An independent journalist in Uzbekistan was ambushed and assaulted on November 9 by a group of unidentified men, the latest attack in a worsening environment for government critics since the May 13 massacre in Andijan, Human Rights Watch said today.
The circumstances of the attack strongly suggest that Aleksei Volosevich, a correspondent for the independent website fergana.ru, was attacked in Tashkent on November 9 because of his extensive reporting critical of the government since the May 13 massacre.
“Aleksei Volosevich is the latest independent journalist to be attacked in the wake of Andijan,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Uzbek authorities have done absolutely nothing to protect those who are uncovering important facts about the massacre.”
At 4 p.m. on November 9, Volosevich received a telephone call at home from an unidentified male caller. The caller claimed he had come from Andijan and said he had material of interest to Volosevich. Volosevich asked how the man knew his home telephone number, but the caller declined to answer, saying only that he would explain when they met. The two agreed to meet an hour later not far from Volosevich’s apartment.
As Volosevich walked toward the appointed meeting place, five men approached him. One man asked Volosevich if he had a cigarette. Just as Volosevich was answering, the men jumped him. One tripped him, knocking him to the ground. They threw paint in Volosevich’s face and poured several buckets of indelible paint on him. As the men ran away, one of them shouted, “You won’t sell out your country anymore!”
When Volosevich returned home, he saw a young man running away from the entrance to his building. Inside, he saw that the entryway and the door to his apartment were covered in paint. The walls were covered with graffiti, including curse words, the phrase “sell-out journalist,” and the word “Jew.” The graffiti said that Volosevich—who is an ethnic Russian—doesn’t understand Islam, the predominant religion in Uzbekistan.
Volosevich told Human Rights Watch that he understood the attack as retribution for his reporting, particularly his reporting on the Andijan events and their aftermath, including the trial of 15 defendants accused of organizing the Andijan events, which is ongoing in the Supreme Court.
Two weeks ago, an article appeared in a government-controlled newspaper that criticized Volosevich and his reporting on the Supreme Court trial. The article appeared only days after Volosevich had published the opinions of several commentators highly critical of the trial. Volosevich also told Human Rights Watch that for several days around that same time, he could not gain access to any material on the fergana.ru website on his home computer. Every time he clicked on a link, the same fergana.ru article appeared: one from several years ago about the journalist Ruslan Sharipov, an outspoken government critic who had then recently been arrested. The article also noted the severe difficulties journalists face if they are critical of the government. Volosevich took this as a warning organized by the authorities since only the government could interfere with his Internet provider in this way.
Volosevich also appeared in video footage of Andijan that the prosecution showed in the Supreme Court trial relating to the Andijan events. The footage shows Volosevich and other journalists entering the local government (hokimiat) building in Andijan that had been taken over by gunmen. During the trial, the prosecution has argued that foreign journalists and local journalists working for foreign media provided “informational support” to the terrorists. Government-controlled television also broadcast the video.
“Independent journalists are not safe in Uzbekistan,” said Cartner. “The government has shown its hostility to the press. It has arrested and intimidated those who report independently and suggested that journalists bear responsibility for the atrocities in Andijan.”
The press service of the National Security Service reported that it has a mandate to investigate the crime against Volosevich because the incident involves anti-Semitism. The head of the press service denied that the security service had any involvement in the attack on Volosevich. Moreover, he stated that he doubted that the attack could have taken place because there is no anti-Semitism in Uzbekistan. He speculated that Volosevich could have set up the attack himself in order to give himself a basis for receiving political asylum abroad.
Since the Andijan events, the atmosphere for the press has worsened significantly in Uzbekistan. Journalists and others who have provided independent accounts of the events in Andijan and called for an investigation and accountability have faced harassment, arbitrary detention, criminal charges and physical assaults.
“Suggesting that Volosevich organized an assault on himself is absurd,” Cartner said. “Attacks on independent journalists are an all-too-real fact of life in Uzbekistan.”
“Instead of blaming Volosevich, the Uzbek government should promptly investigate the attack and bring charges against those responsible, rather than denying it took place,” Cartner added.
On May 13, Uzbek government forces killed hundreds of unarmed protesters as they fled a demonstration in Andijan, a city in eastern Uzbekistan. The government has still taken no steps to investigate or hold accountable those responsible for this atrocity. Instead, it denies all responsibility and persecutes those who seek an independent and transparent investigation.
In the days following the Andijan massacre, the government detained journalists, forced them to leave the city and confiscated the notebooks and recording equipment from several of them. It has arrested locals who provided assistance to the foreign press and is holding them on criminal charges. Neighborhood (mahalla) committee members went house to house warning residents not to speak to journalists about the events.
After his accounts of the Andijan events appeared widely in the foreign press, the chairman of the Andijan human rights group Appeliatsia (“Appeal”), Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, was arrested on May 21 and charged with slander, terrorism and preparation or distribution of information threatening to public security and the public order. He remains in custody and has had no contact with his lawyer or family.
On August 11, 2005, the government refused entry to Igor Rotar, an independent journalist who reports on religious freedom for Forum 18.
On August 26, a court sentenced Radio Liberty journalist Nosir Zokir to six months of imprisonment for insulting a security officer.
On October 26, 2005, the BBC announced that it was forced to close its Tashkent bureau because of the harassment and persecution of its staff by the authorities. At least seven BBC correspondents have fled or been forced to leave Uzbekistan, including foreign correspondent Monica Whitlock, and at least two Uzbek members of the BBC staff have received political asylum.