Detention Appears to Be Retaliation for Independent Journalism
On September 24, Sergei Naumov’s colleagues learned that he was being detained at the Urgench City Department of Internal Affairs intake facility, serving a twelve-day sentence of administrative detention for “petty hooliganism.” Naumov was convicted after a brief hearing marred by procedural violations where he did not have access to independent counsel.
According to court documents, he was convicted and sentenced on September 21 for allegedly colliding with a woman on the street, verbally abusing her, and touching her inappropriately. Naumov flatly denied that any improper conduct had taken place, and the judge based his ruling on the written evidence of eyewitnesses who went unnamed and did not testify in court. In addition to the detention, Naumov was fined 15 percent of the court fees associated with his hearing.
Naumov was held for three days in incommunicado detention without access to a lawyer or his family. As of September 24, neither Naumov’s colleagues nor the lawyer they hired for him had been unable to meet with him. Local activists believe the administrative charge is based upon fabricated evidence and aimed at interfering with his independent journalistic work.
September 24, 2013
(New York) – Uzbek authorities should immediately disclose the fate and whereabouts of Sergei Naumov, an independent journalist who disappeared after being detained by the authorities on September 21, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should afford him full due process rights if he is in detention. The case of Sergei Naumov, who was last heard from in police custody on September 21, highlights the Uzbek government’s continuing crackdown on independent journalists and peaceful civil society activists, and its attempts to stifle independent monitoring.
“The brutal practice of ‘disappearing’ government critics is a terrible blight on Uzbekistan’s already abysmal human rights record,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The enforced disappearance of an independent journalist is going to cause the criticism to swell, not to stop.”
Uzbek authorities should immediately reveal Naumov’s whereabouts and, if he’s still in custody, either release him or bring formal charges against him, Human Rights Watch said.
Naumov, 50, is an award-winning independent journalist and a contributor to several independent media outlets, including the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Fergananews.com, and Jarayon.com. Based in Urgench in northwestern Uzbekistan, Naumov is known for his willingness to address politically sensitive issues in his work. He has collaborated closely with human rights activists on a number of multimedia projects.
In the days preceding his disappearance, Naumov had been shooting video footage in local cotton fields about the government’s practice of forcing over a million children and adults to pick cotton during the annual harvest, from mid-September to early November. Representatives of the International Labour Organization (ILO) are currently in Uzbekistan to monitor its compliance with ILO conventions banning the use of child labor.
Witnesses told activists that police officers from the Urgench police station came to Naumov’s home on September 21, claiming they had been sent in response to an allegation that Naumov had stolen a gold necklace from an unnamed woman and telling Naumov that he could face up to seven years in prison for theft. At around 7 p.m., Naumov sent a text message to a colleague at the IWPR to say that he was at the local police station and that, “I have a problem.” All subsequent attempts to reach him on his cell phone have been unsuccessful. Over the past three days, local rights activists have visited police stations and the offices of the prosecutor-general and security services in his home region to determine his whereabouts. All officials have denied that they had arrested him or were holding him.
Under international law, authorities commit an enforced disappearance when they refuse to acknowledge holding someone in custody or conceal the person’s fate or whereabouts, thereby placing them outside the protection of the law. “Disappearances” increase the likelihood of torture or other ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said.
Naumov’s close colleagues told Human Rights Watch they fear that Naumov, like many independent journalists and human rights defenders, has been detained to prevent him from carrying out his journalistic work, in his case specifically during the cotton harvest when ILO monitors are present in the country.
His colleagues also told Human Rights Watch that security services had warned him in recent months to stop his independent reporting. Naumov was most recently detained for an interrogation on August 30 when returning from Nukus, Karakalpakstan, where he had been reporting on one family’s protest of their forced eviction from their home.
“Sergei Naumov’s detention bears all the hallmarks of an illegal, enforced disappearance and appears aimed at silencing his independent reporting,” Swerdlow said.
Well over a dozen human rights defenders and numerous independent journalists and opposition activists are in prison in Uzbekistan in retaliation for their work or criticism of the government. Many activists are in serious ill-health and have been tortured in pretrial custody or in prison.
Naumov’s case is part of a pattern in which Uzbek authorities hold government critics in unacknowledged custody. In June, security services detained Hasan Choriev, father of the leader of the peaceful political opposition party Birdamlik (“Solidarity”) at his home and held him in unacknowledged custody for several weeks.
In September 2012, during the peak of the cotton harvest, authorities beat and held in unacknowledged custody Uktam Pardaev, a rights activist well known for reporting on police abuses, torture, and forced labor. After his release 15 days later, Pardaev told Human Rights Watch he believed he was arrested to prevent him from monitoring the rights of the children and adults forced to carry out the harvest.
Uzbek authorities should grant Naumov immediate access to independent counsel and allow him to contact close relatives and friends.
“Uzbekistan’s international partners, including the United States and the European Union, are by now extremely familiar with the Uzbek government’s pattern of stamping out independent journalism and human rights monitoring,” Swerdlow said. “The question now is how forcefully they will choose to condition their relationships with Tashkent on Uzbekistan immediately ending these egregious abuses.”