing his daughter from her job as a school doctor. Uzbek authorities have not responded to requests for information regarding Namazov's whereabouts and condition.

• Gayrat Mehliboyev, a Tashkent-based freelance reporter, was arrested on July 24, 2002, for allegedly participating in a rally protesting the imprisonment of members of the banned Islamist opposition party Hizbut-Tahrir. As evidence of Mehliboyev's alleged extremism, state prosecutors presented a political commentary he had written for the April 11, 2001, edition of the weekly newspaper Hurriyat (Liberty). Authorities claimed that the article, which questioned whether Western democracy should be a model for Uzbekistan and said that religion was the true path to social justice, contained ideas taken from Hizbut-Tahrir. Mehliboyev had already spent more than six months in pretrial detention when the Shaikhantaur Regional Court sentenced him to seven years in prison on February 18, 2003. Mehliboyev was convicted of anti-constitutional activities, participating in extremist religious organizations, and inciting religious hatred, according to local and international press reports. The sentence was reduced on appeal to six and a half years in prison. Uzbek authorities have not responded to requests for information on the journalist's condition.

• Muhammad Bekjanov, editor of the opposition newspaper Erk, and Yusuf Ruzimuradov, an employee of the paper, were convicted of publishing and distributing a banned newspaper that criticized Karimov; participating in a banned political protest; and attempting to overthrow the regime. The two were sentenced to 14 and 15 years in prison respectively. Both men were tortured during their pretrial detention in the Tashkent City Prison, which left them with serious injuries, Tashkent-based human right activists told CPJ. In 2003, reporters with IWPR and the AP interviewed Bekjanov in prison while he was being treated for tuberculosis contracted in state custody. In the interview, Bekjanov described torture and beatings that resulted in a broken leg and hearing loss in his right ear, IWPR reported. In 2006, Bekjanov was jailed in the southwestern city of Kasan, according to the independent news Web site Uznews. His wife, Nina Bekjanov, who was allowed to visit him in October 2006, said the journalist told her that he was still subjected to beatings and torture that, among other things, caused him to lose most of his teeth, Uznews reported. Despite several requests, Uzbek authorities have not provided CPJ with information regarding the whereabouts, condition, or health of either Bekjanov or Ruzimuradov. As an independent, nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to defending the rights of our colleagues worldwide, we believe that a free press is essential to the development of a stable, sustainable democracy. Independent journalists play a vital role in ensuring that citizens of Uzbekistan are informed about issues of public concern.

CPJ commends the European Union's initiative to formulate a coordinated Central Asia strategy and hold a result-oriented human rights dialogue with the Uzbek government. We urge you to give high priority to discussing the destructive impact of the state's crackdown on independent reporting, which is key to hopes for a strong democracy in Central Asia's most populous nation. Unless Uzbek authorities show the good will to improve their press freedom and human rights record by releasing the above-listed imprisoned journalists, allowing an independent investigation into the Andijan crisis, and permitting journalists to do their job without fear of harassment, strict EU sanctions against the Uzbek state should remain in place. This will send a strong message to Uzbekistan's government that the international community under EU leadership places human rights in high regard when determining its policies. Thank you for your attention to this matter. We await your reply.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

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