(Paris) - The decision by a French court on July 1, 2011, to dismiss a defamation suit brought by the daughter of Uzbekistan's president against an online French news agency highlighted Uzbekistan's repressive approach to criticism, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Press Court in Paris dismissed the lawsuit brought by Lola Karimova, daughter of President Islam Karimov, against Rue89. Karimova had sought moral damages against Rue89 for a May 2010 article that called her the daughter of "dictator Karimov," and alleged she was "whitewashing Uzbekistan's image" through charity events.
"Uzbekistan is widely known for its atrocious human rights record, including repression of free speech," said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Political figures like Karimova should never be able to abuse defamation laws to silence open and critical debate about government actions."
Uzbek authorities use spurious defamation suits to silence journalists and otherwise threaten and harass them. Two Tashkent television journalists who protested against censorship and corruption were fired, detained, and fined, and are currently on hunger strike.
Karimova filed the suit in August 2010, seeking €30,000 (US$43,000) in damages over an article with the headline, "AIDS: Uzbekistan Cracks Down at Home but Puts on Show at Cannes." The article says that Karimova paid the actress Monica Bellucci €190,000 (US$272,000) to appear at a charity event.
The defamation hearing took place on May 19. Two well-known exiled human rights defenders from Uzbekistan testified for the defense. They are Mutabar Tojibaeva, a former political prisoner and head of the Uzbek human rights group Burning Hearts Club, and Nadejda Atayeva, head of the France-based human rights organization Human Rights in Central Asia. In her testimony, Tojibaeva gave a detailed description of her repeated ill-treatment, including sexual violence, during her imprisonment  in Uzbekistan from 2005 to 2008.
"Uzbek authorities have repeatedly convicted journalists in Uzbekistan on spurious defamation charges for nothing more than writing articles perceived to be critical or insulting," Rittmann said. "It would have been a terrible miscarriage of justice if Paris' Press Court had not dismissed outright the defamation charges against Rue89."
President Karimov's government has a well-documented record of serious human rights violations, including severe political repression. Torture and ill-treatment are systematic in the criminal justice system. Opposition political parties cannot operate freely in Uzbekistan, and there has not been a single election since Uzbekistan's independence in 1991 that international observers found to be free or fair.
More than a dozen human rights defenders and other civil society activists are in prison on fabricated charges, many of them in ill-health because of poor prison conditions. Other activists face threats and harassment. The government severely restricts freedom of expression. In a speech marking Uzbekistan's Press and Media Day on June 27, Karimov cited the need to strengthen the environment for the media and to develop transparency laws, and noted the growing importance of the internet. Yet in practice, independent journalists are persecuted, detained, and tried on spurious criminal defamation charges that carry the prospect of prison time and huge fines. Websites containing information on sensitive issues or that are critical of the government are routinely blocked within Uzbekistan.
The two Tashkent-based television journalists were detained outside the presidential administration building on the day the president made his speech. The journalists, Saodat Omonova and Malokhat Eshankulova, had held up posters announcing the start of a hunger strike to protest censorship and corruption in Uzbekistan's national television and the fact that their repeated requests to meet with the president had gone ignored. They were held for five hours and fined for holding an unsanctioned picket.
On May 5, police detained a Tashkent-based journalist, Vasiliy Markov, and his colleague, Ruslan Karimov, in the Kashkadarya region where they had gone to investigate reports of suicides linked to a lack of jobs. Police held them for 10 hours, then expelled them from the area by putting them in a taxi back to Tashkent.
On October 15, 2010, the Voice of America correspondent, Abdumalik Boboev , was convicted of defamation, insult, and preparation or dissemination of materials that threaten public security, and fined approximately US$11,000. In the same month, another Tashkent-based journalist, Vladimir Berezovskii, was convicted of similar charges for articles published on the Vesti.uz website.
Omonova and Eshankulova had been speaking out since August 2010 against censorship and corruption at Yoshlar ("Youth"), a national television station where they worked.
On December 6, in an effort to call attention to the issue, they held a protest at Independence Square in Tashkent. Three days later they were fired. In late December, they sued the television station for firing them without cause. On May 31, the court ruled in the television station's favor. Omonova and Eshonkulova have appealed the ruling. They have repeatedly sent letters to the president about their concerns, but received no response.
Omonova told Human Rights Watch that in the June 27 episode, plainclothes police and national security agents surrounded them within minutes after they held up their posters. The police took them to the Yakkasarai district police station, where they were questioned and made to write an explanatory note.
Five hours later they were taken to the Yakkasarai District Court and each fined 60 times the minimum wage (US$1700). The judge ignored their requests to postpone the hearing so their lawyer could be present, and found them in violation of article 201 of the Uzbek Administrative Code for "violating the order of holding meetings, rallies, marches or demonstrations." The hearing lasted approximately 15 minutes. They remain on a hunger strike.