New York, September 24, 2013--Uzbek authorities should immediately release Sergei Naumov, an independent freelance journalist who reports on human rights abuses in the closed Central Asian society, and scrap the fabricated charges against him on appeal.
According to news reports, Naumov went missing on Saturday in the western Uzbek city of Urgench, after he alerted his friends by phone that he "had problems" with the local police, and asked them to start looking for him if he did not call back. Attempts to reach him since were unsuccessful, and local law enforcement agencies denied holding the journalist, Fergana News reported. However, a local lawyer who agreed to defend Naumov today obtained a copy of a verdict against the journalist from a blitz trial held Saturday, the reports said.
According to the regional press and the Paris-based Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, in a space of two hours on Saturday, a local woman allegedly complained to police that Naumov had pushed, insulted, and tried to grab her; the authorities held a quick investigation and trial; convicted the journalist of "hooliganism;" and sentenced him to 12 days in prison without a defense lawyer or any witnesses present. According to the verdict, Naumov confirmed that he collided with his accuser in the street, but denied grabbing or insulting her, the reports said. He has 10 days to appeal, the reports said.
Urgench-based Naumov is a local contributor to several critical news outlets, including the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and the regional news website Fergana News. Both outlets are blocked inside the country.
"We call on authorities in the city of Urgench to immediately release Sergei Naumov and drop the baseless charges against him," CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. "Naumov was detained, denied a lawyer, held incommunicado, prosecuted, and sentenced all in one afternoon on what obviously are fabricated allegations meant to silence his independent reporting."
In a statement published today, IWPR said authorities prosecuted Naumov in retaliation for his reporting on environmental issues and human rights abuses, including the government-sanctioned use of child labor during the cotton harvest from September through December. A delegation from the International Labor Organization is currently visiting Uzbekistan to monitor compliance with international laws during the harvest, according to news reports. According to IWPR, local police interrogated Naumov in August after the journalist returned from the northern city of Nukus, where he reported on a protest rally against the demolition of houses by authorities. Human Rights Watch said authorities have urged Naumov to stop reporting on abuses in the region.
In its statement, IWPR noted that Uzbekistan has a trend of silencing critics, and expressed concern that authorities were preparing to charge Naumov with a more serious offence in order to jail him for longer.
Press freedom conditions in Uzbekistan remain abysmal, and credible information on developments in the country, including on press freedom and human rights abuses, comes at extreme risk for those who report it, CPJ research shows. There are no independent critical news outlets in Uzbekistan, and the remaining few local reporters and rights activists work under tremendous government pressure. According to CPJ's prison census on December 1, 2012, Uzbekistan holds at least four journalists in jail.